Using discussion as a teaching strategy
One of the most challenging teaching methods, leading discussions can also be one of the most rewarding. Using discussions as a primary teaching method allows you to stimulate critical thinking. As you establish a rapport with your students, you can demonstrate that you appreciate their contributions at the same time that you challenge them to think more deeply and to articulate their ideas more clearly. Frequent questions, whether asked by you or by the students, provide a means of measuring learning and exploring in-depth the key concepts of the course.
Create a comfortable, non-threatening environment. Introduce yourself and explain your interests in the topic on the first day. Encourage questions from the outset. For example, require each student to submit a question about the course during the first day or week. Students can submit these questions via an online discussion forum, such as that which is available on Blackboard; this assignment can also serve as a way for you to ensure that they have each figured out how to log on to a discussion forum that you are using throughout the course.
Arrange the chairs in a configuration that will allow students to see and speak with one another. Move the chairs back to their standard configuration after the class session has ended. (In University-managed classrooms, the standard configuration is displayed on a diagram posted near the door.)
Get to know your students and the skills and perspectives they bring to the discussions. Learn your students’ names during the first week of class. Consistently use their names when calling on them and when referring to comments they have made in class or in threaded email discussions. Using their names will convince them that you see them each as individuals with something valuable to add, thus creating an environment of mutual trust and interest. This strategy will also encourage the students to refer to one another by name.
You can start learning your students’ names before the semester begins by using WebFAC to print your roster (with photos). Bring the printed roster to class and use it to take attendance on the first day. After class and before the next one, refresh your memory of names and faces by looking over the roster again.
Understanding your students’ skills and perspectives can help you to develop specific ways of challenging each of them to think critically and express ideas clearly.
Clarify the rules and expectations for discussions at the outset. Define what you think of as a successful discussion (for example, one that includes participation by all group members, stays on topic, and explores issues in depth and from a variety of perspectives.) Make it clear that good discussions rarely happen without effort. Distribute or post on the board a list of rules and expectations that will promote successful discussions. For example, to discourage students from monopolizing the discussion or interrupting one another, indicate whether it will be necessary for students to raise their hands and be called on before speaking; this decision will depend on your preference and on the size of the class.
You might also consider opening the discussion on the first day of class with small-group discussions about effective discussions and how to achieve them. Then, reconvene the class as a whole to formulate together the guidelines for discussion that the class will follow the rest of the semester. Less experienced students will require more guidance with this task. For all groups, however, having the students take a role in formulating the rules will mean that they will be more invested in following them.
Communicate to students the importance of discussion to their success in the course as a whole. If you use discussions on a regular basis, assign grades for student participation. Inform students of the specific criteria that you will use. For example, will you evaluate the frequency and quality of their contributions, as well as how effectively they each respond to others’ comments? Will you include in each participation grade the student’s performance on informal writing, online discussions, minor group projects, or other work? If you grade class participation, give students preliminary grades and brief written evaluations as early as 3-4 weeks into the semester and at midterm so that they will know where they stand. Your written evaluation can be designed to encourage the quiet students to talk more often and the verbose students to hold their comments to give others a chance to participate).
No matter how often you use discussions in your course, you can underscore their importance by ensuring that you discuss material that later appears on exams and by integrating students’ contributions (with attribution) into subsequent lectures, discussions, and assignments.