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
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