Orchestrating Classroom Discussions

We inherently realize that students learn most effectively when their minds are more regularly engaged in our learning goals. When effectively conducted, classroom discussions enable students to:

  • Apply information delivered through instructor-directed methodologies such as lecture, video presentation, and guest speakers.
  • Evaluate the validity of their previously held beliefs.
  • Analyze the perspectives of their increasingly diverse classmates.
  • Synthesize concepts learning in other environments.
  • Evaluate the evidence and logic of others against their own beliefs.
  • Obtain feedback from their professor and peers for their insights.
  • Gain motivation for further study of issues brought into the discussion.

As we know, effective discussions don't just happen - they must be orchestrated by a sensitized listener who protects the ideas and dignity of students. The following should be useful in your efforts to achieve more worthwhile discussions in your class:

  • Early in the term - at the first class meeting, if possible - conduct some problem solving in groups of 2 or 3 students. Over time, expand group size, as problems become more complex.
  • Establish clear ground rules for discussions that foster validation of all opinions, civility, and participation from all students.
  • Through an icebreaker, name tents, and other activities, ensure that students know one other's name and understand something of each other's background.
  • Monitor ground rules and achievement of learning goals, intervening with refocusing and clarifying questions - either rhetorical or didactic - when necessary.
  • Scan the entire group and encourage participation from those at opposite locations within the classroom, fostering a more dynamic and inclusive atmosphere.
  • Avoid calling on those whose body language communicates they are clearly not engaged - it will only stifle their later participation. Instead talk with them individually after class, assess, and encourage.
  • Be very reluctant to directly criticize an "incorrect" student response, or to provide the "best" answer. Instead clarify in a non-threatening way, and perhaps ask if someone else "sees it another way."
  • When discussion bogs down, clarify, summarize, and add additional support information before moving on.
  • Close discussions positively by asking if someone would like "the final word" or by connecting the outcome of the discussion to course objectives.

Like so many teaching and learning activities, orchestrating discussions - live or online - is a balancing act between the costs of time and potential learning benefits. To ensure the greatest reward, always plan effectively with your learning goals foremost in your mind.

Many professors report frustration in their efforts to foster worthwhile, serious discussions during their class meetings.

Shop on line at Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble to get your copy of Dr. Lyons' book, The Adjunct Professor's Guide to Success: Surviving and Thriving in the College Classroom.

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