In the paper Effective Classroom Discussions, Kansas State professor emeritus William E. Cashin provides some helpful tips on planning, moderating and reflecting on classroom discussion. At large colleges and universities, students find themselves taking lecture-based classes quite often–ones in which the professor speaks to the students, while the students sit, listen and take notes. However, Cashin argues that class discussions–where the instructor speaks with the students–can provide many things that lectures cannot:
Discussion allows students to improve communication skills by voicing their opinions and thoughts, while clarifying and reinforcing important concepts. It allows students to participate in a conversation, prompting more active learning and engagement. This helps get students excited about learning. Additionally, students are exposed new thoughts and ways of thinking from those with different experiences from their own, broadening the students’ perspectives and understanding.
Instructors benefit from discussion as well. Conducting a class discussion allows instructors to see if students are grasping the important concepts that are being taught. This gives them material to reflect upon, and could help with further developing a teaching style. Like students, instructors are also exposed to new thoughts they may not have considered before. A class discussion fosters an environment where everyone learns from each other.
There are many benefits to class discussions, but there are also some drawbacks. One of the most common is the higher chance of distraction and getting off-topic during class. A discussion open to the class can quickly stray from the course material. Although students and instructors alike may find this to be entertaining, focus on topics outside of course content is class time wasted. Instructors may also encounter the issue of students unwilling to participate, or a few students dominating the entire conversation.
The good news is that these drawbacks can be eliminated through planning and strategy on the instructors part. Cashin provides some helpful tips for instructors in the last half of the paper on how to prevent distractions and maximize benefits of class discussions:
- Get to know your students as people. Make an effort to learn students’ backgrounds in order to know where they are coming from. Talk to them personally inside or outside of class. If you use Blackboard, have students post introductions to the Blackboard discussion board during the first week of class.
- Prepare well before the discussion. Think ahead about how you will facilitate the discussion: think of questions, anecdotes, and possible directions the discussion could take. Make sure you have several ways of explaining important concepts, and provide examples (videos, illustrations, diagrams) if necessary. Not only should you prepare yourself, but prepare your students by making sure they have all resources necessary to participate in the discussion (class readings, background information, etc.)
- Act as a facilitator for the discussion. For a successful discussion, it is the instructors duty to facilitate by asking questions, listening to students, mediate disagreements, and continuously summarize findings and conclusions up to a point in the conversation. Answer all students as best as you can. If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it and look into potential answers during a class break or before the next class.
- Observe and Reflect. Pay attention to which students are speaking while making sure no one student is dominating the conversation. Encourage students who haven’t spoken to voice their thoughts or questions. Take notes during the discussion, and reflect on how the class went. Use this information to improve future class discussions, and share your findings with your students during the next class.
Class discussions are not appropriate for every course, honestly. At UW Bothell, we have small class sizes and most courses include an element of participatory discussion. However, at other, larger institutions with larger class sizes, class discussion may not be practical or an option at all. Still, discussions can be an interesting and beneficial way for instructors and students to step out of their comfort zone and are interesting to try if you haven’t before.