Create a comfortable, non-threatening environment. Introduce yourself and explain your interests in the topic on the first day. Encourage questions from the outset. For example, require each student to submit a question about the course during the first day or week. Students can submit these questions via an online discussion forum; this assignment can also serve as a way for you to ensure that they have each figured out how to log on to a discussion forum that you are using throughout the course.
Arrange the chairs in a configuration that will allow students to see and speak with one another. Move the chairs back to their standard configuration after the class session has ended. (In University-managed classrooms, the standard configuration is displayed on a diagram posted near the door.)
Get to know your students and the skills and perspectives they bring to the discussions. Learn your students’ names during the first week of class. Consistently use their names when calling on them and when referring to comments they have made in class or in threaded email discussions. Using their names will convince them that you see them each as individuals with something valuable to add, thus creating an environment of mutual trust and interest. This strategy will also encourage the students to refer to one another by name.
You can start learning your students’ names before the semester begins by using WebFAC to print your roster (with photos). Bring the printed roster to class and use it to take attendance on the first day. After class and before the next one, refresh your memory of names and faces by looking over the roster again.
Understanding your students’ skills and perspectives can help you to develop specific ways of challenging each of them to think critically and express ideas clearly.
Clarify the rules and expectations for discussions at the outset. Define what you think of as a successful discussion (for example, one that includes participation by all group members, stays on topic, and explores issues in-depth and from a variety of perspectives.) Make it clear that good discussions rarely happen without effort. Distribute or post on the board a list of rules and expectations that will promote successful discussions. For example, to discourage students from monopolizing the discussion or interrupting one another, indicate whether it will be necessary for students to raise their hands and be called on before speaking; this decision will depend on your preference and on the size of the class.
You might also consider opening the discussion on the first day of class with small-group discussions about effective discussions and how to achieve them. Then, reconvene the class as a whole to formulate together the guidelines for discussion that the class will follow the rest of the semester. Less experienced students will require more guidance with this task. For all groups, however, having the students take a role in formulating the rules will mean that they will be more invested in following them.
Communicate to students the importance of discussion to their success in the course as a whole. If you use discussions on a regular basis, assign grades for student participation. Inform students of the specific criteria that you will use. For example, will you evaluate the frequency and quality of their contributions, as well as how effectively they each respond to others’ comments? Will you include in each participation grade the student’s performance on informal writing, online discussions, minor group projects, or other work? If you grade class participation, give students preliminary grades and brief written evaluations as early as 3-4 weeks into the semester and at midterm so that they will know where they stand. Your written evaluation can be designed to encourage the quiet students to talk more often and the verbose students to hold their comments to give others a chance to participate).
No matter how often you use discussions in your course, you can underscore their importance by ensuring that you discuss material that later appears on exams and by integrating students’ contributions (with attribution) into subsequent lectures, discussions, and assignments.
Plan and prepare the discussion. Develop clear goals and a specific plan for each session. Compose specific questions that will move the discussion forward, illuminate major points, and prompt students to offer evidence for their assertions and to consider other points of view.
Accommodate different learning preferences. Expect that your students will bring into the course different learning preferences. For example, while some may be active learners who prefer to solve problems in order to learn concepts, others are reflective learners who prefer to master concepts through uninterrupted reflection. Recognize your own learning preferences and make efforts to extend your approach beyond those preferences. In other words, do not assume that you can teach something in the same way that you learned it and get the same results with all of your students. You can be most effective if you combine teaching methods to reach as many students as possible: for example, combine verbal and visual explanations, explain concepts using both a “big-picture” and a detail-oriented approach, and give students opportunities for active learning and reflection. (For more information about the learning preferences referenced here, see Professor Richard Felder’s Website.)
Provide a structure. Write an outline or list of guiding questions on the board before you begin the discussion. Each session should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Respond to student contributions in ways that move the discussion forward and keep it focused on the topic at hand.
Throughout the Discussion
At appropriate points in the session, summarize the major ideas and write them on the board. If you do not do this, students will have a hard time picking out the most important ideas from the discussion and understanding their significance. Writing on the board is particularly helpful for students who are visual learners.
Combine discussions with other methods. Plan to use brief lectures to introduce complex topics or to clarify the larger concepts that the current set of readings investigates (see Teaching with Lectures). Beginning on the first day, use frequent small-group work: divide the class into groups of 2-4 students, then give each group a focused assignment, with specific objectives and roles that they should each take on in order to complete the assignment. Assign students brief writing assignments, such as writing a set of questions or a brief reflective piece that will serve as the basis for in-class discussions. Consider supplementing class discussions with threaded, online discussions that you monitor. Small-group discussions, writing assignments, and online discussions can be effective methods for encouraging participation by students who are uncomfortable speaking in large groups and for enabling students to learn from one another.
Integrate student responses into the discussion without making the discussion merely a student-teacher interaction. Ask students to respond directly to one another’s ideas. The use of small-group discussions will allow students to become better acquainted and thus facilitate their communication with one another.
Use verbal and non-verbal cues to encourage participation. Especially near the beginning of the semester, call on all students to answer questions, not just those who consistently raise their hands. Make eye contact and move around the room to engage the attention of all the students and to communicate that you expect each of them to participate.
Create a balance between controlling the group dynamic and letting group members speak. While you are charged with facilitating the discussion from the perspective of an expert knowledgeable in the subject, the aim of the discussion is not to bring students around to your way of thinking, but rather to create the opportunity for students to think critically—to question assumptions, to consider multiple viewpoints, and to develop knowledge of the subject. Actively seek contributions from as many students as possible in a given session; if a few students want to speak all the time, remind them that you value their contributions but would like to hear from others as well.
Show respect for all questions and comments. Listen carefully. Thank students for their contributions. Point out what is valuable about your students’ arguments, whether or not you agree with them. Develop helpful responses to incorrect answers or comments that are not sufficiently related to the issue currently being discussed. Take students’ ideas seriously: help them clarify their thinking by asking them to provide evidence for their arguments and to respond to ideas and arguments offered by other students.
Do not answer your own questions. Give students 5-10 seconds to think and formulate a response. If 10-15 seconds pass without anyone volunteering an answer and the students are giving you puzzled looks, rephrase your question. Do not give in to the temptation to answer your own questions, which will condition students to hesitate before answering to see if you will supply “the answer.” Patience is key; do not be afraid of silence. The longer you wait for students to respond, the more thoughtful and complex their responses are likely to be.
After the Discussion
Rethink, retool, revise. Each time you facilitate a discussion, you learn something about how best to approach the topic. Take brief notes on how each discussion went and use these as the basis for reorganizing your plan for the discussion, improving your presentation skills, rethinking the material included or developing ideas for future teaching and research projects. Include these notes in your file for the course so that they are readily accessible the next time you teach the course.
Speak with your colleagues about their approaches and ideas. Stay abreast of new scholarship on teaching and teaching with technology. Arrange to have one of your classes observed or videotaped so that an observer can help you evaluate what went well and what you can do to improve student learning. To schedule a class observation or videotaping, contact The Teaching Center at 935-6810.
Leading discussions can be a stimulating, enjoyable way to teach. Keep in mind, however, that many students—especially those who are new to a university environment—will not come into your course with highly developed discussion skills. Moreover, leading an effective discussion does not always come naturally to the instructor. No matter what level of students you are teaching, you must carefully prepare and actively facilitate the discussions to ensure that they are disciplined and inclusive and that they promote learning.
Brookfield, Stephen D. and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.
Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.
“Encouraging Interaction in Science and Engineering Classes.” The McGraw Center. Princeton University. https://mcgraw.princeton.edu/node/661.
“Facilitating Discussions in Humanities and Social Science.” The McGraw Center. Princeton University. https://mcgraw.princeton.edu/node/656.
McKeachie, Wilbert, et al. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 12th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Warren, Lee. “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom.” Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Harvard University. http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/html/icb.topic58474/hotmoments.html.
“What to Do When Class Discussion Stalls.” The McGraw Center. Princeton University. https://mcgraw.princeton.edu/node/1271.