Research on the use of discussions in class has shown that they can:
- Increase engagement and deepen learning. In discussions, learners move beyond spectating and/or repeating back information. Discussion can spark interest, motivate students to make connections, and think critically about ideas.
- Introduce students to a variety of perspectives. Discussion surfaces different perspectives, prompting learners to analyze and evaluate information, as well as learn from each other.
- Foster community-building habits among learners. The social interaction in discussion builds connections among students and can strengthen students' ability to communicate and participate in diverse environments.
Good discussions require planning and clear intentions. Planning can increase the chances that discussion will support learning and foster a stronger, more inclusive classroom community. Here are some strategies that can help make discussion more impactful:
- Set clear expectations. As you think about discussion, ask yourself: How will a student in my class know they have participated fully and effectively in the discussion? Share with students how to engage in the discussion and meet your learning goals and expectations. Articulate how you would like students to respond to your prompts and how they can or should engage with others during the discussion.
- Craft effective prompts. Discussions can easily deflate if your prompts are too narrow. For example, a question that elicits a yes/no response, or a response with only one correct answer, leaves little room for conversation and exploration. On the other hand, discussion questions that are too broad or vague can leave students feeling overwhelmed or confused. Your discussion prompt should allow students to explore a range of specific ideas that are connected to your learning goals for the activity.
- Encourage students to share their thought processes. Invite learners to share how they understand the question or how they understand their peers' responses. This can be an opportunity for students to share how their lived experiences inform their thinking and their understanding of the course concepts.
- Provide students with multiple ways to engage in the discussion. Some students may feel more comfortable listening. Others may find value in drawing on their own personal experiences. Still others may prefer to focus on what evidence best answers the prompt. Here are some ways to invite students to engage in a discussion:
- Build on a specific comment shared by a peer
- Clarify and/or share about a comment that resonates with you
- Disagree with a comment and explain why
- Summarize and offer a new perspective
- Identify a link between two comments
- Ask the class a question
- Create space for reflection. The best discussions leave students pondering new ideas. At the end of a discussion, make space for students to reflect on the discussion. This could be an individual assignment or a whole-class activity where individuals share their take-aways and/or what most impacted them or expanded their thinking.
Spontaneous Discussions: Dealing with the Unexpected
It is wise to be prepared to respond to the possibility that a student will raise a controversial issue in class unexpectedly. Immediate response is called for, if only to decide what to do next:
- Acknowledge the student who raised the issue while noting that students may vary in their responses.
- Decide whether you are ready and willing to engage with the topic right away.
- Quickly assess whether the class would like to spend time sharing views about the topic.
- If students want to have a dialogue, and you want to wait on it, schedule a discussion for a later class and suggest ways that students could prepare.
The CTLO provides the following links as resources for facilitating difficult, challenging, or controversial topics in class:
- Facilitating Controversial Discussion, Brown University Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning.
- Teaching in Context: Troubling Times, Yale University Poorvu Center
- Teaching in Times of Crisis, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching
- Getting Started with Establishing Ground Rules, Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation
- Teaching in Difficult Times, UC Berkeley Center for Teaching & Learning
- Handle Difficult Moments with Respect & Sensitivity, Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center
- Difficult Dialogues, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching
- Discussion Guidelines on Various Topics, University of Michigan Center for Research on Teaching & Learning