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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
Guidelines for Conducting Classroom Discussions
Winston Lee Piak Nam
Human Resource Management Specialist
Human Resource Management Unit

People of all ages love discussions. We discuss various subjects of interest with our family members, friends, colleagues and schoolmates everyday. This ability to communicate with one another is a gift from God. Imagine how dull life would be if we were to keep our opinions and thoughts to ourselves without the ability to share them with one another. Even animals have some form of communication among themselves.

In the context of education, most students would remember (perhaps with mixed feelings) being engaged in discussions either in the classroom or in discussion groups they belonged to. As students meet together in groups to discuss topics and issues related to the lecture or topic, the process of exchanging ideas and information fosters camaraderie. Thus, discussion groups are cherished because they appeal to our basic need for a sense of belonging and affiliation. As a teaching/learning method, classroom discussions (unlike the lecture mode where the spotlight is often on the lecturer alone) are participative in nature. The absence of discussions does not only imply that the course is taught through a monologue with the lecturer as the sole performer, but also that student interaction—another value of engaging students in discussions—is hindered.

Hence, classroom discussions, if planned and used carefully devised for our lessons, could achieve the following objectives:

  • promoting active student enquiry,

  • stimulating students’ interest in the subject, and

  • enabling students to share their knowledge with others through active exchanges of viewpoints.

However, conducting classroom discussion does not mean turning the class into a chat room. In order to maximise the time allocated for lectures and other classroom activities, it is important to plan carefully, how and when to conduct the discussion in each lesson. Being clear about the intended purpose or objective of the discussion (e.g. is it used as an ice-breaker at the beginning of a class, as a follow-upto a case study or reflective exercise?) will help the lecturer to plan the type of questions, topics and format. With proper planning, the lecturer can avoid creating an impression that discussions are mere ‘fillers’ used to fill the extra pockets of time (in a lecture or tutorial), which may be more productive if used for other learning activities instead.

In addition to preparing the materials and questions for discussion, it is important to brief student leaders on how to facilitate the discussions. The Socratic method of encouraging and stimulating the expression of thoughts and ideas through probing questions and scenarios is a useful method.

Time management is another important factor in discussions. Discussion sessions should start and end punctually and not eat into the time allocated for lectures or other learning activities. There must be adequate time for the group to summarise and present their discussions via the leader or a representative, using visual materials like flip charts or transparencies. In addition, the lecturer must do a quick debrief of each group’s presentations accruing from the discussions. It would also be worthwhile to commend the discussion leaders and the group for their efforts and enthusiasm because this could motivate the students to participate in future discussions.

I see discussion as a useful tool to develop the facilitators’ leadership especially in meetings and other group activities. At the workplace, those who can confidently lead discussions have attributed this ability to their active participation in various discussion groups in school.

Though the discussion method is a highly participative tutorial activity, it can cause conflicts if it spins out of control. Thus, when discussing a sensitive topic which may provoke heat (e.g. arguments and controversies), the lecturer should be ready to intervene if the discussions go off-tangent. The challenge is to know how to encourage every individual in the discussion group to participate actively. Dominant or passive members in the group could also cause problems: the lecturer would therefore have to play the role of a gatekeeper to hold-off those who are too aggressive in putting forth their ideas and encourage especially the quieter ones to speak up.

Notwithstanding some of the problems, discussion as a form of tutorial activity generally promotes goodwill and friendship among students. I normally get my students to seat themselves differently for each class, and to form pairs or groups with their neighbours for discussions. Students enjoy sharing and learning from one another. The discussion groups and activities are foundations to spur and encourage active communication between students. Such communication skills could be assets to future teamwork and group project work. Thus classroom discussions, though challenging to implement, complement the other learning activities in the classroom.

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