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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
Classroom Discussions: Some Practical Hints
 
Kevin S. Carlson, Ph.D.
Former Educational Development Specialist,
CDTL
 

Leading 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’ considerations.

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’.

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