Discussions - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Discussions

(Some sections adapted from Davis, 1993; Brookfield and Preskill, 1999)

Discussions can be an excellent strategy for enhancing student motivation, fostering intellectual agility, and encouraging democratic habits. They create opportunities for students to practice and sharpen a number of skills, including the ability to articulate and defend positions, consider different points of view, and enlist and evaluate evidence.

While discussions provide avenues for exploration and discovery, leading a discussion can be anxiety-producing: discussions are, by their nature, unpredictable, and require us as instructors to surrender a certain degree of control over the flow of information. Fortunately, careful planning can help us ensure that discussions are lively without being chaotic and exploratory without losing focus. When planning a discussion, it is helpful to consider not only cognitive, but also social/emotional, and physical factors that can either foster or inhibit the productive exchange of ideas.

Cognitive factors:

  • Determine and communicate learning objectives
  • Plan a strategy
  • Ask good questions
  • Provide direction and maintain focus
  • Bring closure

Social/emotional factors:

  • Demonstrate relevance
  • Encourage participation
  • Make high-quality participation “count”
  • Evaluate the discussion

Physical factors:

  • Creating a setting conducive for discussion

Cognitive Factors

Determine and communicate learning objectives

For discussions to accomplish something valuable, they must have a purpose. Consider your goals for each discussion. How do the ideas and information to be discussed fit into the course as a whole? What skills, knowledge, perspectives, or sensibilities do you want students to walk away from the discussion with? Your goals for a particular discussion should be consistent with your course objectives and values as an instructor. You might, for example, want students to be able to:

  • Articulate the arguments made by the authors of two assigned readings and assess the evidence used to support them. Evaluate the arguments alone and in comparison with one another and discuss their contemporary policy implications. Or…
  • Formulate arguments and counter-arguments for a legal position. Or…
  • Imagine a particular approach to the design of cities and discuss the impact such a design would have on the lives of people in different socioeconomic categories. Suggest and justify design changes to optimize the benefits for the most number of people.

When you can clearly envision the purpose of the discussion, it is easier to formulate stimulating questions and an appropriate strategy for facilitating the discussion. Communicating your objectives to your students, moreover, helps to focus their thinking and motivate participation.

Plan a strategy

After determining the objectives for your discussion, ask yourself: How will I make sure that students meet these objectives?  Plan the discussion out, even if you end up deviating from your plan. Some of the questions to consider when formulating a plan include:

  • How do I want students to prepare: read a case study? (if so, in class or as homework?) do a team exercise? watch a documentary? reflect on a set of questions?
  • What questions will I pose to spark or guide discussion? to encourage deeper analysis?
  • Will I open the discussion to the entire class or ask students to discuss the issue in pairs, small groups, or some combination of the above?
  • What will I do if students simply aren’t participating? If certain students dominate the discussion?
  • How will I allocate and manage the time I have?
  • How will I deal with digressions or unanticipated shifts in topic?
  • How will I correct students’ misconceptions or inaccuracies without stifling participation?
  • How will I (or my students) synthesize the ideas at the end of the class period?

Your answers to these questions will depend on your goals. For example, correcting factual inaccuracies might be critical in some circumstances, less so in others. Digressions may be productive if your primary purpose is to explore connections, and undesirable if the goal of your discussion is more focused.

One of the most important things to consider when formulating a strategy is how to get the discussion jump-started. Davis (1993) and Frederick (1981) provide a number of excellent suggestions.

Ask Good Questions

Good questions are the key to a productive discussion. These include not only the questions you use to jump-start discussion but also the questions you use to probe for deeper analysis, ask for clarification or examples, explore implications, etc. It is helpful to think about the various kinds of questions you might ask and the cognitive skills they require to answer. Davis (1993) lists a range of question types, including:

  • Exploratory questions: probe facts and basic knowledge
  • Challenge questions: interrogate assumptions, conclusions or interpretations
  • Relational questions: ask for comparisons of themes, ideas, or issues
  • Diagnostic questions: probe motives or causes
  • Action questions: call for a conclusion or action
  • Cause-and-effect questions: ask for causal relationships between ideas, actions, or events
  • Extension questions: expand the discussion
  • Hypothetical questions: pose a change in the facts or issues
  • Priority questions: seek to identify the most important issue(s)
  • Summary questions: elicit synthesis

These question types can be mapped onto Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives, which shows increasing levels of cognitive complexity as students move from fairly simple tasks (such as recall of information) to more complex tasks (such as synthesis, evaluation, or creation.) While you might frame the entire discussion in terms of a Big Question to grapple with, it is a good general strategy to move from relatively simple, convergent questions (i.e., questions with correct answers, such as “According to this treatise, what is Argentina’s historical claim on the Falklands?” or “What kinds of tax cuts does this bill propose?”) to more complex, divergent questions (i.e., questions with many valid answers, such as “Why did Argentina invade the Falklands?” or “To what extent would this bill’s proposed tax increases resolve the budget deficit?”) (exmples from Davis, 1993). Starting with convergent questions helps discussion participants to establish a base of shared knowledge and builds student confidence; it also gives you, the instructor, the opportunity to correct factual inaccuracies or misconceptions before the discussion moves into greater complexity and abstraction. Asking a variety of types of questions can also help to model for students the ways that experts use questions to refine their analyses. For example, an instructor might move an abstract discussion to a concrete level by asking for examples or illustrations, or move a concrete discussion to a broader level by asking students to generate a generalization or implication.

When instructors are nervous that a discussion might flag, they tend to fall prey to some common questioning errors. These include:

Asking too many questions at once: Instructors often make the mistake of asking a string of questions together, e.g., “What do you think the author is trying to say here? Do you agree with him? Is his evidence convincing? Did you like this article?” Students may get confused trying to figure out which question to address first. Asking a number of questions together may also conflate issues you really want to help students distinguish (for example, the author’s thesis versus the kinds of evidence he uses to support it).

Asking a question and answering it yourself: We have all had the experience of asking a question only to encounter blank stares and silence. The temptation under these circumstances is to jump in and answer your own question, if only to relieve the uncomfortable silence. Don’t assume, though, that students’ silence necessarily indicates that they are stumped (or unprepared); sometimes they are simply thinking the question through and formulating an answer. Be careful not to preempt this process by jumping in too early.

Failing to probe or explore the implications of answers: One mistake instructors can make in leading a discussion is not to follow up sufficiently on student contributions. It is important not only to get students talking, but to probe them about their reasoning, ask for evidence, explore the implications of what they say, etc. Follow-up questions push students to think more deeply, to substantiate their claims, and consider the practical impact of particular perspectives.

Asking unconnected questions: In the best discussions, there is a logical progression from question to question so that, ultimately, the discussion tells (or reveals) a story. When you are planning your discussion questions, think about how they fit together.

Asking yes/no or leading questions: Asking questions with a yes/no answer can be the starting point of a good discussion, but only if there is a follow-up question that calls for explanation or substantiation. Otherwise, yes/no questions tend to be conversation-stoppers. By the same token, discussions can stall if the instructor’s questions are overly leading, i.e., if there is clearly an answer the instructor wants, and the students’ task is simply to guess it, rather than to think for himself.

Ignoring or failing to build on answers: If students do not feel like their voices have weight in discussion, their motivation to participate drops. Thus, it is important to acknowledge student contributions, responding enthusiastically when they are insightful (“That’s an excellent point, Sarah; could you elaborate further?”) and pointing out when they contain inaccuracies or problematic reasoning (“Take another look at the article, Tranh; is that really what the author is claiming?”). If you do not wish to play such a directive role yourself – and want students to develop the habit of assessing and responding to one another’s contributions – you can throw student comments back to the class for evaluation (for example, “Do the rest of you agree with John’s recommendation? What would be some possible consequences if this plan of action were followed?”)

Provide Direction and Maintain Focus

Discussions tend to be most productive when they have a clear focus. It may be helpful to write out a few questions that the discussion will address, and return to those questions periodically. Also, summarize key issues occasionally as you go and refocus student attention if the discussion seems to be getting off track (for example, “How do the issues that have just been raised relate to the question originally posed?” or “That’s an interesting point, Alexis, and one we will return to later in the course.”)

While some lulls in discussion are to be expected (while participants are thinking, for example) the instructor must be alert to signs such as these that a discussion is breaking down (Davis, 1993):

  • Excessive hair-splitting or nit-picking
  • Repetition of points
  • Private conversations
  • Participants taking sides and refusing to compromise
  • Apathetic participation

If the discussion seems to be flagging, it can help to introduce a new question or alter the task so as to bring a fresh kind of thinking or a different group dynamic to bear. For example, you might switch from discussing an ethical issue in the abstract to a concrete case study, or shift from large-group discussion to small group or pair-work.

Bring Closure

It is important to leave time at the end of the discussion to synthesize the central issues covered, key questions raised, etc. There are a number of ways to synthesize. You could, for example, tell students that one of them (they won’t know who in advance) will be asked at the end of every discussion to identify the major issues, concerns and conclusions generated during discussion. You could also ask students individually to write down what they believe was the most important point, the overall conclusion, and/or a question the discussion raised in their mind (these can be collected and serve as the basis of a follow-up lecture or discussion.) You might also provide students with a set of 2 or 3 “take-home” points synthesizing what you thought were the key issues raised in discussion.  Synthesizing the discussion is a critical step for linking the discussion to the original learning objectives and demonstrating progress towards meeting those objectives.

Social and Emotional Factors:

Demonstrate Relevance

While students generally enjoy discussions, they may have difficulty recognizing what they gain from participating in them – in contrast with lectures, in which students may take copious notes and have a sense of having covered clearly discernable ground. This can be particularly true for international students from cultures <link to Cultural Variations> in which discussions are not a regular or valued part of the educational curriculum.

It is helpful to tell students up front how you think the skills they gain from participating in discussion will help them in academic and future pursuits. For example: “The ability to articulate and defend a position thoughtfully and respectfully will serve you well in the work world when you are arguing for a particular policy solution or course of action. Discussions for this class will give you the opportunity to practice that skill.”

Beyond explaining the relevance of discussion in general, it is a good idea to point out the relevance of particular discussions vis-à-vis contemporary social issues, your students’ future plans, etc. For example, “Today we’ll be discussing the advantages of Chinese traditional medicine over Western medicine in the treatment of pain and chronic illness. As we talk, think about a conversation with a colleague in medical school and imagine how you would articulate this argument and suggest a productive fusion of both approaches to medicine.”

Encourage Participation

Many issues can affect students’ willingness to participate in discussions, from cultural background (Are discussion classes new and unfamiliar to them?) to preparedness (Have they done the background work – reading, for example – to prepare for the discussion?) to the kinds of questions asked (Are the questions too difficult or, alternatively, are the answers too obvious?).  Below are some strategies that can help encourage meaningful student participation.

Create a discussion climate early. If you want to use discussion in your class, encourage active student participation from the first day of class <link to first day of class html page>. Plan an icebreaker early in the semester that gets students talking and interacting, preferably while doing an activity that is integral to the content material for the course. Also, create a climate in which students feel comfortable taking intellectual risks: respond to their comments respectfully, even when you correct or challenge them, and make sure (perhaps by establishing clear behavioral ground rules) that their peers do as well.

Require students to prepare for discussion. Discussions often break down because students simply haven’t done the reading or work upon which the discussion is based. Discussions tend to be most productive when students have already done some preparatory work for them. It can be helpful to give assignments to help students to prepare for discussion. This could be a set of questions to answer, a question or two to write, an informal one-page (or paragraph) “reflection” on a reading, film, work of art, etc. Brookfield and Preskill (1999), for example, recommend “structured, critical pre-reading” focused on these kinds of questions:

  • Epistemological questions probe how an author comes to know or believe something to be true
  • Experiential questions help the student review the text through the lens of his/her relevant personal experiences
  • Communicative questions ask how the author conveys meaning and whether the forms clarify or confuse
  • Political questions ask how the work serves to represent certain interests and challenge others

Preparatory assignments help students focus their reading and their thinking, thus facilitating a higher-quality discussion. It is important to note that assigning preparatory work does not necessarily add significant extra work for the instructor, who can collect student prep assignments, glance over them quickly to assess overall comprehension or to identify questions to address in class, and simply mark them Credit/No Credit.

Get to know your students. Students are more likely to participate if they feel that they are recognized as individuals. If at all possible, learn your students’ names and encourage them to learn and use one another’s names. Some faculty members require individual students (or groups of students) to come to their office hours once early in the semester, to get to know them better; others use ice-breaking exercises <link to> early in the semester to lower inhibitions and encourage interaction.

Model exemplary discussion behavior. Often, students must learn how to enter meaningfully into a discussion. One way to encourage students to engage in the style of intellectual exchange you desire is to model good discussion techniques in your own behavior, using language that demonstrates, among other things:

  • how to build on another individual’s contribution (“As Sunil pointed out…”)
  • how to ask for clarification (“I’m not sure what you mean, Allie. Can you give a concrete example from one of the readings we’ve had?”)
  • how to disagree politely (“I’ve got a different take on that issue…”)
  • how to marshal evidence to support a position (“There are three things in the book that led me to this conclusion. They are…”)

In the interests of modeling a particular style of intellectual exchange, some instructors invite a colleague to their class and engage in a scholarly discussion or debate for the benefit of their students.

On its own, instructor modeling is not likely to affect student behavior, however. It is also important to explicitly point out the kinds of discussion skills illustrated above and to distinguish high-quality contributions (e.g. claims that are substantiated with evidence, comments which effectively build on other student comments) from lower-quality contributions (e.g. unsubstantiated claims, opinions based purely on personal taste, etc.)

Create ground rules. Explicit ground rules or guidelines can help to ensure a respectful environment for discussion. The ground rules you use will depend on your class size and goals, but may include provisions such as these:

  • speak respectfully to one another, even when disagreeing
  • avoid using put-downs (even humorous ones)
  • avoid disrupting the flow of thought by introducing new issues before the discussion of the previous issue has come to its natural end
  • keep in confidence any information shared by a student in class

You can set these ground rules yourself and specify them in your syllabus, or have students help create them. Click on these links to see examples of ground rules and a template for creating student-generated ground rules.

Monitor group dynamics. One of the instructor’s responsibilities is to manage the personalities and dynamics within the discussion group, so that all students feel that their contributions (if thoughtful and appropriate) are welcome. Cultural <link to CV doc> as well as personality differences influence the ways in which students enter into (or hesitate to enter into) the discussion.

If a subset of students seems reluctant to speak up in class, you might consider ways for them to share their ideas and engage with the material in an alternative forum, such as via discussion board or e-mail. You can then bring these students’ contributions to the attention of the class as a way of acknowledging their perspectives and encouraging further participation (“Felipe made an interesting observation in a post to the discussion board yesterday. He pointed out that…”). Giving students time to write down their thoughts before opening the floor to discussion can also help quiet students get more involved. So too can the use of pair-work and small-group discussions. While some faculty are reluctant to call on quiet students for fear of embarrassing them, it should be pointed out that calling on students can also liberate them: not all students who are quiet are shy; they may simply have trouble finding a way into the discussion.

Sometimes the problem is not shy students but overly domineering or aggressive students who monopolize discussion. Sometimes a subtle approach to reining in these students can be effective (for example: “Jake, I see your hand and want to hear your perspective, but I’d like to give some of the other students a chance to answer first.”); other times it may be necessary to take a domineering student aside after class to discuss changing the behavior.

Handling strong emotions and disagreement that arise in a discussion can be a challenge for instructors. A certain amount of disagreement is desirable, yet if the conversation gets too heated or antagonistic, it can inhibit participation and squelch a productive exchange of ideas. When emotions are high, remind students to focus on ideas and refrain from personal comments (this stipulation can be included in your ground rules as well). You might also consider asking students to take a minute to write about their reactions to what has been said so they can cool off, focus their thoughts, and consider one another’s perspectives before re-entering the discussion.

Also, consider in advance how you will handle sensitive discussion topics. Certainly one of the goals of education is to challenge and unsettle students’ assumptions and beliefs. Discussions that do so may not be comfortable for some participants yet still have the desired effect. On the other hand, done poorly such discussions can stifle rather than stimulate engagement and learning. Thus, it is important to anticipate where the “hot spots” will be and make sure you accord them the time and sensitivity they deserve. Also, think about whether the discussion environment in your classroom is sufficiently inclusive of all your students, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, political persuasion, religion, etc. (link to principle about inclusivity).

Assign pair and small-group work. As a prelude or addition to full-class discussion, consider giving pairs or small groups of students the task of discussing a question or problem. Group work tends to work best when the task is clearly defined and concrete. It can facilitate group work to assign roles within the group. For example, one member of the group could be charged with breaking the task down into steps and posing questions to the group; another could be charged with managing time and keeping the group on task; another could have the job of recording the group’s thoughts or recommendations and reporting back to the full class. (Assigning this last task to a quiet student can help to draw him or her out.) Click on this link for more on group work.

Make high-quality participation count

While we all want students to participate in discussions for the sheer joy of intellectual exchange, not all students may be equally motivated to jump in – at least not initially. Providing extrinsic motivations can be helpful to establish the behavioral patterns that lead, ultimately, to intrinsic motivations.  For this reason, many instructors include a participation grade as part of the reward structure of their courses.

In making participation “count”, however, one runs the risk of encouraging talk for the sake of talk, rather than for the purpose of meaningful and thoughtful exchange. For this reason it can be helpful to define what you consider high-quality contributions to discussions and distinguish them from low-quality contributions by using a rubric for discussion that makes your expectations and grading criteria clear. One instructor, for example, defines high-quality participation as: “raising thoughtful questions, analyzing relevant issues, building on others’ ideas, synthesizing across readings and discussions, expanding the class’ perspective, and appropriately challenging assumptions and perspectives.” She assesses student discussion performance on the basis of whether they make such contributions to discussion regularly, sometimes, rarely, or never.

Evaluate the discussion

How will you know if a discussion accomplished what you hoped it would? How will you assess your own performance as a discussion leader? There are a number of ways to evaluate discussions. For example, immediately following the discussion, you might ask students to write briefly about what they learned, how their thinking changed, or how the discussion relates to other course materials. An alternative is to ask students to reflect on the quality of the discussion, answering questions such as: What kinds of contributions were and were not helpful?  When were and weren’t digressions productive? Did everyone who wanted to get a chance to speak?  If not, why not?

Brookfield and Preskill suggest that students “keep a weekly audit of their participation in class discussions and then summarize and analyze their entries in an end-of-semester learning portfolio” (1999, p. 218). Another possibility is to videotape the discussion and analyze it after the fact; this can be helpful because instructors facilitating a discussion are busy juggling many things at once (time management, the flow of ideas, group dynamics), and often cannot assess the discussion as a whole. Davis provides a useful inventory for analyzing the behavior of discussion participants in videotaped discussions (1993, p.72).

Of course, discussions can be evaluated less formally, simply by asking yourself a set of questions after the fact, for example: Who participated? Who didn’t? What might explain the patterns of participation? What questions proved most fruitful and why? How might the discussion be improved to promote deeper inquiry, more student-student interaction, etc.?

Physical Factors

Try to arrange the physical set-up of your classroom so that it is conducive to discussion. Some instructors prefer that chairs be in a circle, others in a U-shape, while for small group discussions or debates chairs must be moved and assembled differently. Our intention here is not to recommend a “best way” of organizing the discussion space, but to raise some questions to consider when determining how to arrange your classroom.

First, what are your objectives? If one of your goals is for students to enter into a dialog with one another, then it is particularly important that they be able see and address each other directly. Obviously, the traditional classroom arrangement, with the instructor positioned before rows of student chairs does not serve this objective. On the other hand, if the style of discussion (or quasi-discussion) is Socratic, with the instructor asking questions and students answering, then a more traditional seating arrangement could be successful. In keeping with your objectives, you might also ask yourself what the arrangement of physical space communicates. Do you want to set yourself apart from other discussion participants, or position yourself as one of them? Do you want to make it difficult for students to avoid participation or do you believe they have the right to opt out? (Some authors, for example, have applied a Foucaultian analysis to discussions, arguing that the traditional circle-format is coercive in that students cannot hide from the instructor’s disciplinary gaze! (citation).

Second, what discussion format(s) will you use? If you are engaging in a brainstorming session and plan to write on the board, you will need to have students sit where they can see the board. If you want students to work in small groups, you might consider how chairs and tables can be positioned so that you can walk from group to group, or have students do so if the task demands it.  If your discussion is part of a group project that involves hands-on construction or manipulation (perhaps of a flow-chart or design), the physical space must be organized accordingly.

As a general rule, it is a good idea to set up the classroom so that students can (a) see each other and (b) see progress (e.g., to watch an evolving list of brainstormed ideas take shape, to focus their participation around a central question, to see several synthesizing points written on the board.) Clearly, the configuration of the room itself can limit your options, as can class size. If you are teaching a class of 120 in an auditorium with bolted-down seats and poor acoustics, the traditional circular discussion arrangement is untenable. However, you would be surprised how much discussion can be accomplished even in large classes (link to lament) and sub-optimal physical settings.

In conclusion…

While there are a lot of issues to consider when planning and leading a discussion, the time you spend up-front thinking through the cognitive, social/emotional, and physical aspects of discussion will pay off later in more lively, productive, and rewarding discussions as well as greater student learning.

References

Brookfield, S. D. & Preskill, S. (1999)
Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San     Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, B. G. (1993)
Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Frederick, P. (1981)
“The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start”. Improving College and University     Teaching. 29(3).