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: Facilitating a Coherent Discussion
Facilitating In-Class Discussions: Picking Good Discussion Topics
Facilitating In-Class Discussions: Working with Quiet Students

Look for common problems that arise in class discussions to determine which intervention is best.

Action:

  • Common issues that may arise during classroom discussions and suggestions for how to deal with them
    • No one is talking or it is hard to get people talking.
      • Craft your discussion prompt carefully (see related tips).
      • Put your discussion prompt on the screen or write it on the board.
      • Give students some private think time before asking for responses. If a question is worth discussing, then it is worth thinking about before speaking
      • Be comfortable with silence. Don’t continually repeat and rephrase your question, since this might just confuse students.
      • Try “think pair share” (See related tip)
    • Serious disagreement occurs and there are hurt feelings.
      • Encourage students who have hurt feelings to say “ouch” or point out that the disagreement has caused hurt feelings.
      • If the student who is hurt isn’t speaking up, you might say “If I put myself in the position of ___, I think I would be hurt by what you just said because ___.”
      • Encourage students to ask clarifying questions of each other, or model it for them: “Can you clarify what you meant when you said ___?”
      • Be careful not to ignore the hurt feelings as that can signal that you don’t really care about the hurt feelings. The first step is to get the person who caused the hurt to acknowledge that hurt was caused–separate intent from impact to avoid the student from becoming defensive.
    • A student is not cooperative and doesn’t follow the ground rules.
      • Assuming that everyone has already listened to the ground rules and agreed to them, then the first time this occurs, refer back to the ground rules and check that everyone understands and agrees to them.
      • If a student still doesn’t cooperate, consider meeting with the student after class to discuss whether s/he understands and agrees to the ground rules and what is motivating their behavior. If the student doesn’t agree to the ground rules, ask the student to contribute alterantive ground rules that everyone could live with.
    • A student is quiet or non-participatory.
      • Don’t assume reasons for the student’s non-participation. It could be because the student is sick or is preoccupied by something completely unrelated to the course.
      • During class you can always say “We’ve heard a lot from certain people today and I’m wondering if we can create space for other people who haven’t spoken yet to make their voices heard.”
      • If you are concerned, you can always speak to the student after class, but again, don’t assume too much about what is going on. Ask if there is anything you could have done to encourage him/her to speak more in class.

Reason:

Establish as a classroom norm that you will occasionally interrupt and refocus the class discussion to create a shared expectations about the importance of keeping the class on track.

Action:

  • Explain how class discussion will be structured. See example discussion norms from Becky Wai-Ling Packard of Mount Holyoke and guidelines drawn from workshops by Harvard University Professor John Johnson and Harvey Mudd Associate Dean for Diversity Sumun Pendakur.
  • During the first day class session, tell students that you may interrupt the discussion to make sure that there is time to discuss all of the important topics during class.
  • Remind them of this at the beginning class the first few weeks of the semester.

Reason:

  • Sometimes students’ contributions are too long-winded. By establishing this classroom norm, you can more easily keep the discussion moving without this being negatively misinterpreted by the students.

Ask students to raise their hands rather than shouting out contributions to enable you to call on students who contribute less often.

Action:

  • When establishing norms for classroom discussions on the first day of class, ask students to raise their hands rather than shouting contributions.
  • Tell students that you’ll wait to see at least a certain number of hands up before calling on anyone.
  • You can call on students who have volunteered, but who typically contribute less often.
  • Explain your reason for employing this technique to students.
  • If you sometimes want them to raise their hands and other times shout shout out the answer, make clear to them when each is appropriate.

Reason:

  • Faculty expectations for students vary and there is no way for students to know the norm unless it is explicit.
  • This can help ensure that all students have the opportunity to think through a problem you pose before someone says an answer.

Ask everyone to wait for a certain number of other students to speak before speaking again to reduce a few students from monopolizing the discussion.

Action:

  • Ask students to wait for a specific number of students to speak before speaking again. This number will depend upon the class size and you may decided to change this number during the semester.

Reason:

  • Supporting students in limiting how much they speak can help all students in your class have the opportunity to contribute to in class discussion.

Meet with oversharers to help oversharers monitor their participation.

Action:

  • You can initiate conversations with oversharers by asking them if they can stay after class or come to office hours.
  • Express acknowledgement and appreciation for the student’s enthusiasm for the class.
  • Express concern that this reduces the opportunity for other students to participate.
  • State clearly that to create space for other voices in the classroom you would like the oversharer to contribute less in class and more after class, in office hours, over email, or whatever your preference is.
  • Discuss together what number of contributions might be appropriate. If their number is too high, point out that this does not sufficiently allow for enough other voices to enter the conversation.
  • Once you and the student agree on a number of contributions per class, state explicitly that you want them to only make that number of contributions.
  • Ask the student if they think it will be difficult to contribute only that number of times. If they anticipate that this will be very difficult for them, ask them what you could do to help them.

Reason:

  • In many cases students don’t realize that they are behaving inappropriately and it can be helpful to have a conversation with them outside of class so as to minimize embarrassment. Specific, quantified expectations will remove any confusion oversharers have regarding how much to participate.
  • Supporting students in limiting how much they speak can help all students in your class have the opportunity to contribute to in class discussion.