terms of encouraging students to take a more active role in
their learning, few strategies outweigh the benefits of class
discussions. When one focuses on the potential rewards of effective
class discussions, one will in all likelihood, see the great
potential looming behind a well-planned class discussion and
reap the corresponding rewards that come with it—a group
of students learning from each other in ways that extend beyond
the social and academic.
When students participate in an ideally open-minded class
discussion, they learn to express their ideas and listen to
their classmates’ ideas as well, thus enriching their
learning experiences through this exchange. Not only do such
discussions serve as an avenue for students to express criticism
without being offensive, but they also train the students
to accept criticism without being offended.
Classroom discussions that allow students to discuss their
lessons with their peers help the students understand and
apply what they have learned. Classroom discussions also provide
feedback that may prove valuable to the teacher. By encouraging
students to ask questions and give their comments or responses,
the teacher can gauge from the responses, whether the students
have understood the lesson, how they have understood it, and
if necessary, what kind of clarifications or corrections need
to be made to rectify any miscommunications in the lesson.
Guiding a class towards discussion
The teacher would do best to set the tone at the start of
the course, to set guidance and direction. On the first day
of class, the teacher makes it clear to the students that
they are expected to play an active role in their learning,
and one such way would be to actively participate in class
discussions, thus implying that attention to the lesson and
preparation for classroom discussions is necessary.
It may be difficult at first to engage students in class
discussions. The fear of social evaluation is inherent in
most of us. Many students may refuse to ask questions for
fear of being thought ‘stupid’ or slow. In a diverse
class, some students fear ridicule for their accents. The
teacher, therefore, must create a ‘safe’ environment,
with the understanding that each person is respected for his/her
uniqueness. The teacher, as a good role model, is responsible
for creating an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance of
each person in the class. As the course progresses, the students
become more confident of themselves and less anxious of social
Being aware that the teacher expects students to actively
participate in class discussions makes the student pay close
attention to what is being discussed. To help ensure that
students come to class prepared (i.e. they have read about
the topic for discussion), it is helpful to ask each student
to turn in one essay question to be answered in class. The
question may require further explanation of a topic or how
a topic may be practically applied. Oftentimes, the teacher
may find some of the students’ questions very interesting
for group discussions and some questions might even qualify
as an exam question.
The physical set up of the classroom may pose a challenge
to class discussions when everyone is facing the teacher who
is standing on the platform upfront. Some teachers might find
it helpful to move around the classroom, as it gives the teacher
a chance to be sensitive and attentive to all students regardless
of their seat location. Furthermore, by moving around, students
would follow the teachers’ movements with their eyes
and anyone who asks a question, argues a point or gives an
example to a particular issue, makes his/her statement to
the whole class and not just to the teacher.
To better facilitate the exchange of ideas among students
and to break the monotony, it is also helpful to schedule
a group discussion within the class period. Students may be
allowed to choose their groups or be assigned to groups. The
group composition could range from two to five, depending
on the preference of the teacher. To ensure each member’s
active participation, it is advisable for the teachers to
assign in each group, a facilitator, a reporter and a recorder.
These positions may be rotated among the members of the group.
The teacher spends the first 20–30 minutes of the class
presenting the lesson material. The next 20–30 minutes
may be allotted to a group discussion where each member is
expected to air his/her view of the lesson and argue for or
against a topic presented by the teacher. In the closing minutes
of the period, the class listens to the summary reports of
the reporters from each group and the teacher synthesises
the reports and brings the topic to a conclusion.
A class session that allows for class discussions naturally
takes longer than a class in which the teacher simply delivers
the lectures and tests students’ knowledge periodically.
For this reason, class discussions are sometimes curtailed
due to time constraints, or simply sacrificed for expediency.
A teacher has a syllabus to cover in a specified term or semester
period. Unfortunately, by not allotting time for class discussions,
the teaching-learning process may suffer.
The benefits of online discussions
Thanks to technology, class discussions can now be done
online—beyond the confines of the traditional classroom.
One argument for such a medium of discussions is that students,
who may have been diffident in class, will have the chance
and opportunity to participate in a ‘less threatening’
environment. Online discussions, therefore allow less assertive
or aggressive students an equal opportunity to participate.
This is also a good medium for students who are not verbal
or who prefer to put their ideas in writing, having completely
ruminated on their ideas. In an online discussion, the teacher
may pose a probing question that students will need to think
about or read about in preparation for the next class meeting.
Clearly, whether the discussion is conducted in the classroom
or via an extension of the classroom, the teacher plays a
central role in the effective conveyance of the discussions.
The teacher needs to be comfortably cognizant of his/her field
so that s/he does not feel intimidated when students ask questions,
give comments or responses. Reasonable preparations should
also be made so that questions or issues for discussion are
clearly understood by students. In addition, the teacher must
be a good facilitator, ensuring that the discussions are not
confined to a few students. By creating an atmosphere where
students feel safe in sharing their views, by allocating time
within a class session for group discussions, by moving around
the classroom and calling on different students to participate,
by asking students to provide a discussion questions for the
next meeting, or by providing a mode of discussion outside
the classroom, the teacher creates an environment where teaching-learning
interactions are enhanced, where students take an active role
in their learning, and where the teacher’s teaching
experience continues to be enriched.
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Committee. (Last accessed: 21 November 2003).
Powers, Susan M. & Dutt, Karen M. (1998). ‘Expanding
Class Discussion Beyond the Classroom Walls’. (Last accessed: 19 November 2003).
Davis, Barbara Gross; Wood, Lynn & Wilson, Robert C.
(1983). ‘Suggestion 54. Divide Your Lecture into Blocks
of Time’. A Berkeley Compendium of Suggestions for
Teaching with Excellence. (Last accessed: 19 November 2003).
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