Explore Strategies - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

My students don’t participate in discussion.

The instructor did not clearly articulate the goals of the discussion, define the structure, and/or effectively manage the process within the defined structure.

Students learn more when they know what it is they are expected to learn, hence outlining the goals of the discussion allow students to monitor their understanding as the discussion ensues. Clearly articulated goals also help the faculty member to structure the discussion so that is productive.

For example, if your goal for the class is to evaluate an author’s argument, the implicit structure is to identify and discuss the hypothesis, the methodology, the results, and the implications. If your goal is for students to debate a controversial issue, the implicit structure is presentation of both sides of the argument and ensuing debate. If your goal is to analyze a case, the implicit structure is to agree on the facts of the case, the key players and their agendas, potential solutions and their implications and, eventually, the best resolution. Implicit in each of these scenarios is a definition of what a valuable contribution and appropriate behavior are that will structure how students interact with you and each other. Finally, identifying methods and strategies to effectively manage the discussion (e.g., ground rules, appropriate questions) can help you deal with the complex and fast-paced nature of the classroom conversation.

Strategies:

Outline your goals.

Define your expectations.

Articulate ground rules.

Model appropriate behavior.

Prepare your questions in advance.

Identify why your questions are not effective.

Build on previous discussion.

Assure participation.

Allow students time to think.

Summarize the discussion.

Outline your goals.

Clearly articulate the goals for the discussion so that students understand what the desired outcome is, and use these goals as mileposts to help them recognize and monitor the development of their own understanding and the progress of the discussion.

Define your expectations.

Clearly specify your expectations regarding what constitutes both meaningful participation and productive discussion. For example, tell students that asking thoughtful questions, making connections to theory, building on previous comments, and identifying real world examples or applications make valuable contributions toward collective learning. The reason this is beneficial is because it allows student to engage in learning behaviors that align with the goals of the course and to monitor their progress toward those goals.

Articulate ground rules.

Lay ground rules for participation (pdf) that clearly define acceptable and unacceptable behavior, e.g., turn-taking, language. For example, it is not acceptable to use pejoratives, labels, or sarcasm; it is inappropriate to verbally attack a person rather than their idea; it is important to allow others to speak rather than interrupt or usurp the floor. The need for ground rules is even more important if you are dealing with a controversial issue where students in the minority perspective could potentially feel inhibited to participate. You may even involve students in this process to insure greater student buy-in.

Model appropriate behavior.

As you participate and lead the discussion, demonstrate for students meaningful interaction. For example, show students how to respectfully disagree with an idea or perspective rather than attack a peer.

Prepare your questions in advance.

Effective questions can engage students with the material and enhance discussion, so planning questions in advance that align with your goals is important, because different questions serve different purposes.

  • Vary the type of question you ask (e.g., exploratory, relational, diagnostic, cause-and-effect, summary) to regulate the direction and intensity of the discussion.
  • Vary the cognitive skill your questions demand (e.g., knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation) to appropriately sequence the intellectual path of the discussion.
  • Develop questions that require more than a yes or no response (i.e., open-ended).
  • Ask probing questions (e.g., “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What assumptions are you making?”) when students reply to a question with a superficial, incomplete or overly complex response. 

Identify why your questions are not effective.

Diagnose why students are not responding to the questions you are asking and modify them accordingly.

  • If the question has multiple embedded questions under the guise of one question, rephrase.
  • If the question was too complex, either break it into component parts or allow students time to think about the question and their response.
  • If you tend to answer your own question to avoid awkward silence in the classroom, explicitly tell students that silence is okay and you want them to take a minute or two to think before they respond.
  • If students worry that you expect “the perfect/right answer,” give them “permission” to venture a hypothesis, brainstorm a potential solution, as students to identify an aspect of the reading that stood out to them.
  • If several students are dominating the discussion, show your appreciation for their enthusiasm but tell them you want to hear from others in the class.

Build on previous discussion.

Expand on, compare, contrast or apply students’ previous questions or responses, and encourage them to do the same, to maintain coherence and momentum during the discussion.

Assure participation.

Keep track of who wants to enter the discussion by explicitly identifying the order in which you would like students to speak (e.g., make a list, tell students the order in which they will speak).

Allow students time to think.

Pose a question and give students a minute or two to think about and write down some ideas in response to the question. This is particularly useful in managing a heated discussion or a controversial issue.

Summarize the discussion.

Schedule time at the end of the class to recap the discussion, which can be done by either students or the instructor. Refer back to the goals or themes you articulated at the beginning of class. Also contextualize the day’s discussion as it relates to both past and future discussions.

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learning principles

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. MORE>
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know. MORE>
  3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn. MORE>
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned. MORE>
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning. MORE>
  6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning. MORE>
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning. MORE>