Discussions: discuss.
December 3, 2008 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Calling all professors and teachers: What is crucial to keep in mind in order to foster a successful class discussion?

I teach undergrads and graduate students--mostly undergrads. Now that the semester is almost over, I'm in the process of assessing what has worked and what hasn't in my courses. I've come to the conclusion that I need to hone my skills in facilitating class discussion.

I've read the tips in pedagogy books like Tools for Teachers, and they are helpful, but there is an improvisatory element to what goes on in the unscripted moments in class that, I've found, books like this don't fully address.

Can you think of any specific classroom moments that taught you something valuable about how to best lead discussions? How to make them less perfunctory to more inspiring?

Some of the areas I've been thinking specifically about include: formulating thought-provoking questions on the fly; getting students to talk to each other, not just to me or for me; keeping students focused, but relaxed.
posted by umbú to Education (20 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
What subject do you teach?

One of the things I've found really helpful (especially with undergrads) is asking students to write about what they wonder, based on what they've read. Even a paragraph from each student before class can be really helpful in knowing what to talk about and how to talk about it. It helps us (me and the students) to go beyond just discussing what's in the curriculum to what it might mean.
posted by rbs at 11:20 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't throw softballs, even when everyone's silent. Nobody wants to bother answering the obvious questions, and they'll immediately start zoning out. When you get silence, try broadening the question instead, or even discuss why no one wants to or can answer the question.

Working in the occasional 5 minute "think, pair, share" or written response activity can also help as they give students a few moments to collect their thoughts.
posted by susanvance at 11:34 AM on December 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

I teach ethnomusicology, so my classes veer between music, anthropology and cultural studies. Most of the discussions are based on responding to what we've read, and/or what we've listened to.

I've been assigning private, blog-like on-line journals where they write a paragraph and post questions before class, with the hope that they arrive having begun to digest the assignment. Since I can read their posts before entering the classroom, this allows me to have a sense of where they're at, what they didn't understand, etc.

I like how you phrased that: "Write about what they wonder, based on what they've read."
posted by umbú at 11:35 AM on December 3, 2008

I like that. Discussing why no one wants or can answer a question seems like it could be really productive in certain cases.
posted by umbú at 11:38 AM on December 3, 2008

Academia is a grades-based economy, not really a "learning for the sake of learning" one. We tend to just hope that students will find the material interesting enough to want to talk about it in class, and we might give them 5% of the grade for it. If you want discussion, you need to alter that economy and give them some other motivation to engage.

There are a few ways to do it; the most obvious is to make the discussion worth grades, but meh. Another way that works (particularly with undergrads) is to add some real meaning to the discussion. One of the ways I've seen this work best is by having students actually creating something for a greater purpose as part of their assignments and discussions; they're not only discussing finer points of [insert discipline here], but they're arguing about how best to produce something for the less fortunate, to facilitate education in others, to fill a vacancy in public information. Why is the topic important? Why is it important to get it right? What's at stake? It's a twist on service learning, and can be done within the class structure, without having to go out into the community (physically). The new motivation is making the world a better place, and that's something undergrads can really sink their teeth into. They want to do this; why not let them give it a shot?

If you don't alter the basic structure of what's worthwhile inside your course, you can't expect different behaviour from students. At present the emergent personality of the class itself dictates whether or not they will bother to contribute in class. It's almost completely out of your control. You can come up with the best leading questions in the world, but if most of the students hate talking in class and just want to get back to chilling with their friends and haven't read the material, it's going to lead nowhere. If you give them new reasons to care about the course material, a reason why it matters whether they get it or not, they will really care. We had a student drop out of a course we were experimenting with because she couldn't take the in-class arguments. Too intense. Everyone else LOVED it. Intensity and passion is radical for undergraduates, and it warms my heart when I see it.

I'd be happy to talk more with you if you're interested. (Obviously, this is what I do for a living.)
posted by Hildegarde at 11:52 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I once had a anthropology prof who pointed out how her own body language was designed to stimulate discussion. When she wanted a response, she would come in front of the podium and sit/lean comfortably on a desk at the front of the room and say "so, what does everybody think?" She found people are less likely to speak up if the prof is standing rigid in "lecture mode".

One course I took this year always had great discussions, and I noticed the prof would keep it going by distilling student's comments down to the essence of what they were trying to say, and repeating them. Like this:

Student: long, rambling answer about how X is true and Y is false
Prof: So, X is true, and Y is false, then?
Other students: Yes! No! Argument!

It's a difficult thing to do and he was very good at it. It made it much easier to respond to other students. Notice that his intervention in the conversation was quite minimal.

I also have noticed that discussions tend to be better when the course is split into lecture and discussion sections, in which the discussion section is small, and you are assigned a small grade for participation, meaning you have an incentive to show up and say something. That may or may not be possible in your case of course.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:53 AM on December 3, 2008

In part I do think it varies with the material. I'm in a communication department, and I teach classes in broadcasting and new media. I find it's much easier to get people discussing anything related to internet/new media, because it's so central totheir lives, than it is, say, in my history of broadcasting class.

One technique I do use a lot, especially if the "big question" strategy has failed, is to ask them to generate lists (i.e. where did you get your information for the last election? how do you find out about new music?) or to rate themselves on some kind of scale (how frequently do you use email? IM? text messaging? How much do you watch television?). I always write this stuff down on the board as they throw it out there, and so ten we have this visual record that helps us start to see patterns, etc. I find that these are often good catalysts for discussing more in-depth, because it's easy, ready knowledge that they don't have to feel intimidated about.

Sometimes you just have classes that won't participate, or topics that are too dull/deep/difficult (like the broadcast law/regulations class I taught last spring, ugh). You just have to roll with it.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:28 PM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

My advice:

1. ask open-ended questions
2. open the discussion with a seemingly unrelated anecdote, but then tie it into the class topic
3. try to be yourself as much as your professorial duties allow you. It's the professor who sets the tone, not the class.
4. if it helps, start a discussion by disclosing your personal connection to the material at hand. Your students might find it interesting, and it may be productive to class discussion.
posted by hpliferaft at 12:55 PM on December 3, 2008

One of the keys to discussion at St. John's is that the tutors (professors) aren't treated as authorities (in fact that's part of why they're called tutors and not professors) and all voices in the classroom are given equal weight.

In a non-St. John's environment I've tried to get out of the habit of being the voice of authority in a discussion by encouraging the students to talk to each other, not to me (it helps to just be quiet sometimes) and allow them to disagree with me without me being super adamant. It is not necessary for me to always be right in the classroom.

I make statements or ask questions to get them started but then I try to just be a participant in the discussion, not the leader. It can help to assign or take volunteers to lead the discussion in the next class, and turn over the opening question to them, but ideally, once it gets going, the discussion shouldn't need a leader.

To foster this feeling of equality among the students, I try to highlight points made by quieter students and encourage students who have disagreements to discuss them and other students to agree or disagree with them. I hope that once they start talking my main role becomes "remember the cool thing this person said earlier. doesn't that tie into this?"
posted by hydropsyche at 1:24 PM on December 3, 2008

I like these ideas. Another is to give them a question at the end of class and tell them to be ready to discuss it at the next.
posted by starman at 1:31 PM on December 3, 2008

I agree with a lot of these suggestions, esp. Hildegarde's. I would echo the request for more info about what you teach, and also what problems you think you've encountered.

For the moment, my own several cents:

1. I'm not sure about open-ended questions. Students don't like to be wrong; on the other hand, they don't like to address questions that they might misunderstand, that seem too vague or abstract, or that might lead somewhere they can't anticipate. And apart from that, if you want to encourage good class discussion, getting a few students to ramble in response to an open-ended question may just turn everyone else off.

2. I agree that you need to create the right kind of market. Personally, I conscript students, and tell them that they can defer getting drafted if they volunteer more. If you are simply throwing questions out there and getting no response, try this. Perhaps more controversially, I also conscript students into espousing arguments for a position that they wouldn't necessarily embrace, and protect them by saying that they are just role-playing or acting as a devil's advocate. They may find that liberating.

3. You say that books don't teach the necessary improvisation. At one level, I think that's right, and we can't expect that they ever would do very well at that. On the other hand, I have borrowed notes from some very successful teachers, and I was astonished at how LITTLE improvisation there really was -- there were a lot of questions scripted, further questions that would depend on the answer to a prior question, and so forth.

4. As to PercussivePaul's suggestions: (a) re. coming around the lectern to open things up, it's a fair point, but I defy you not to feel cheesy while doing that; (b) rephrasing student answers is a little dicey, because you can start down a road of discussion that's all about re-clarifying some inchoate thoughts or risk resentment at having put words in a student's mouth.

5. Consider just sitting in on classes taught by well-regarded teachers, or looking at videos. This is too little done.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:33 PM on December 3, 2008

"There are no stupid questions."
posted by alby at 1:38 PM on December 3, 2008

One assignment that seemed to really help was to ask students to prepare discussion questions. You have to teach them the difference between a discussion question and a yes/no question, but, once they get that, it takes the pressure off you to prepare open-ended questions. Make the discussion questions an assignment and grade them based on if they actually are discussion questions.
posted by hworth at 1:44 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

"There are no stupid questions."

I love the fact that this is rendered in quotes -- as though it is something to be said, rather than something that is actually true.

As it happens, it is NOT true -- lots of questions are stupid in any meaningful sense of the term -- and so I don't say it, because I prefer to stick to true things and because everyone knows it and I would prefer not to be a phony.

What I WILL say is this: very often, a question you think is stupid isn't, or is one that a lot of your fellow students have, so it is helpful to fire away despite any misgivings you may have. The basic point is that it's okay to ask questions you fear may be stupid, not that there are no stupid questions.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 2:08 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't throw softballs, even when everyone's silent.

Yes, definitely. I like it when professors ask deep, thoughtful questions. Every so often it's cool when they respond to a specific point raised by a student and build upon that point. Discussions like this are terrible:

Prof.: So what does the author mean here? Alice?
Alice: blah blah.
Prof.: Okay, Dave?
Dave: Blah, blah.

This is better (though not all the time, constant one-on-one conversations are awkward):
Alive: blah blah.
Prof.: Interesting. But how do you reconcile that with the author's statement here... (etc.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:29 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lots of good answers here; I particularly like what Solon and Thanks has to say about it. I'd add that you should be afraid to edit/amend your questions if you don't get a response, or the response you want. I've had tons of professors who will let the silence stretch on interminably after asking questions that are overly leading (and often overly simplistic) and will refuse to move on if they don't get the answer they want. In classes where I teach poetry, particularly, I've found it helpful to be more specific or let students talk about what they do feel confident/comfortable discussing if there's gaping silence.


Prof: What theme is the poet trying to develop here?
Students: *cricket's chirping, staring*
Prof: Okay, well, let's break it down a bit. What's going on in the first line?

Often, I've found that they just need something concrete to latch on to to feel confident enough to develop their ideas. If they answer with silence, it usually means I'm being too broad and too vague, and they have no idea what I want from them.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:29 PM on December 3, 2008

One book I really like on teaching that doesn't seem to be widely read is Donald Finkel's Teaching with Your Mouth Shut. As Finkel says, one of the most important things a teacher can do in a discussion-based class is to keep quiet, allowing a silence to prompt others to start speaking on whatever subject or idea interests them. It's a way of shifting some of the responsibility for where the discussion goes, and how it's carried out, to the other people in the room, who will often initially think of controlling it as your job. Things work better for me when I announce this, and act in line with it, from early in the semester, making it clear that my voice shouldn't be the only or even the predominant one in the classroom if things are going right.

(Hildegarde and hydropsyche said some of this, but it's worth repeating: the way to create a better discussion is to remember that it depends on everyone in the room, not just you; working to surrender/refuse some of the authority, the last word or the power of final judgment, that students often want to grant you, is really the only way to get them to shoulder more of the responsibility for a discussion themselves. There's more good reflection on this subject, and on asking genuinely meant questions, in Postman and Weingartner's Teaching as a Subversive Activity.)

One little effective practice (almost a cheap trick, but I learned it from someone who's won many teaching awards) is to avoid eye contact, just when a student is finishing up talking, by arranging to be looking through notes or a book at the right moment, so they don't just expect you to respond to each person's remarks in turn. Breaking the eye-lock is a first step toward getting people talking to each other rather than just talking directly to you, the authority-figure, and waiting for you to respond each time. It still amazes me sometimes that this kind of little non-verbal signal of your intent not to hold the center of the discussion can result in a lot more back-and-forth between students.

Do remember that teaching is different for everyone, each of us has a different personality and style, and it's only natural for some students to fit better and others work worse with different teachers. The little changes of teaching style that lead your classes in the right direction might be unique to you, not the same ones that work for other good teachers.
posted by RogerB at 8:56 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

1) The primary question in most students' minds always is "why are we studying this?" So ask them to answer that question at the beginning. They will commit to the material if they believe their own answers.

2) [Assuming a seminar room and you stand while you teach] When one student is answering a question, walk away from the talker while maintaining eye contact, and stand next to the most distant student. The talkers will come to understand that they are addressing everyone.

3) Silence is powerful. It creates attention. Assuming your question is comprehensible and the students are on your side, let the silence linger. Don't rephrase. About 15 seconds into this, they will start saying great stuff.
posted by ferdydurke at 5:09 PM on December 4, 2008

I see that PhoBWanKenobe and I disagree on the use of silence. Perhaps it's a matter of the quality of the question. If it's a good one, then I'm willing to wait a long time for a stab at an answer. If it's a bad one, then I should rescue the students from the situation. [This may also vary by subject matter. I teach Law.]
posted by ferdydurke at 5:13 PM on December 4, 2008

Challenge their assumptions.

People mostly reason based on "how would I respond to that". Example: in teaching about slavery in the US, most students will assume they'd have been abolitionist; in teaching about Roman suppressions of the Early Christians, most students will see the Christian side; they'll side with Galileo, not the Church.

Reformulate slavery as vegetarianism and radical animal rights (note that I'm not equating black slaves with animals, and be sure you make that clear) letting the students realize that assumptions of most 19th Americans about slavery were less similar to 21st century assumptions, an more similar to 21st century feelings about animal rights. (And the gap between humane farming reformers and vegetarians and vegans and radical animal rightists nicely mirrors the continuum of anti-Slavery opinion, from re-Colonization of slaves to Africa to Gradualist Abolition to Immediatists to John Brown types.)

Reformulate Romans and Early Christians as Mainline Protestants and Koreshites. Reformulate the Church and Galileo as Kansas Public Schools and Evolution.

In other words, take the students out of their comfort zone, force them to think about their thinking, make them learn to see the world anew through others' eyes, show them "there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in" their philosophy.
posted by orthogonality at 8:24 PM on December 6, 2008

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