discussions can be a complex teaching activity. It is certainly
more open, challenging and demands more attention from the teacher
than many lecture techniques. However, such efforts can be rewarded
with more active students who come to understand the material
in deeper and more intricate ways. Yet, these potentialities
are sometimes not realised as the mere activity of talking often
obfuscates the real pedagogical reasons for doing such an activity.
Because of this risk, a professor must keep the larger aims
and discussion-learning processes in mind when guiding discussion.
While a complete discussion of such aims and processes is well
beyond the scope of this small article, I will explore a few
practical ways to (1) get the students talking and (2) allow
the students to gain educationally from discussions.
To contextualise this article, I have used all the techniques
discussed in this article successfully in classes with up
to 40 students. I have also tried a few of these techniques
in classes with up to 60 students. In all of these cases,
I have found these techniques to be very helpful in getting
the students to talk both in the United States and Singapore.
I mention this point, as I fear that some well-meaning teachers
sometimes hold the counter-productive attitude that ‘Asian
students won’t talk in class’. This attitude unfortunately
can lead to negative results when a well-intended professor
asks the students to talk in class, but no one volunteers.
When this happens, it is common to attribute it to being Asian—a
stable and internal attribution, which is very dangerous as
it will be seen as unchangeable. As a result, the professor
becomes less engaging with the students, thus leading to even
less chances of student participation. From my experience,
the unsuccessful attempt to initiate discussion probably would
have also failed in the West, as the techniques used may not
be sufficient to draw students out. In this way, the environment
of the classroom (which is largely, albeit not fully, in the
control of the professor) is much more influential in promoting
(or curtailing) discussion than any ‘cultural’
To Get Them Talking
Have each student talk within the first 15 minutes of
the course. It is important to set the classroom atmosphere
very early in the class. I believe that if students are not
talking in the first 15 minutes of a class, then it will be
considerably more difficult to get them talking later. Given
that you are asking students to talk so early, I recommend
taking the pressure off them by having them talk about something
non-academic. The intent at this point is just to let the
students know that their role is to be active and talk; what
they talk about at the first experience is irrelevant. Merely
giving each student 20 seconds to say their name and briefly
describe a favourite hobby, place, etc is all that is needed
to get them started. These brief introductions also give the
professor many opportunities to ask a follow-up question or
two. Such questions can set the expectation that the flow
of the class will be a give-and-take dialogue. These questions
also allow the professor opportunities to joke with students
and demonstrate at least at some level, your interests in
them as individuals. These interactions set a class atmosphere
that is very conducive to discussion and establish almost
immediately a sense of approachability that students see as
a prime quality of a good teacher (see http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/brief/V6n5/sec2.htm).
Get it loud! When I start covering the actual content
of a course, I prefer to get the students talking to each
other before actually dealing with it in a more organised
way. A simple technique is to provide a simple reading (or
a simple stimulus at the beginning of class if students are
not reading) to provoke some thought and discussion. A broad
instruction like “what do you think is going on here”
or “why is this interesting” can be quite effective
in letting students explore some ideas with a partner. Simply
taking two or three minutes to do this at the beginning of
class can be very effective. The most important outcome is
that it gets the class very loud. The students therefore get
the message that ‘this is not a quiet place for you
to passively sit, but you have to talk and be loud’.
Given such a license, students are quite willing to talk.
Increasing the educational effect. The benefit of
discussions is that it allows the students to process multiple
perspectives ideally in a way that utilises both the criteria
for judging the validity/reasonableness of various arguments
and also eventually allows for integration of such perspectives
into a fuller and more refined understanding of the material
being studied. Given that these are the desirable qualities
of an educational discussion, the challenge for the professor
is to guide and structure the discussion enough so that students
do not feel like they are swimming in an abyss of disconnected
statements and ideas. The following three simple measures
can help increase the students’ ability to process all
the information that comes up in a discussion:
- Take notes. It is virtually impossible
for a professor to remember all of what goes on in a discussion.
I have personally found that taking brief notes very beneficial
as I try to piece together the discussion. Taking notes
serve some simple functions. First, when you take notes
(or pretending to if appropriate), it forces students to
talk to each other rather than just to you as the teacher.
While I definitely would not recommend looking down all
the time, looking down and writing can help re-direct students’
eyes off you as the centre and force them to discuss amongst
each other. Second, taking notes allows you to quickly note
who said what and to name a student who said a nice comment.
This goes a long way in terms of establishing an environment
supportive of discussion. Lastly, taking notes allow the
next two actions.
- Connect students’ comments together. It is important to connect students’ comments together
(preferably as soon as possible after the comments are made)
DURING the discussion. While students will gradually develop
these integrative skills, they are often unable to see the
connections (or the depths) without some guidance. Students
need such structuring while the discussion is happening
to be able to process the information in an organised manner.
- Summarise the discussion. As you can imagine,
students can be quite frustrated walking away from a discussion
without knowing which points were the ‘important stuff’.
It is also very hard for a student to remember much of the
discussion without some larger organisation to fit the material
into. While it is challenging, the note-taking allows one
to quickly summarise some major themes. Don’t be afraid
to take a couple of minutes to organise the notes. Students
would appreciate the effort and that time allows them to
take out their notebooks (I would encourage keeping notebooks
off the desks before that point). While summarising the
themes and the main points, I make an effort to connect
it with the specific comments that students made. In general,
my experience is that when I summarise the discussion in
this way I notice that the same content was covered in the
discussion as I would have covered in a lecture. The difference
is that the students understand it much more broadly (e.g.
connections with previous course topics) and deeply than
if I were to ‘tell them’ in a lecture.
In summary, this article has outlined a few practical steps
to get the students talking and to better structure the discussion
material in order to increase the actual educational benefit
of discussions. We must keep these educational benefits in
mind as we guide discussion, or else we risk lots of talking
that may be merely ‘a sharing of ignorance’.