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Classroom discussions sharpen thinking skills and increase the students’ ability to express their thoughts orally. This issue of CDTL Brief on Discussion in the Classroom presents strategies and tips on how to get the students to talk.

February 2004, Vol. 7, No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Keep Talking!
Marie-Véronique Clément
Assistant Professor
Department of Biochemistry
“Discussion…occurs when information is freely exchanged between three or more participants1…”

Research has shown that students build better knowledge and understanding through discussion. Classroom discussion can help students clarify issues and relate new knowledge to prior knowledge. Discussion also elicits higher levels of thinking than the traditional lecture approach and helps students to retain knowledge. Finally, discussion may even help to inspire active learning.

Having taught in NUS for over three years now, I have to admit that the most challenging part of lecturing both a small group and a larger setting is to make sure that students stay engaged during the exercise. One of the ways in which I make my lectures more interactive is to alternate classical lecturing with brief intervals of mini-discussion for the students to reflect on what I said. By doing so, I hope to sustain the students’ interest for the topic, make them feel that sitting through the lectures is not a waste of their time and selfishly be reassured that I am not wasting my time.

How to integrate discussion during the lecture?

It is not always easy to successfully punctuate classical lecturing with mini-discussions. Facilitating such lectures also requires a lot more energy than conducting a non-interactive lecture. To set the stage for such interactive lectures, it is important to be physically close to the students. The setting of the University’s recently renovated lecture theatres, though state-of-the-art, does not bring the lecturers physically closer to the students. Hence, I usually lecture in front of the stage, where I can be near to the students. My loud voice helps keep everybody, especially the sleeping students attentive and awake.

Although I sometimes have to wait for a lecture or two and/or challenge the students a few times before I finally get any answers to my questions, patience invariably pays. I believe this is because students need time to know their teacher to feel confident that they can talk without ‘loosing face’. When the students begin to realise that I am approachable and trust that I will never put them down, they will start to open up.

In addition, it is important to be adaptable. I adapt my delivery style to suit the response of the class. For example, I tend to encourage dialogues for a very responsive class but with a quieter class, I adopt a more directive approach by indulging in question-answer sessions with the students. Therefore, I do not think that I can deliver exactly the same lecture twice. The content may be similar but how engaging the lecture will be will depend on class participation and on my own energy level.

Does the discussion always have to take place in the presence of the lecturer?

The most important step in trying to deliver an engaging lecture is to promote discussion. However, the best discussion may not necessarily take place between the lecturer and the students. Hence, an alternative is to promote peer-discussion through appropriate exercises. During Term II of Academic Year 2002/2003, I gave students taking a 4th year level module a home assignment that they enjoyed immensely. The task required the students to interpret scientific data to draw the model of a particular cell death pathway, which contradicted the dogma they learnt during the lectures. My aim in giving this assignment was to teach students how to interpret data and to be open-minded to accept results that may not exactly fit what they had learnt in class. I had told them that they could do the assignment in groups. However, I warned them that I wanted everybody to write their reports in their own words. The response to this exercise was very good and it really promoted discussion as indicated in the following comment I received from one of the students:

“The course was tremendously exciting. I’m sure many of my peers feel the same as we often discuss the latest lectures over lunch. As for the assignment, it was a nice change to be able to apply what we have learnt instead of repeating facts. As you suggested, we did have group discussions (but no copying!) and this proved to be very rewarding in terms of brainstorming and bonding with fellow classmates.”

I was happy that in addition to helping students learn, the exercise was able to stimulate interaction among students. In addition, it demonstrated that an appropriate exercise triggered constructive discussion among the students without requiring the presence of a lecturer.

Another valuable tool to stimulate discussion is the use of the Internet. Whenever I feel dissatisfied with the level of student participation during a lecture, I would encourage the students to email their questions to me following the lecture. Suddenly, with the anonymity of the computer, I find my students very talkative. Since answering individual emails requires considerable time commitment, my strategy is to collect all the questions that I have received during the week and answer them collectively before the beginning of the next lecture. This strategy works quite well. Indeed, going through the queries with the whole group usually sets up a lively discussion that does not end until the students are satisfied with the explanations.

In conclusion, I would like to stress the need to make our students discuss. Not only is discussion critical to learning, it teaches self-confidence as well. Group discussion can be triggered in many ways and may not necessarily require the presence of the lecturer. In the United States where classroom lectures are often supplemented by classroom discussions, students are expected to contribute to the discussion in the classroom. Questioning or challenging the teacher is viewed as a healthy sign of interest, attention and independent thinking. On the contrary, if you sit in silence, it is likely to be assumed that you are not interested in what is said in the class or that you do not understand the content. I do not think the same conclusion can be drawn of the NUS students. Some factors inherent to Singapore may be the reason why students are not always comfortable to discuss freely in front of a class. However, from my experience if the teacher is patient, understanding and uses innovative teaching techniques, NUS students can be as involved in the learning exercise as students elsewhere in the world. One of the key things is to help students to trust the teacher; teachers have to convince our students that our goal is to help and not to judge them.


1Caughlan, Samantha. (2001). ‘Classroom Discussion: Teachers’ Perspectives on Obstacles and Strategies’. English Update, a newsletter of The National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement, operated by the University at Albany, State University of New York in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Fall 2001 issue, pp. 4–5. (Last accessed: 29 September 2003).

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Keep Talking!
Classroom Discussions: Some Practical Hints
Class Discussions: Its Benefits
Guidelines for Conducting Classroom Discussions