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Discussion Leading

Why Use Discussion in the Classroom?

The following are some reasons why you should consider using group discussion in your classroom:

Research shows that students learn best by doing. Students have better retention of course material when they figure out the answers to problems on their own, rather than being told the answers.

Group discussions help students develop their verbal skills. When interacting with others, students learn to express their opinions, explain their positions, defend their positions, think on their feet and hear other people's opinions.

When participating in a group discussion, students can learn that other people may think and feel differently than they do. By watching the instructor's acceptance of various views, students can see that it is all right for people to have different opinions. Students may learn that there may be more than one answer to a problem. Discussion can help them broaden their thinking about themselves and their view of the world.

Classes are more interesting for both the instructor and the students when students have the opportunity to talk. Often, group discussions bring classes closer together because members establish rapport with one another and reach into the affective, as well as the cognitive, learning domains.

Participating in a class discussion can be a nice change of pace. The classroom may become noisy, lively, and/or provide the opportunity to have fun while still getting course information covered.

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Words of Wisdom

  • Preparing for a Group Discussion
    Careful preparation is essential to a successful group discussion. The following steps can help guide your preparation.
    • Begin by writing the lesson's objectives. What do you want students to accomplish as a result of the discussion? One goal might be that you want everyone in the class to talk. In another setting, you might pose a problem that has a specific answer, and the purpose of this discussion would be for your students to arrive at that answer.
    • Prepare a list of discussion questions. Start with short, relatively easy questions at the literal level so that students will feel comfortable answering them. Literal questions about a video would be things like: "What did you see?" Then work up to a more complex question like: "How can we apply the information from the textbook to this situation?"
    • Write down some notes about what responses you are looking for. You can use these to help guide the discussion.
    • Write out a conclusion for the discussion. Group discussions need closure before you dismiss class; otherwise, some students may leave without understanding what the purpose of the discussion was and what conclusions can be drawn by the activity.
    • Discuss with your students what the ground rules of a class discussion should be prior to the actual discussion. Many students don't know the rules of behaving in a class discussion. You might want to let your class develop their own ground rules.
  • Group Rules for Class Discussions
    The quality of the discussions you hold in your classes will improve if you establish some rules at the beginning of the course. You might want to put these in written form and also discuss them orally in class. Here are some items you may want to include:
    • Come to class prepared. If there was an assignment to be completed, it's fair game for me to call on you during class.
    • Make sure your comments are relevant. If you are responding to something another member of the class has said, make sure your comment follows logically.
    • Listen carefully. Don't interrupt someone who is talking. Always be prepared to give a summary of what someone just said.
    • Ask for clarification when you don't understand a fellow student's point.
    • Explain your position when you are challenged.
    • Be willing to change your mind if someone points out an error in your reasoning or your use of facts.
  • Suggestions for Using Group Discussion
    • Use it at your first class meeting. If you want to use group discussion as a teaching technique throughout the entire course, start using it early in the course. You'll be setting an example for the rest of the semester and letting your students know they'll be expected to speak in class.
    • Encourage your students to be prepared. One reason students don't respond to questions is that they've come to class unprepared. Explain the importance of being prepared. If this continues to be a problem, you might give a short (5-10 point) quiz at the beginning of the class. Students will usually prepare for class when there are points involved.
    • Learn to wait for your students to answer. Silence provides students with time to think. Don't hinder the discussion by jumping in too soon and answering your own questions.
    • Stay noncommittal in your reactions to students' answers. If a student seems to answer fairly confidently, you might try playing devil's advocate to see if the student will defend his/her position. If you've posed a problem that has more than one solution, you can simply say, "Would anybody do it differently?"
    • Encourage all students to participate.
      • Call on students by name. This is especially effective if you think a student knows the answer and is just too shy to speak up. Often your quietest students have the best things to say.
      • Recognize contributions to the discussion with praise, such as "fine," "good," "that's interesting," and nonverbal cues such as a smile, hand gesture or a nod of the head.
      • Watch for cues signaling students have something on their minds. For example, a frown on a student's face might indicate the student disagrees with the opinion being expressed. Ask the student if this is the case.
    • Prevent one or two strong individuals from dominating the discussion. Stand so, as you address the class, the dominating student is out of your line of sight. Say things like "Let's hear from some others."
    • Make sure students treat each other with respect. Try to ensure that no one puts another person down and no one interrupts the person who is talking.
    • Encourage your students to explain their thoughts. When a student gives a one-word answer to a question, ask them to expand their answer. You might say: "What do you mean by that?" or "Could you give an example?"
    • Have students work in small discussion groups. If your class is too large to conduct a total class group discussion, have students discuss your questions in small groups. Give them a set goal and a set time limit.
    • Provide closure. Sometimes there's so much information flowing back and forth during a discussion that the students need you to tell them what you wanted them to learn. Don't let your students leave class frustrated and unclear about the purpose of the session. Debrief and summarize what was covered.
    Discussions can be powerful learning activities when you have a well-thought out instructional plan. Don't use discussions as a substitute if you haven't prepared a lecture for that day. Whatever you do, don't be like the instructor who shows a video and then says "What did you think?"