Welcome to Teaching and Learning Matters. This is Dr. Maria Yon from the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Our topic for today is classroom discussion—when to use it as a teaching strategy and how to plan for effective discussions. First off, discussion can be used to break up a lengthy lecture. This allows students to work with the content and test out their understanding as well as to be more engaged in the lesson. Furthermore, it gives you a chance to informally assess their understanding. Besides using discussion in conjunction with lecture, it is often used as the primary strategy.
When might discussion be the best strategy? Discussion is best used when the goal is to increase higher-level thinking skills such as problem solving. Some examples are: analyzing a piece of literature or historical event, examining current social or political issues, solving a real-world problem or case study.
Through discussion, students gain practice in thinking through problems, formulating arguments and making counterarguments, and responding critically to diverse points of view. They can compare their thinking to that of others and self-evaluate. Finally, learning to communicate effectively in a public setting prepares them for the workplace.
Preparing for a discussion is different from preparing for a lecture. You have less control over the content. You can’t be sure where students will take the discussion. You have less control over how much time will be spent on a topic. Students may be particularly motivated and you don’t want to stop them. Or the discussion needs to continue so that students have the time to develop understanding. It requires you to make on-the-spot decisions about when to interject with questions or comments. Bad timing or the wrong comment can impede the discussion or shut it down. So, planning for a discussion requires a different kind of planning than planning for a lecture.
The first step in planning for a discussion is preparing the students. At the beginning of the term help students understand how discussion will enhance their learning. Explain your expectations of them such as being prepared for class and following the ground rules for participation. If students will be graded on participation, have that in your syllabus and discuss it as well.
Now, let’s talk about your own planning. The first thing is to decide which class sessions lend themselves to discussion. Then, decide what you will have students do to prepare, whether it’s to answer a set of questions, solve a problem, write a response to a reading, and so forth. Next, plan how you will start the discussion.
Here are some ideas: refer to the study questions by asking them to the whole class or having students pair up before answering, pose an opening question and give students a few minutes to write down an answer, ask students to write an event in their own lives that pertains to the topic, pose a controversial question, have students tell you the key points in the reading and list them on the board for discussion. It’s usually helpful to ask students to share something they found confusing or difficult and have a discussion around those points.
Finally, bring closure to the discussion by summarizing key points, letting students make final comments, and answering any questions or letting students write down any questions they have. Responding to these is a good way to begin the next class session.
I hope you have found this helpful for leading effective discussions. Tune in again and remember—teaching and learning matters.