At their best, discussions make every student feel like a vital part of the intellectual fabric of the class. They are a means for students to learn and practice skills, generate ideas, solve problems, consolidate knowledge, criticize arguments, develop insight, and gain confidence in handling new concepts. Good discussions also allow students to formulate the principles of the subject in their own words. Ideally discussions provide a structured setting for students—and the instructor—to work through the core concepts or problems raised by readings and lectures. Sometimes the process allows students to converge toward a consensus (e.g., where there is something like an answer or solution); at other times the process allows for ideas to diverge (e.g., where the goal of the discussion is to highlight a range of approaches to a concept or the genuine messiness of a thinker’s ideas).
Running an effective discussion is never as straightforward as asking a series of questions, and any given class discussion is liable to raise questions in the face of everyday obstacles, e.g., How does one interrupt politely? Praise a valuable contribution? Ensure that various points of view are heard? Energize a low-energy room? Encourage reticent students? Regain the discussion from domination by a few? See our tipsheets below on planning sections, designing questions, and responding to students for some ideas about how you might run effective discussions in your seminar or section.