Leading discussions requires a teacher not only to have an idea of what should be covered and where the discussion should go, but also to have the skills to track and improvise on what occurs in real time in the classroom. Discussion leading requires as well that we know our students and find ways to respond to them that are individually appropriate.
The best discussions are those that focus more on the students’ learning than on the teaching; having a clear learning objective for the session will help to focus discussion.
- Know the material well. Don't overly focus on the minute details; keep the big picture in mind.
- Decide what you want to accomplish, what you want students to learn that day, and what the take-home point(s) should be.
- Develop a plan for accomplishing your objectives. Usually you can cover only three topics (at most) in a 50 minute section.
- Discussions fall into three main categories: informational, interpretive/analytical, and debatable. If possible, do some of each, either within one class or over the semester.
- Think of provocative, interesting questions for each of your topics.
- Vary what you do within the class and from class to class. Use debates, slides, student presentations, small group discussions to vary the pace.
- Don’t over-prepare. Take in one sheet of paper with an outline and a few notes on it to help you remember particular questions or facts.
Know your students
- Students and their learning need to be the single most important focus of the class.
- Know their names as an indispensable start.
- Know their learning styles and something about their interests.
- Know what level of preparation they have had for this class.
- Do introductions on the first day of class.
- You might want to meet for 15 minutes with each student at the beginning of the semester.
- If you treat your students with respect for their ideas and confusions, they will learn more easily.
Use questioning, listening, and responding as the building blocks of a discussion
- Prepare interesting and evocative questions that will pique their interest and curiosity.
- Vary the kinds of questions you ask:
Open Ended Questions cast nets out to see what comes in, allowing you to listen for entry and emphasis points. What's Going On? What do you make of this situation?
Asking for Information helps students to establish baseline facts and opinions. Where? When? Who? What? How?
Diagnostic Questions prompt students to interpret or explain what they have observed. How do you interpret and explain "A" and "B's" impact on the situation? How do you weave these points into some kind of understanding of what else is going on, possibly behind the scenes?
Challenge Questions ask students to take a position and reflect on their own assumptions. Why do you say that? How would you explain? Where is the evidence for what you say? How can you say a thing like that? Is that all? That's just the opposite of what Student X said. Can you persuade him/her?
Extension Questions explore the issues behind or just beyond a student’s initial comment. What else? Can you take us farther down that path or find new tributaries? Keep going? Therefore?
Combination Questions alert students to moments of possible synthesis with the ideas of their peers. How would you relate your points to those mentioned by Student A or to something else you said? How would you understand X in light of Y?
Priority Questions bring students back to the big picture. Which issues do you consider most important? Where do you start? How would you rank these?
Action Questions encourage students to place themselves in the scenario under discussion. What would you do in Person X's shoes? How?
Prediction Questions challenge students to take what they have learned in one context and apply it to another, creating an opportunity to surface and to test their mental models. What do you think would happen if we followed Student Z's action plan? Give us a forecast of your expectations. How will he/she react to your thinking?
- Generalizing and Summarizing Questions invite students to “bank” what they have learned that day. What inferences can we make from this discussion and case? What generalizations would you make? How would you summarize the three most critical issues that we have discussed? Can you summarize the high points of the discussion thus far?
- Listen! You will gather invaluable information about what and how students are thinking.
- Use silence; it is the surest way to discover students’ thoughts, questions, confusions.
- Respond based on what you have heard. You can respond with a statement, a question, a restatement of what they have said. When possible try to take student’s thoughts further. (See Techniques for Responding)
Enjoy yourself. Talking about things that are important to you and helping others understand them is a wonderful enterprise. If you love your material and you like your students, you will find a way to make this work.
The Bok Center has many books in its library that elucidate techniques of good discussion leading. In addition, several of our onilne resources deal primarily or in part with leading educational discussions:
References and Resources