Class discussions can be utilized in seminar and lecture courses, and their variety allows instructors to fit particular strategies to class needs. This flexibility stems largely from grounding in Vygotskyian social learning theory, which emphasizes knowledge and conceptual gain through peer-to-peer dialogue. Vygotsky understood peers to coexist in the “zone of proximal development,” where knowledge could be shared and misconceptions clarified through dialogue (Vygotsky, 1962). Moreover, this kind of semi-public dialogue can also facilitate better oral / speaking skills and human reasoning (Hollander, 2002).
When an instructor effectively facilitates rich discussion in class, their students are more apt to build upon the existing knowledge frameworks they continue to develop, and achieve better learning outcomes. One study suggests that students prefer the intimacy of small group discussion over whole-group discussion (Fox-Cardamone et. al, 2002); instructors should consider group work and other activities that integrate both practices, and evaluate the preferences and needs of their specific classes.
Class discussions can take on a variety of forms:
- Socratic Seminar - In a Socratic seminar, the instructor asks open-ended questions that encourage students to think critically about the course material, often a particular text or reading.
- Fishbowl - In this modified Socratic seminar, students take turns actively participating in the discussion and serving in the role of listeners. The inner circle consists of the active participants in the discussion. The outer circle consists of observers. All class members (whether in the inner or outer circle) are assigned a particular task such as the completion of a worksheet. The instructor does not participate in the discussion and only interjects when necessary.
- Jigsaw - A jigsaw helps students become experts on a particular topic and share their knowledge with fellow students. Students are first divided into small groups. Each group discusses and learns more on a particular topic. These students are then re-shuffled to create new groups with representatives from each previous group. In these new groups, each student is responsible for sharing key aspects of their original discussion. The second group must synthesize and use all of the ideas in order to complete a new or more advanced task. Instructors can refer to The Jigsaw Classroom, an online site with practical steps and strategies for implementing jigsaw activities.
- Think-Pair-Share - Think-Pair-Share is also a useful way to generate discussion. Students work individually on an active learning assignment or formative assessment activity such as a one-minute paper, example problem or other topic (Think). Students then compare their responses with a partner and synthesize a joint solution (Pair). Some pairs share with the entire class (Share). This method helps increase the frequency of responses from quiet members of the class.
- Prepare a structure - Because class discussion can be less controlled, instructors should have clear expectations for themselves and for students about topics to cover. Instructors might develop several key big-picture questions to ask at the beginning of class and have groups answer by the end of class. Part of a solid discussion structure also includes explicit details defining participation and grading.
- Regulate the discussion - Instructors should feel free to insert themselves into conversation in order to keep conversation on track. Students especially appreciate this tactic when a few students monopolize conversation. After ensuring that groups are functioning well, instructors can invite especially talkative students to continue conversation after class or in office hours.
- Address inequity in participation - Instructors should be aware when students of particular gender, race, class, or abilities are systematically marginalized in class. Instructors can refer to inclusive class climate for strategies to ensure that all students are enable to participate. To this end, instructors can set ground rules for discussion in the syllabus, or invite students to help formulate class rules.
- Give quieter students time to answer questions - Instructors can consider strategies for ensuring that students have time to formulate answers, and that quieter students have alternative opportunities to enter discussion. In class, instructors can allocate a few minutes for students to think about their answers to a question, and then have them discuss with a partner (see think-pair-share above). Additionally, instructors can email out a worksheet with key ideas which students should be prepared to define or explain in class, or a list of conceptual terms and ideas for students to chew on before and after class.
- Model active listening - The behavior of an instructor plays a huge role in the tone of a class. Instructors should regularly show appreciation for student comments, substantively responding to them by fleshing out good ideas and pushing back on flawed arguments. Additionally, instructors can encourage students to build on each other’s ideas.
- Consider active learning - While discussion is a form of active learning, instructors can consider other activities and tools like note cards and surveys, role playing and performance, or debate that engage all students in their given groups.
The downloads section (bottom) features a printable handout version of this web page.
Discussions, Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center
Small Groups and Discussions, from Stanford Teaching Commons.
Leading Discussions, from Harvard’s Bok Center for Teaching and Learning
Fostering a Culture of Valuing Different Ways of Thinking, Harvard, Instructional Moves
Fox-Cardamone, L, and Rue, S. (2002). Students’ Responses to Active-Learning Strategies: An Examination of Small-Group and Whole-Group Discussion. Research for Educational Reform 8 (3): 3-15.
Hollander, J. (2002). Learning to Discuss: Strategies for Improving the Quality of Class Discussion. Teaching Sociology 30 (3): 317-327.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in 1934).