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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
Class Discussions: Its Benefits
 
Ma. Socorro C. Bacay
Senior Instructor
School of Management and Information Technology
College Registrar, De La Salle University, College of St. Benilde, Philippines
 

In 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 evaluation.

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.

References:

McCombs, B.L. & Whisler, J.S. (1997). The Learner-centered Classroom and School: Strategies for Increasing Student Motivation and Achievement. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Fink L. Dee. (1999). ‘Active Learning.’ University of Oklahoma Instructional Development Program. Reprinted with permission by the Honolulu Community College Faculty Development 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).

Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Illinois State University. (2001). ‘Class Discussion’ (Last accessed: 19 November 2003).

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