Leading Effective Discussions

Classroom discussions about practical applications of subjects can be accomplished in all disciplines. According to McKeachie, discussions are particularly useful when the instructor wishes to:

  • Help students to critically think about the subject or apply principles;
  • Help students to evaluate their own and others’ logic, viewpoints, or positions;
  • Motivate further learning;
  • Assist students in articulating what they have learned; and
  • Obtain immediately feedback about student understanding of material.

Studies show that, when students manipulate and interact with the facts they are learning, 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
Recitation: The instructor asks closed-ended questions and students give right or wrong answer. 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 effective, but it does not encourage learning beyond rote memorization.
Conversation: The instructor leads an informal conversation without a real academic agenda. Conversation is much more relaxed than recitation but can be unfocused and meandering. It is great for building rapport but may not be conducive to higher-order thinking.
Seminar: Seminar-style discussions encourage higher-order thinking aimed 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. A systematic method of disciplined questioning 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.

Handling difficult conversations in your classroom? CETL is happy to provide resources on handling these difficult dialogues.

A good discussion ends with a summary or debrief. Listen to Prof. Mitch Green provide tips for summarizing a discussion

20-Minute Mentor Tips

Thanks to our institution subscription to 20-Minute Mentor you have countless teaching tip videos available at the click of a button. Here are a few related to this topic:

How can I use discussion to facilitate learning?

How do I include introverts in class discussions?

What are the best questioning strategies for enhancing online discussions?

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