Let’s Talk About It: Fostering productive class discussions

Steve Volk, September 6, 2015

There are no general rules for stimulating a good class discussion…OK, so there are. But they are not so much rules as a set of understandings, things we probably all know but don’t always remember to practice. Of all the topics that faculty are interested in, particularly new faculty, this is the one I get most often. I’ve written about this before (for example here and here), but it’s a good question to consider again.

Do you believe? I don’t think we would be here if we didn’t believe this, but to state the obvious: Discussion (by which I mean both the back-and-forth with students that takes place within a more lecture-driven pedagogy and longer discussion-centered classes) will probably not go the way we hope if we don’t believe there is any pedagogical utility in student discussion, If we solicit student input only when answering our questions or when asking us to clarify points we raise in lecture. That certainly was the standard when I began teaching; I no longer think it is.

Good discussions are built on an understanding that students learn by taking an active part in their own education. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, criticized what he called the “banking theory” of education in which “the students [and he was talking about adult learners] are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits…But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

Discussions work best when we see them as a central part of student learning and make them an important aspect of our pedagogies.

Habits form quickly. We all know that by the second class of the semester, 90% of the students will be sitting in the same seat they occupied in the first class. And this will continue all semester; it becomes a matter of habit. The same is true about talking and listening. Many (if not most) students will quickly fall into the habit of talking…or remaining largely silent. In our smaller seminars, particularly the First Year Seminars, we almost always have every students speak during the very first class: they may introduce themselves, suggest why they are interested in the class, discuss some aspect of their background, or speak of what they hope to get out of the class the class. Those are good things to know, but the basic idea is to get the students talking so that they quickly feel comfortable with their own voices.

We don’t do the same in larger classes, often because there are too many people for everyone to speak, but the same proposition holds true. If students learn from the start that their primary role in class is to listen and not speak, it will not prove surprising that they won’t engage as easily when we do ask them to enter into a discussion  with their classmates. (To be sure: there are always those who are not only willing to talk, but often dominate any conversation, leaving little room for others – but more on strategies for dealing with this later.)

The bottom line is that if you understand that discussion is essential to student learning and want to encourage rich discussions in your class, make sure that your students develop the habit of talking from the very start and try to build in opportunities for discussion continually, not just on one day a week or only at the end of the lecture.

Slow is better. Except in seminar settings, and even there, student voices are most often encouraged when we ask students to answer a question we pose. Certainly there are a lot of times we ask so-called “known answer” questions as a way to discover whether they did the assigned reading or can fill in a specific piece of information (although asking such questions can produce a deadening stupor, as anyone familiar with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off will recall: “Anyone? Anyone?”).

More often we ask questions which require students to think more deeply about an issue but don’t necessarily want to break the class into smaller groups to discuss them. In these cases, the answer is neither obvious nor easy, and unless you want the same hands to shoot up each time, you need to give the students time to think and consider before answering. You can say, “wait a few seconds before answering,” but you’ll still get the same hands going up. Instead, have them write their answers or briefly discuss with the person next to them. Not only does that give them time to think, but it also makes it easier for you to call on a student who doesn’t normally talk in class. “Katie – I see that you’re writing away. What did you come up with?” (There are teachers, to be sure, who adopt what I would call the “enforced” Socratic method, like Professor Kingsfield, the contracts law professor in The Paper Chase.  And there is some value in that method – not the Kingsfield humiliation approach, but as a way to see that students come to class well prepared.) But understanding that students need time to prepare responses to complex question (as do we), is one way to get broader participation and more informed responses while avoiding both “Anyone-Anyone” moments and discussions that always revolve around the same few students.

Anatomy-Poster-French-head-238x300Save the harder for later. I have noticed that in seminars in which students are expected to take the lead in discussions, they often start the class by asking what I would consider to be the most difficult questions, the kinds of questions that usually require the students to synthesize the subject matter and come to a conclusion before the discussion has even begun.  And I also realized that I often did the same thing: I would open the discussion (at 9:00 AM, no less) with a question that not only couldn’t be answered then, but was certain to stop any discussion dead in its tracks.

When planning for student participation in class, whether a lecture-centered class or a discussion-based seminar, try to begin with those questions that are both easier to get at (perhaps descriptive or informational questions) and build to the more analytic, synthetic questions as the student, you, and the discussion get warmed up. You will generate more participation and bring along more students.

Good scaffolds make good buildings. Moving from the back-and-forth question and answer of a lecture class to a seminar-style discussion or any class in which student input is primary, the best chance to generate a productive discussion is by helping students prepare with clear expectations and prompts to guide them through the readings or other homework. What should they be looking for? How should they be preparing for the discussion? Will they be expected to lead the discussion? Will you set the pattern of staying (largely) silent or can they count on you to “rescue” them when the discussion stalls in silence?

And when you give students a set of prompts to be thinking about, try to stick to them when you open the discussion. More than once I realized that I gave my students a set of questions to help them prepare the reading and then I asked a completely different set of questions in class. It’s not that we have to stick unalterably to a scripts that we have written, but if students see no relation between what you’ve asked them to think about and what you’re asking them to talk about, they are not likely to generate a good discussion.

Responsible talking, responsible listening. Whether in a seminar setting or having divided your class into smaller groups, it is useful to employ some practices to support the discussion. There are two key roles in the discussion section: responsible talking and active listening. To support the first, give the students a sense of what it means to be a responsible participant in the group. Obviously, it means being prepared for the discussion by having completed and thought about the reading, trying to stay on topic, and encouraging others to talk as well. It also means attempting to move the discussion forward. Which brings up active listening. A good discussion is built on the fact that students are not (just) queuing up with a Medical-Illustration-Hearing-NLM-211x300set of things they want to say even though those points have already been made. They are listening to their colleagues in an active way so that even if they repeat some of what has been said, they also try to move the discussion to a new point. (For tips on active listening, see here.) You can do some things to support this by having students adopt (and exchange) certain roles in the discussion. You might want one student to be a note taker and another to be in charge of facilitating the discussion or reporting back to the class. (You can find different report-back strategies here.)

Unless you assign regular discussion groups at the start of the semester, you can encourage more participation by arranging discussion groups to have different students in them each time, particularly if you find that students always sit in the same seats and you tend to form discussion groups by having students talk to those sitting closest to them. While quick discussions will inevitably rely on turning to one’s neighbors, for longer discussions you might want to mix the groups up, setting them up by “counting-off” or other techniques. The latest suggestion I read on how to do this comes from George Williams in ProfHacker who uses playing cards to establish groups in a large class. (For example, to set up groups of four, pass out the cards and have those who draw the same number form a group. This may seem an unnecessary waste of time, but students might also find it intriguing.)

Finally, if you are interested in different ways to assess student discussions, please refer to the Article of the Week for February 18, 2013 (Assessing Student Discussions). You can find this on CTIE’s Blackboard site.

Do you have other ways to encourage student discussions? Share them with us by posting a comment.

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