Engaging Students in Discussion

Engaging students in classroom discussions can be a difficult task, but a successful implementation results in greater productivity both inside and outside the classroom. Below are some helpful tips for fostering better classroom conversations with students:

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Discuss with Purpose

Unless you’re teaching a class in "how to discuss a matter with peers," whole class discussions are optional activities, and should thus be chosen for particular reasons, not as camouflage for something else.

    • Don't "discuss" when what you really need to do is lecture or convey information. Sometimes a mini lecture is educationally preferable to trying to get students to guess what you want them to say.
    • When discussing in order to have students engage with a topic, or to generate energy, remember that getting right answers may not be as important as having as many students as possible contribute.
    • When you most want everyone to participate, or most want students to have "natural" conversations, put people in pairs and say "ask your partner what she thinks." In three minutes, you'll accomplish your goal without chasing down every last student or waiting through painful pauses.
    • When discussing to help promote critical thinking, remember that for many people it's difficult to think critically and perform in a fast-moving, public discussion: set aside time before and/or after the discussion for students to analyze and reflect on a topic in writing.

Warm Up the Room

Ask a question that most anyone can answer and have their answer be right, to build momentum & comfort.

      • Do a survey, show of hands: Who thought this essay was more interesting than the last one? How would you grade this author’s use of specific evidence: A? B? C? OR, Who was surprised to read that X was true, and who wasn’t? Why?
      • Ask a series of questions most everyone will know the (or “an”) answer to (often summary/description questions): So what are Kinnear’s main complaints? What happened to him? Then what happened? Or, What’s the detail or moment you remember best about Wong’s essay?
      • Ask students to tell you what you’ve recently told them (suggest they check notes): “So we’re looking at Tillisi’s evidence today: who can remind us what categories of evidence we covered on Monday?”

Ask Real Questions with Multiple Right Answers

Fear of guessing wrong may motivate studying, but it almost never motivates enthusiastic discussion.

        • Ask questions that have multiple right answers, and record several on a board or screen. Try specific questions—"What does Krashaw think are the main characteristics of 'Gen Y'?"—rather than general ones ("What did you think about Krashaw's essay?")
        • Ask questions to which you truly don't know the answers: Unless you read minds, you won't know in advance what all the responses will be to "What do you think Krashaw left out of her essay or got wrong?" or "How might Chapter 10 relate to what you're learning in your other classes?"
        • Decide whether you want to spark more participation or to spark more accuracy. For the former, give quick/minimal positive feedback ("good") before getting another answer ("who else? what else?"). For the latter, do more follow-up yourself: restate/elaborate on good answers, push for more detail on vague ones ("such as...?" "do you have an example?"), and/or solicit additional answers (without directly crushing the first one): "Who agrees with Rob that ___ ? Who has a different idea?"
        • Read faces and, in the middle of a list of answers, when there's been time for thought but not all the good answers have been given, call on a quieter student who seems likely to have a contribution.

Be Careful with What You (Seem to) Ask for

Sometimes faculty inadvertently convey messages that shut down or limit discussion.

          • Avoid generating IRE: Most classroom “discussions” actually follow an Initiate, Respond, Evaluate pattern in which the instructor does most of the talking. If you want students to talk to each other, force yourself out of the pattern. Wait 5-10 seconds after a student response before jumping in; if the room is still quiet, call on another student to ask “What else?” he or she could add.
          • Watch your language. Which sounds more like the teacher really expects more contributions, “Anyone else have an idea?” or “Who else has an idea?” Think like a student: doesn’t that first one seem to say, “We’re moving on, here, unless one of you really has something brilliant to say?” What’s the difference between, “Amina, do you have another example?” and “Amina, what could be another example?”
          • If you want in-depth, insightful, analytical responses, tackle a small problem for a longer time. Choose a paragraph, an example, a sub-issue, and come prepared with several questions so you can stay with it long enough for some class knowledge to build, and for students to glean enough to feel smart about it.
          • Allow discussions to move, grow, change, the way “real” discussions do, without racing to get them “back on track.” If the discussion of an article by Studs Terkel on working-class Chicagoans gets off on a tangent about who has ever been to Chicago and whether it's a better city than DC, and there's some energy to that discussion, consider letting it run a minute or two—something may come up (“Yeah, but who can afford to even live in DC?") that gives you a segue back to your topic, and if it doesn’t, you can always step in and intervene: “Ok, ok, excellent, but let's get back to the main topic.”

Consider Alternatives

Sometimes faculty need to approach a complex issue from an indirect angle to spark discussion.

            • Solicit impersonal alternatives. If students are reluctant to weigh in on a challenging topic, try “What might be one way someone could object to this?” or “What might a single mother of three say to Wooten?” Quiet students or those with minority viewpoints may need this “cover” to feel comfortable.
            • Reach for emotional intelligence. Help students connect emotionally, particularly to more abstract or historical texts. Back away from the text a moment, set the scene: “Imagine you’re Susan B. Anthony in this room full of powerful men who want to send you to jail for voting. What might you be feeling?”
            • Discuss on paper. Written comments free some students to “speak” more fully: quiet or shy students, students from underrepresented minorities or those holding minority viewpoints, non-native English speakers. You can ask students to write a comment, pass it to someone else, and write a response. (For full anonymity, ask students to stand and exchange their note with one other person, then repeat that with another person, before sitting down to respond.) After a few turns, test the waters: are students

Be Patient and Be Flexible

Balance your support and encouragement for good discussions with a willingness to let go when needed.

              • Have a backup plan. Some days, the discussion karma just isn’t there—your top three participants all have the flu, the essay that you adore put everyone else to sleep, 80% of students didn’t really read the chapter. If you've tried two or three tactics and are getting nowhere, do something else. A “beating a dead-horse” discussion is painful for everyone, and lessens the comfort-level for the next discussion.
              • Don’t pursue your students: pushing too hard at quiet students, or chastising a quiet class for being quiet, is likely to make them...more quiet. (An unprepared class can be put on notice or face pop-quizzes, but try not to give too much vent to your personal frustration over lack of discussion overall.)
              • Be reasonable. When was the last time you had a thoughtful, fully-participatory, respectful, in-depth, under-control discussion with 20 or 30 people all focused on one complex topic, with nobody moderating? If you have a few moments of Discussion Nirvana, when what seems like a “real” discussion is thriving among students in a whole class without you, enjoy them—but when you have something else, enjoy and make the most of that, too.

* Prepared for the CTFE by E. Shelley Reid, George Mason University Department of English - http://mason.gmu.edu/~ereid1/teachers/tchresources.htm