Discussion

Discussion is a group of people talking through a common question or problem for the purpose of gaining new insights and generating new questions. The power of discussion comes from participants engaging with the course content, with each other, and with their own understanding of the material.

Prep

Arrange the room to allow for easy conversation as best you can.
  • This may simply mean allowing students turn around, move seats, or even leave their seats to sit in different parts of the room.
  • If you will have one large group discussion, arrange the chairs in a circle, if possible.
  • Essentially, each person in the group should be able to make eye contact and clearly hear the others in his/her group.
Ensure the section has established agreed­upon norms for talking and listening.
  • Take a few minutes before the activity to create discussion norms for the group. You can list them or have the section generate them. If you use discussion frequently enough, these norms do not have to be created every time. However, it is useful to revisit them occasionally to make sure they are still working.
  • Common norms include:
  • Be conscious of airtime; do not dominate the conversation.
  • Everyone should participate.
  • Disagree about ideas, not people; avoid personal attacks.
  • Comments should build upon each other; pay attention to what’s being said (aka “active listening”).
  • Stay focused on the prompt; avoid off­topic conversations.
  • Use the course content to support ideas.
Optional: Break the section into small groups.
  • Depending on the size of your section or the content, you may want to keep your section together. Otherwise you could split the section into duos or trios.
Set time limits.
  • It is important to let your section know how long the discussion will go inadvance.The larger the group, the more time you must provide to make sure everyone has a chance to participate.

During

Present clear, simple, and open­ended question(s) for the group to discuss.
  • For the first few times, it is recommended that you craft one or two topics for the groups to discuss. Once they are used to the practice, you might have the class create the questions
    • However, this should only happen if the students are able to get at the pertinent questions on their own. If not, be sure to come to class with your questions prepared. When you want students to generate their own questions, they can use protocols such as The 4 A’sor Peeling the Onion.
  • Some possible prompts include:

    • What is the argument being presented? Do you agree or disagree with it?
    • How does the content apply to your experience in a particular context?
    • How does the content apply to what has been presented in class thus far
Actively listen to the conversation to get a sense of what is being discussed.
  • Especially in the beginning, pay close attention to what is being discussed. It allows you to see what grasped the students’ attention, and gauge what they do not understand.
  • Be a facilitator of the conversation, pushing students’ thinking by asking new guiding questions and prompting students to elaborate where appropriate.
  • Be ready to interrupt if the conversation goes off­course or if norms are not being followed. Also, feel free to correct the conversation if a major point is being missed or misrepresented.
  • Beyond making corrections and pushing the conversation forward, try to avoid engaging in the conversation; this is their time to process the learning. This is especially true when the students are working in small groups.
Keep track of time.
  • You will need to be the timekeeper, especially if students are deeply engaged in the conversation.
  • Make sure to give 10­ and 5­minute warnings, so they can regulate their conversation. This is particularly important when students are working in small groups and may be having discussions at different speeds.
  • If you get the sense that the group(s) are still engaged in the discussion and time allows, feel free to give them five to 10 extra minutes.

After

Bring everyone together for a debrief.
  • If necessary, make sure everyone ends their independent conversations once the discussion time has ended.
  • Ask the section to share one or two major takeaways from the discussions. Document the main ideas in some way. Alternatively you can ask students to silently summarize key ideas through a written reflection, which could either be passed in or kept for themselves.
  • Ask students about the process of the small­group discussion. What was good about it? How could it be improved? Document students’ suggestions and try to incorporate them for the next time.

CLICK HERE FOR A PRINTER FRIENDLY VERSION

Written by Lauren Britt­Elmore
Doctoral Candidate, Higher Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education

Prep

Ensure that the class has established agreed­upon norms for talking and listening.
  • Take a few minutes before the activity to create discussion norms for the groups. This can be done in many ways: you can list them, have the whole class generate them, or give time for the small groups to create them. If you use discussion frequently enough, these norms do not have to be created every time. However, it is useful to revisit them occasionally to make sure they are still working for the groups.
  • Common norms include:
  • Be conscious of airtime; do not dominate the conversation.
  • Everyone should participate.
  • Disagree about ideas, not people; avoid personal attacks.
  • Comments should build upon each other; pay attention to what’s being said (aka “active listening”).
  • Stay focused on the prompt; avoid off­topic conversations.
  • Use the course content to support ideas.
Break the class into small groups.
  • Depending on the size of the class, the size of the groups can vary. They shouldn’t be larger than 10 people, and not smaller than four people.
Arrange the room to allow for easy conversation as best you can.
  • This may simply mean allowing students turn around, move seats, or even leave their seats to sit in different parts of the room.
  • Essentially, each person in the group should be able to make eye contact and clearly hear the others in his/her group.
Set time limits.
  • It is important to let groups know how much time they have in advance. Depending on the depth of the questions and the size of the groups, time can vary from 10 to 30 minutes. The larger the groups, the more time you must provide to make sure everyone has a chance to participate.

During

Present clear, simple, and open­ended question(s) for the group to discuss.
  • For the first few times, it is recommended that you craft one or two topics for the groups to discuss. Once they are used to the practice, you can have the class create the questions.
  • Some possible prompts include:
    • What is the argument being presented? Do you agree or disagree with it?
    • How does the content apply to your experience in a particular context?
    • How does the content apply to what has been presented in class thus far?
  • When you want students to generate their own questions, they can use protocols such as The 4 A’s​or ​Peeling the Onion​.
Float among groups to get a sense of what is being discussed.
  • Especially in the beginning, walk around the space and noticeably, but silently, listen to the conversations. This communicates to the groups you are holding them accountable to stay on task and follow the norms. It also gives you an understanding of what parts of the content grasp the attention of the students.

Keep track of time.
  • You will need to be the timekeeper, especially if students are engaged in the conversation.
  • Make sure to give 10­ and 5­minute warnings, so they regulate their conversation.
  • If you get the sense that groups are still engaged in the discussion, and time allows, feel free to give groups five to 10 minutes extra.

After

Bring the groups back together for a whole class debrief.
  • Once the discussion time is over, make sure everyone ends their independent conversations and returns to the whole class space.
  • Ask the class to share one or two major takeaways from the discussions. Document the main ideas in some way. Alternatively you can ask students to silently summarize key ideas through a written reflection, which could either be passed in or kept for themselves.
  • Ask students about the process of the small­group discussion. What was good about it? How could it be improved? Document students’ suggestions and try to incorporate them for the next time.

 

Written by Lauren Britt­Elmore
Doctoral Candidate, Higher Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education

Discussion is “the effort of a group of individuals who talk informally together in order to solve commonly recognized problems or to arrive at an understanding of values (Walter & Scott, 1966, p. 186). Although bearing a long history and used extensively in all types of educational settings, permeating through various teaching methods, discussion rose to the focus of research and practice fairly recently, having been overshadowed by teacher talk, which dominated classroom activity until late 1980s.

Today’s educational literature continues to explore discussion as a close parallel of cooperative learning, where students of all levels of performance work together in groups to achieve a common goal (Garside, 1996). In discussions, students “compare existing ideas and opinions, generate new ones, and pursue questions of personal interest” in order to explore concepts rather than discovering facts (Bierman, Butler & Reuter, n.d.).

In higher education settings, discussion can take the format of short discussion sessions interspersed between lectures (Smith et al., 2005; Huxham, 2005), or scheduled as separate blocks apart from classroom lectures. Discussions can be conducted in large or small groups, and can be prompted by teacher questions or by assigned group leaders (Jackson, 1995). Discussion has been commonly studied as an effective form of active learning, with highlighted examples of using small-group discussion and peer discussion in undergraduate classes of biology (Allen & Tanner, 2005), genetics (Smith et al, 2009), physiology (Lake, 2001), engineering (White, 1945), anatomy (Erskine & Tomkin, 1963), communications (Garside, 1996), business (Burton, Johnston & Wilson, 1991) and geology (Bierman, Butler & Reuter, n.d.).

Discussion is an efficient way to generate dynamic engagement even in large classes. It can help to create “excitement” in classrooms (Bonwell & Eisen, 1991). While students may experience anxiety in speaking in a large class, group discussions allow them to share thoughts first among a small number of peers, which appears less daunting than voicing a personal opinion (Allen & Tanner, 2005). Discussion serves two compensation functions: it compensates for limited individual time in traditionally lecture-based classrooms, particularly for large classes in undergraduate foundational courses; it also supplements instructor explanation to foster substantial conceptual understanding (Hestenes, Wells & Swackhamer, 1992) and enable students to reflect and restructure their learning as active participants instead of passive spectators.

Empirical research has proved the positive effects of discussion on enhancing conceptual understanding and generating interest in learning. Group discussion is found to help achieve higher performances in tests, as verbalizing an idea or concept helps with memorization and integration with other concepts (Lake, 2011). In particular, with its positive effect on recall and understanding, short discussion as “interactive windows” between lectures helps improve students’ performance in examinations, particularly in short answer and essay type questions, (Huxham, 2005). In general, discussion promotes students’ interests in more serious and purposeful reading, as well as their ability to learn things that they find little relevance with or that contradict with their existing beliefs (Garside, 1996).

While scholars have yet to determine whether more frequent discussion leads to greater knowledge acquisition (Springer, Stanne & Donovan, 1999), evidence is found for its contribution to improved higher-order thinking. Discussion requires students to recall prior knowledge and better integrate information (Schmidt et al., 1989). The verbal expression process inherent in discussion enhances students’ abilities in effective presentation of problems and evaluation of identified solutions (Vansickle & Hoge, 1991). Ultimately, students will gain better proficiency in justifying arguments, conducting critical examination of others’ opinions, and developing the “communicative and metacognitive skills that are crucial components of disciplinary expertise” (Smith et al., 2009, p. 124).

Jackson (1995) has addressed the importance and provided tips on the careful preparation for an effective discussion, including preparing good discussion-starting questions, providing a safe and encouraging space and classroom norms, and effectively leading the discussion. For small group discussions, it is preferable to have groups of eight to ten (Erskine & Tomkin, 1963). It is also useful to conclude student-centered activities with a brief, instructor-led, whole-class discussion that provides feedback to students on their responses and makes additional connections to the lecture material (Allen & Tanner, 2005).

 

 Written by Danxi Shen, Ed.M., Harvard Graduate School of Education

 

 

References:

Allen, D., & Tanner, K. (2005). Infusing active learning into the large-enrollment biology class: seven strategies, from the simple to complex. Cell Biology Education, 4(4), 262-268.

Bierman, P., Butler, E., & Reuter, J. Earth Hazards: An introductory class combining the sciences of education and geology at the University of Vermont. Retrieved from http://www.uvm.edu/~earthhaz/hazards/Discussion.html.

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, The George Washington University.

Burton, S., Johnston, M. W., & Wilson, E. J. (1991). An experimental assessment of alternative teaching approaches for introducing business ethics to undergraduate business students. Journal of Business Ethics, 10(7), 507-517.

Erskine, C. A., & Tomkin, A. (1963). Evaluation of the effect of the group discussion method in a complex teaching program. Academic Medicine, 38(12), 1036-1042.

Garside, C. (1996). Look who's talking: A comparison of lecture and group discussion teaching strategies in developing critical thinking skills. Communication Education, 45, 212-227.

Hestenes, D., Wells, M., & Swackhamer, G. (1992). Force concept inventory. The physics teacher, 30(3), 141-158.

Huxham, M. (2005). Learning in lectures Do ‘interactive windows’ help?. Active learning in higher education, 6(1), 17-31

Jackson, T., & Ed, M. (1995). More activities that teach. Red Rock Publishing.

Lake, D. A. (2001). Student performance and perceptions of a lecture-based course compared with the same course utilizing group discussion. Physical Therapy, 81(3), 896-902.

Schmidt, Henk G., De Volder, Maurice L., De Grave, Willem S., Moust, Jos H. C., & Patel, Vimla L. (1989). Explanatory models in the processing of science text: The role of prior knowledge activation through small-group discussion. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(4), 610-619.

Smith, K. A., Sheppard, S. D., Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2005). Pedagogies of engagement: Classroom‐based practices. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 87-101.

Smith, M. K., Wood, W. B., Adams, W. K., Wieman, C., Knight, J. K., Guild, N., & Su, T. T. (2009). Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science, 323(5910), 122-124.

Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research, 69(1), 21-51.

VanSickle, R. L., & Hoge, J. D. (1991). Higher cognitive thinking skills in social studies: Concepts and critiques. Theory & Research in Social Education, 19(2), 152-172.

Walter, O. M., & Scott, R. L. (1968). Thinking and speaking: A guide to intelligent oral communication. Macmillan.

White JR. Methods in engineering laboratory instruction. Journal of Engineering Education, 11, 50–54.

 

 

Further Resources:

  • Benzing, C., & Christ, P. (1997). A survey of teaching methods among economics faculty. The Journal of Economic Education28(2), 182-188.
  • Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE bulletin3, 7.
  • Clement, D. E. (1971). Learning and retention in student-led discussion groups. The Journal of Social Psychology, 84(2), 279-286.
  • Diamond, M. J. (1972). Improving the undergraduate lecture class by use of student-led discussion groups. American Psychologist27(10), 978.
  • Neumann, R., Parry, S., & Becher, T. (2002). Teaching and learning in their disciplinary contexts: A conceptual analysis. Studies in higher education27(4), 405-417.
During a discussion, students engage with class material and their peers. They can work through misconceptions and ambiguity as a group. Discussions also provide students a platform to formulate ideas that must be communicated clearly. 

Below we have annotated lesson plans for selected examplary activities from our database that highlight various ways to incorporate discussion into the classroom. 

(1) A Close Paper Reading Activity: Students read an advanced paper at the beginning of a course and compile a list of terms they do not understand. As the course progresses, the instructor defines these terms. At the end of the course, students re-read the initial paper to gain an appreciation of how much they have learned. Find the original activity in our database here.