While many instructors inherently realize the potential value of classroom
discussions, they often fail to orchestrate them in a way that students'
minds are effectively engaged in course learning objectives. Just to refresh
our approach to this critical tool, classroom discussions potentially
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
- 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
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.
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