Conducting Classroom Discussions

Planning and Leading Profitable Student Discussions

Fruitful discussions do not just “happen.” They are the products of concerned cooperative effort on the part of all participants. Moreover, discussions that result in learning have very specific characteristics. In order to make discussions as profitable as possible, it may be important to establish the purpose of discussion, ways to prepare for discussion, and ways to carry out a discussion.

(Please note: the following is an adaptation of material presented in Learning Through Discussion (1969, Sage Publications) by William Faucett Hill.)

Purpose of Discussion

In a classroom setting, the purpose of discussion is to stimulate greater or “deeper” learning of course material.

Sometimes everyone understands a particular topic, in which case it need not be discussed. Sometimes nobody understands, in which case the group should consult the instructor or text (or else move on if it is not a topic of particular importance or interest). More commonly, some understand a particular issue and others do not. When this is the situation, the conditions are ripe for a good discussion.

Sometimes those who thought they understood the material may find, while trying to explain it, that they don’t understand it as well as they thought. And by the same token, those who thought they didn’t understand it may, in the process of formulating their questions and attempting to pinpoint their difficulty, perceive the answers to their own questions. Note that the important elements are identifying what isn’t understood and formulating good questions.

Preparing for Discussion

The following three-phase discussion guideline can be adapted to help students prepare for discussion.

Phase I: What the author really said

Step 1. Briefly define all important terms and concepts. This will help insure that participants aren’t talking past one another by using terms with different meanings.

Step 2. Identify the major themes and key points of the text. Make special note of those that are relevant to the concerns of the course.

Step 3. State the author’s major and minor points in one’s own words.

Phase II: What participants think about the text

Step 4. Integrate the material with other knowledge. How does this material relate to the participants’ background knowledge? How does the new material contradict, substantiate, extend, or amplify important points developed in previous discussions or readings?

Step 5. Consider possible assumptions and implications of the text.

Step 6. Evaluate the author’s presentation. Don’t limit the evaluation to whether the author is dull or interesting. Instead, evaluate a given text on the basis of its argument. How does the author support his or her position? Is it convincing? Why or why not? Participants should try to isolate the reasons for their reactions. Here are some key topics and questions to consider:

  • How adequate is the text when considered just on its own merits (without comparison to other texts or theories)? Relevant points include clarity, internal consistency, supporting evidence, and analysis.
  • How adequate is the text when compared to other relevant texts or theories? For example, are reasonable alternative hypotheses adequately excluded? Do other kinds of relevant data exist and, if so, do they tend to support or refute the author’s contentions? Overall, how probable are each of the author’s key points?
  • How adequate is the author’s consideration of positive and negative consequences and implications? What other ones do you think should be taken into account? Taking account of these factors, which error should we try hardest to minimize, the error of believing the author’s main points when they are actually invalid (the error of credulity) or the error of rejecting the author’s main points when they are actually true (the error of skepticism)? How strongly should either error be minimized?
  • What is your position? Which, if any, of the author’s points are you willing to accept? What remaining questions do you have? In what particular ways and for what purposes is the text effective, ineffective, valuable, appropriate, etc.?

Phase III: Evaluation of Discussion

(Students have nothing to prepare except to know that they will be evaluating the performance of the group on the quality of its discussion.)

See also our page on Critical Reading.

Conducting a Discussion

It may be helpful to discuss the roles different students play in group discussions and to have some ground rules to minimize negative or dysfunctional roles. It may also be helpful to guide the discussion with questions similar to those presented in the “preparation” stage.

Establishing Roles

Before considering important roles, let’s consider some roles that may be considered “dysfunctional” or “negative.” Individuals who play up their own areas of special knowledge may divert discussion from areas in which they feel shaky to ones in which they can shine. Dominating students consistently hold the floor without giving others who may be less aggressive a chance to speak. Students who fail to listen carefully to each other or who fail to provide adequate transitions between their points and the previous discussion may contribute to a chain of monologues (instead of a discussion). If some participants are particularly aggressive or competitive, some students may become intimidated, leaving the shy students’ questions unanswered and their potentially valuable comments unheard. However, if some participants are consistently silent, particularly if they are also inattentive or visibly uninvolved, they may dampen the discussion as a whole. More active participants may then feel a burden of excessive responsibility. Students who horse around or joke may effectively break tension at some points, but if students joke too much they will sidetrack the discussion. Excessive apologizing may also sidetrack discussion.

Now let’s consider the roles that are necessary for the group to work. Each participant should perform the following roles some of the time, even if each member carries out some roles more than others.

Roles that contribute to fruitful discussion of a particular topic:
  1. Initiating discussion: breaking an initial or interim silence by introducing a possible topic for group consideration.
  2. Asking for and giving information.
  3. Asking for and giving reactions.
  4. Restating in one’s own words another person’s comments and giving examples.
  5. Comparing ideas.
  6. Clarifying, synthesizing, and summarizing ideas.
Roles that contribute to functioning of the group:
  1. Gatekeeping: spreading participation by encouraging those who have not recently spoken and by discouraging those who have monopolized the discussion. (A student might be assigned to the role of gatekeeper for a particular discussion.)
  2. Timekeeping: Pacing the discussion so that important questions are addressed. (Again, a student might be assigned to the role of timekeeper.)
Roles that contribute to the creation of a positive atmosphere:
  1. Sponsoring and encouraging positive discussion.
  2. Listening closely.
  3. Relieving tension with appropriate humor.