Leading Effective Discussions

Classroom discussions about practical applications of study can be accomplished in all disciplines—even math and statistics. Studies show that when students manipulate and interact with the facts they are learning, that learning sinks in more deeply. But good discussions do not just happen; they require careful planning and lots of modeling. Penn State’s Lolita Paff suggests that conducting discussions requires:

• Observing and keeping track of what happens during discussion
• Differentiating between content and process of discussion
• Developing a tolerance for the messiness and unpredictability of interaction
• Recognizing students’ central role in discussion
• Accepting that discussion leading is a learnable skill

Discussion styles can take different forms in the classroom: In recitation, the teacher asks close-ended questions and students give right or wrong answers, conversation is so informal that it has no real academic agenda, and seminar falls somewhere in between.[i]

• Recitation acts like an oral quiz, focusing on lower-order questions—those that test students’ ability to remember and understand ideas. Asking who, what, where, when, why, and how questions can be an effective as a drill, but it does not encourage learning beyond rote memorization.
• Conversation, which is much more relaxed but can be unfocused and meandering, is great for building rapport but may not be conducive to higher-order thinking.
• Seminar aims at a substantive and probing analysis of a specific topic and includes issues and perspectives that will challenge students’ thinking. This style can take some time to learn to orchestrate, but it is a valuable tool for encouraging student engagement (with one another and with texts) and higher-order, critical thinking.

Seminar-style discussions that encourage higher-order thinking One way to urge students to think beyond the obvious is to use Bloom’s Taxonomy of thinking skills to formulate higher-order questions for discussion; see the other Bloom’s-related links below. A systematic method of disciplined questioning—be it Socratic questioning, the Harkness philosophy, Bloom-focused questioning skills to engage students, or other higher-order questioning technique—will also help students think deeply about a topic. Classroom discussions conducted using this method have a clear goal and keep participants focused and engaged. See Examples of Socratic-style questions for ideas on how to word strong questions.

[i] Filene, Peter. The Joy of Teaching. UNC Press. 2005.

Other resources:
• Elder, Paul R. and Linda Elder, The Art of Socratic Questioning. Foundation for Critical Thinking Press: 2007.

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