Can We Discuss This?

Rob Weir offers tips for leading discussion-based courses.

September 9, 2009

You’ve got to love academia’s ironic practice of tossing graduate students and inexperienced professors into discussion groups and symposia. Even seasoned hands often find leading discussion-based classes quite challenging. They run counter to our training: responsibility is in the hands of non-experts (students), agendas are fungible, concrete data is elusive, and outcomes are unpredictable.

Don’t despair; student-centered classes are generally more rewarding than presentation-style counterparts. The smaller rosters give the professor a chance to get to know students, be astonished by them, and learn from them. Skillfully done discussions empower students, make the proverbial light bulbs snap on with the greatest regularity, and force students to plumb the intricacies of a subject rather than just trying to figure out your grading angle. The trick for leaders is getting the hang of them.

By way of negation, here’s what discussion groups should not be:

  • They are not extra lectures. If the discussion group supplements a lecture — common in 100-level classes — do not treat it as a supplement to the lecture, a place to share your research, or opportunity to “catch up” when you get behind. Graduate students and new hires often try to establish credibility or assert their expertise in discussion groups. Let that happen organically. Group cohesion is fostered when you step back, not when you step up.
  • Discussion groups are not drill sections. Remember those 2 x 2= 4 rote exercises from elementary school? They were perhaps useful, but group chanting is not the same as group dynamics. If you turn your college discussion group into an endless drill session on facts, terminology, names, equations, formulae, or what have you, attendance will plummet, especially among the brighter students who could make discussions lively. Fields such as math, engineering, biology, computer science, and physics hold optional (and occasional) exam prep and study sections in addition to discussion groups. The rest of us can score big points with students by emulating that wise model instead of trying to incorporate these tasks into discussion groups.
  • Discussion is not group interrogation. Equally misguided is using a discussion group to check up on students to "make sure" they’re doing their work. You can do that via assignments to be handed in, but do not make discussion an environment in which students feel embarrassed, harassed, or chastised. Using a lab, study group, or discussion as a teacher-led verbal quiz session is bad pedagogy. It confuses what students temporarily memorize with what they truly understand, and what they don't comprehend with lack of diligence. Discussion groups should be places where students can question and explore, not feel like they’re under pressure to perform.
  • Discussions, labs, and study groups are not “one fewer class preparation.” I once taught at an institution whose faculty sought to reduce the teaching load to provide more time for research. Trustees balked, so faculty did an end run by de-coupling lectures from discussion sessions. They congratulated themselves for a brilliant maneuver in “double counting,” but they could not have been more deluded. If you treat a discussion group as anything less than a separate course, you’re not devoting enough time and probably won’t be very good at it. This holds equally true with upper-level symposia classes. If you think that all you will do is sit back and let students do the work, you’re going to be disappointed.

So let’s turn attention to good practices:

  1. In any class (other than a symposium) that is clearly discussion-based, create a separate syllabus for discussion. This is especially crucial for discussions led by someone other than the lecturer. The syllabus need not be elaborate, but it should give the discussion leader’s contact information, a statement about expectations, the criteria used to assess student performance, and policies on late work, absences, tardiness, non-involvement, and academic dishonesty.
  2. Structure discussions to maximize student involvement. Wise leaders do not assume that students will come to discussion prepared; they develop ways to assure it! An assignment to be handed in is a tried-and-true method, especially one designed to kick off the discussion. I often post three provocative questions on the class Web site, require students to write 1-2 pages on any one of them, and then ask those same questions in class. There are many other ways to get students involved: divide the class into subgroups and have them work on a problem, play devil’s advocate and pose a controversial question, have students perform an experiment and debrief it, introduce some form of (brief) media and discuss it, do an in-class simulation or role play (the easier-to-set-up, the better), brainstorm (and write down responses somewhere accessible to all), create “buzz groups” to give immediate reactions to an issue or situation, assign and rotate student discussion leaders….
  3. Make discussion a place where it’s safe to take “chances.” Let your students know that you value thoughtfulness and collective thought. Acknowledge each contribution and give positive feedback for as much as possible, especially “wrong” answers that show reflection. Tell students upfront that discussion is where we should make mistakes and admit what they don’t know, the goal being to gain clarity before a graded evaluation occurs. (I often reinforce this by confessing my own mixed thoughts on a topic and asking for help to revise my thinking.)
  4. Ask the right kind of questions and in the right amount! Ask open-ended questions that encourage a detailed response. As a historian, I seldom ask for the date of when something occurred, but I often ask why the event was significant, what the event made students think of, how they predict it plays out over time, what it reminds them of, etc. Though I hate to say it, it’s still true that female students like affective questions, so I ask students what they feel about certain events. You can’t leave matters on that level, but the magic of discussion is that once thoughts begin to flow, students are more receptive to probing deeper. Prepare enough questions for the class. I generally have 7 to 10 for each hour of undergraduate discussion. (As the old joke goes, it’s usually enough to hint at a question to get an hour of discussion from grad students!)
  5. Embrace silence. This is hard — five seconds of dead air seems like an eternity. Don’t panic; wait! It’s even more uncomfortable for students and if you’re patient one of them will respond. If you fill the space you’ll go into lecture mode without even realizing it. If the silence continues too long, try asking the question a different way, perhaps after a self-deprecating remark such as “Wow! Guess that wasn’t one of my more brilliant questions.” Humor is a wonderful icebreaker. One of my favorites is to break the silence with a “Great! Who’d like to add to that?” Then move on and do something different: a new question, an exercise, or whatever.
  6. Seize teaching moments. The smartest thing a discussion leader can do is get out of the way when students are excited. Have an agenda, but don’t be married to it. I might prepare ten questions, but if my students are running with one of them and legitimate learning is taking place, I’m happy to give up breadth for depth. And by all means, seize those wonderful moments in which students make connections that you didn’t foresee. I recall a planned discussion on 19th century social class back when the movie The Titanic was popular. A casual student remark about the film opened the floodgates and — thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio — we ended up looking at immigration statistics, actuarial tables, and wage data in far more detail than my lesson would have yielded. Don’t be afraid to trash your plan and go where student minds take you.
  7. Sum up. The end of the class is when you should slip back into the information-giving role. We want students to remember having had a good class but, above all, we want them to consider the content. Impose order on the free-flowing chaos by making summative statements. I find it useful to scribble short notes during discussion and improvise a one- or two-minute summary of what we discussed. If we’re lucky we can even slip in suggestions about what else students should consult.

In the next column I’ll take a look at what to do when things go wrong!

For Further Reading:

1. Business majors often design “focus groups.” Leading one is similar to any other discussion group, but remarks specific to focus groups can be reviewed here.

2. The University of Oregon provides some tips (though I disagree with the presentation references in it):

3. One of the better sets of all-purpose guidelines for facilitating discussion is that of the American Heart Association.

4. Tulane University has some tips for those leading graduate-level discussions on science journal articles.

5. Tips from Indiana University.


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