In-class discussions can help students develop critical thinking skills, but effective discussions require structure and planning.

Garside, C. (1996). Look who's talking: A comparison of lecture and group discussion teaching strategies in developing critical thinking skills.

 

Related tips:
Facilitating In-Class Discussions: Picking Good Discussion Topics
Facilitating In-Class Discussions: Working with Quiet Students
Facilitating In-Class Discussions: Working with Oversharers

Specify and enforce civil behavior to avoid aggressive or unproductive comments.

Action:

  • Set explicit rules for civil behavior. You can have students generate these or provide them with a set of guidelines.

    Reason:

    • Explicit rules create shared expectations that will help discussions be productive. Not all students will know how to identify appropriate and inappropriate contributions.

Have students brainstorm clarifying questions for the reading to clear misunderstandings before beginning the class discussion.

Action:

  • Before class, ask students to generate clarifying questions for the reading. It can be helpful to ask students to also include with each question what steps they have taken to try to answer the question themselves. This can help students practice using their resources to address their own questions.
  • At the beginning of class you can answer students’ questions or allow students to do so.

Reason:

  • These questions encourage students to do the reading, reflect on how much they understand, and help you determine how best to guide the discussion.

Ask discussion questions that can have multiple perspectives to facilitate student contributions.

Action:

  • Prepare discussion questions for class that could have multiple perspectives or multiple reasonable responses.
  • Let students know that there is more than one reasonable response.
  • When relevant, ask students questions that allow them to build upon their experiences, which can connect the content to their life and allow them to share their unique perspective.
  • The Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford provides recommendations for creating discussion questions. They recommend asking students questions that require analysis, comparing and contrasting, and exploring cause and effect. They discourage questions that are yes-no questions, unclear, or leading.

Reason:

  • If you ask students to answer questions that have multiple right answers, they can feel more confident in contributing.

Ask students how the class discussion could be improved to help develop an environment where students are comfortable and co-responsible for creating a good discussion.

Action:

  • Ask students for feedback on how the discussion is going. Students can provide this feedback in an anonymous online survey or in a short in-class survey.
  • Here are some questions you might include in a survey:
    • Do you find the class discussions interesting? (Likert responses)
    • Do you find the class discussions helpful to your learning? (Likert responses)
    • Do you feel comfortable contributing to the discussion? (Likert responses)
    • What are ways that I could improve your experience in class discussions? (Open ended responses)
    • What are ways that you could improve your experience in class discussion? (Open ended responses)
  • After you review students’ feedback, summarize the results to the class and discuss what changes you will and won’t make changes based upon their feedback and explain why.

Reason:

  • Students often have ideas for how discussion can be improved.
  • This can help students see themselves as responsible for the tone and content of the discussion. Including a question about what they can do to improve the discussion can additionally support this attitude.
  • Summarizing the feedback you receive and telling students what changes will make and why avoids students frustration of your seeking their advice and not taking it.. Make sure that students know you understood their feedback and when possible you will act on their suggestions.

Check in with students about their understanding by doing thumbs up/down polls to avoid assuming the most vocal students speak for all students.

Action:

  • Ask students a question and ask them to respond by voting thumbs up or thumbs down. You can also ask questions with 3 options (thumbs sideways) or a variable scale. For example, “Does this make sense? Thumbs up for yes and thumbs down for no.”
  • For questions about whether or not students understand a particular topic, it is safest to assume that non-voters are not sufficiently comfortable with the material.
  • You can dynamically adjust the class and/or your explanations based upon student feedback.

Reason:

  • It can be helpful to get frequent informal feedback from students to adjust the class pace or content.

Have students summarize the previous speaker’s comment to ensure better comprehension by everyone in the class.

Action:

  • Ask students to summarize the previous speaker’s statements before making their own.
  • Confirm with the previous speaker that they have appropriately summarized their points.

Reason:

  • This can ensure that they interpret their peers correctly, and that they build upon other students’ contributions.
  • As students are learning to articulate their ideas about the topic, the following feedback can be helpful: If they frequently need to clarify and correct others interpretation of their remarks, then it might be that they need to work on improving their clarity of expression.