Using questions, reflective writing, and small-group work to improve class discussions
This sampling of strategies provide ideas for helping students prepare for discussions and for collaborating with others to develop those ideas.
(Help instructor to guide pre-discussion reading and preparation)
- Distribute questions on the course schedule or on a Learning Management System such as Canvas.
- Include a mix of “closed” comprehension questions, which have a limited number of correct answers, and open-ended questions, which can generate multiple strong responses.
- Begin class by asking for responses to at least one of the questions (or by asking students to discuss their responses in pairs or groups of three).
- Record resulting ideas on the chalkboard; integrate these ideas throughout rest of the class.
(Help students to help determine direction of a discussion)
- Ask students to bring to class (or post online) 2 discussion questions.
- Give students instructions and examples to clarify what types of questions are most effective for generating discussion and how they can use the questions to deepen their own learning (e.g. by making connections among topics or readings, or by identifying assumptions or counter-arguments).
- Grade the questions and give students feedback to help them improve their question-writing skills over time.
- To reduce the number of submitted questions to a manageable amount (i.e. a number that is realistic for you to grade and to use during class discussions), divide the class into two-four groups and assign the responsibility for writing questions to only one group per class session.
5-Minute Informal Writing in Response to a Question
(Helps students develop thoughtful responses and helps quieter students to participate)
- When used at the start of class, the exercise might ask students to recall or explain factual information or major ideas from the assigned readings.
- When used in the middle or end of a class, this exercise can ask students to synthesize, complicate, or counter ideas that have already been discussed or presented, or to identify the “most important point” or the “muddiest point” in a discussion (Angelo and Cross).
- Include time to ask for volunteers to read what they have written.
- Record responses on the board and use these responses to shape the direction of the discussion.
- Add any points that students did not address, but that are essential.
“Stand Where I Stand” Debate
(Adapted from Brookfield and Preskill)
- Assign readings before class that will allow students to familiarize themselves with a controversial topic, including facts that may be used as evidence for specific positions.
- To begin the activity, write a debatable statement on the board, ask students to stand in a specific location in the room to indicate whether they strongly disagree, disagree, agree, or strongly agree (for example).
- After students have “positioned” themselves, call on individual students to explain their respective positions vis-a-via the debatable statement.
- Once you have heard from a few students, tell everyone that they can move to a different position, to reflect any changes in their thinking.
- Repeat steps above once or twice more, then ask students to discuss the process: What arguments were most compelling? Why? How did hearing different perspectives affect their thinking? What new questions were generated?
Small-Group Discussions: Facilitation Strategies and Selected Models
Strategies for Facilitating Small-Group Discussions
- Give specific time limits and instructions.
- Limit groups to 2-3 students each. With larger groups, some students will not participate.
- Allow time after the group discussions for groups to report the results of group work and for students in other groups to ask questions and comment on their peers’ ideas.
- Integrate the results of group work into the closing discussion or lecture, and refer back to these ideas, when relevant, in subsequent class sessions.
Informal Collaborative-Learning Groups
- Ask each group to analyze and annotate a figure, image, or short passage of text, or to solve a problem, then explain it to the class.
- Assign roles (e.g. scribe, taskmaster, and spokesperson), so that each student has a clear and essential responsibility within the group. Explain each role so that the responsibilities of each are clear and understood as essential to the group’s success.
- Each time you assign such roles in groups, ask students to take on a different role than that which they fulfilled the last time. The idea is that students should fulfill each role roughly the same number of times, so that each student learns new skills and does not always take on the role the student is most comfortable in.
Think, Pair, Share
- Ask students a question, then direct them to first think and write notes on their own for 30 seconds to a minute, then discuss their answers with a neighbor for 3-5 minutes, then present their ideas to class.
- Record these ideas on the board, asking for other students to build on their peers’ ideas as you go.
Think-Aloud Pair (Triad) Problem Solving (TAPPS)
(Adapted from Felder and Brent)
- Divide students into groups of 3.
- Give each pair a problem to solve, a text (or image) to interpret, or a case history to discuss.
- Ask students to designate an explainer, a questioner, and a recorder.
- The explainer explains how to solve the problem, interpret the text (or image), or analyze the case.
- The questioner asks questions when the explanation is not clear or is incomplete. The questioner can also ask questions to give hints that might generate new or different explanations.
- The recorder records the explanation via writing notes and/or drawing diagrams.
- After 10 minutes, ask each explainer to present the explanation, using the recorder’s notes. As a follow up, you might discuss what types of questions were most helpful in refining the explanation, and why.
Group Dialogues (appropriate for classes up to ~25 students)
(Adapted from Brookfield and Preskill)
- Write a question on each of 4-5 large flip-chart sheets of paper (or areas of the chalkboard).
- Divide students into 4-5 groups (one group per question).
- Each group talks with one another for five minutes to develop an answer to the question, then writes their answer on the paper or chalkboard.
- When you say “move,” each group moves to the next question in succession, reads the answer already recorded, talks with one another, then adds a written response to the first group’s written answer.
- Continue until all four groups have written a response to each question.
- As a class, review the responses to each question, discussing how the answers evolved via dialogue.
Angelo, T. A., and K. P. Cross. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Brookfield, S. D. and S. Preskill. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Felder, R.M. and R. Brent (2005). Active learning: An introduction. ASQ Higher Education Brief 2(4). http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/ALpaper(ASQ).pdf