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Facilitating Discussions

Discussions are a great tool for engaging students in active learning. As Svinicki and McKeachie (2014) explain, discussions give students an opportunity to “integrate, apply, and think” (p. 39). 

The resources below will help you to identify some conditions and strategies for planning and facilitating inclusive discussions that enhance student learning.

A class engaged in a discussion outside

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Setting Expectations

Set Expectations

  • Explain why you are using discussions versus another method of engagement. Be explicit about your goals (and hopes) for class discussions.
  • Tell students how you expect they will prepare for discussions. Consider asking students to prepare beforehand by drafting 2-3 questions or written responses to questions shared beforehand.
  • Establish ground rules for how discussions should proceed.

Get Started

  • Get students to talk to one another from day one. Use icebreakers on the first day of class to help them begin feeling comfortable talking to their peers (and you) and to help them learn everyone's names.
  • Use open-ended questions and don’t be afraid to follow up with “Why?” or “Tell me more about that” if a student’s first attempt at responding could be developed further.
  • Remember to wait for students to have a sufficient amount of time to consider your questions. Ask students to take a minute to write down their thoughts before sharing.
  • Role model civility by demonstrating how you can disagree with someone without disparaging them.
  • Refer to the ground rules you’ve established with students if and when things get heated.

Encourage Students to Talk to One Another

  • Encourage and empower students to respond to one another and not just you as the instructor. Redirect questions addressed solely to you as an authority back to the larger group as appropriate.
  • Enlarge questions to include all students. For example, if you ask a question, or present an opposing viewpoint to one student, open the discussion to the whole group with questions like: “What do you all think of that?” Doing this can help to mitigate student concerns that there is only one correct response.
  • Consider using name tents or mini-icebreakers before each discussion in the first few class sessions so students can confidently refer to one another by name.

Consider Small Groups

  • It can feel less risky for students to share answers or opinions in smaller groups. Divide students into groups and allow time for them to discuss before joining back to the larger group.
  • Assign student leaders for class sessions or modules that involve discussion. Require leaders to share discussion questions in advance of their sessions and have the rest of the class submit written responses to them.

Face-to-Face Strategies

  • Socratic questioning: Named after the Athenian philosopher Socrates, this approach to discussion asks probing questions and can be useful to examine the depth of thinking by your students. It can also be a powerful method of inquiry that students can adopt themselves. Entire books have been written on this approach (such as Paul & Elder, 2007), but in general the modes of questioning revolve around analyzing thoughts and systems of thinking.
  • Use a classroom or audience response system such as Poll Everywhere to solicit and share answers to questions that you pose in real time. This approach can be particularly effective in larger classes.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Pose a question or present a problem, then give students 1-5 minutes to think through (or write down) their response. Next, have students turn to a partner and discuss their ideas. Finally, ask students to share what came up in their pair discussions in a whole class discussion.
  • Jigsaw: Break students into small groups. Each group is tasked with solving some aspect of one problem or prompt. After working it out, each group takes turns explaining their piece of the puzzle.

  • Four Quadrants: Have students get up and out of their seats with this discussion starter strategy. Hang large sticky posters with values ascribed to them, such as a Likert scale responses (strongly agree, agree, etc.) or frequency responses (always, sometimes, etc.), in the four quadrants of the classroom. Then ask students to move to the different quadrants based upon their responses to your questions. You can use their movements to ask probing or clarifying questions.

Online Strategies

  • Revisit the number of discussion forums in your course, with a focus on quality over quantity. Consider the purpose of each forum and whether a forum is the best means of engaging students versus other types of activities such as blogs.
  • Require students to publish their responses first, hiding other students’ responses until they do so. This helps spur original thinking and writing while reducing the temptation to plagiarize.
  • Require students to publish an initial post a few days before a forum’s deadline, in order to encourage the likelihood of conversations beginning prior to just before the deadline.
  • Ask students to answer questions or respond to posts that have not been addressed yet, even if those questions/posts do not correspond to their preferred topic (this can encourage earlier participation as well).
  • Don’t feel like you need to respond to every single thread; be strategic by replying to threads that do not have any replies or by helping students to identify connections between their threads.
  • Encourage students to change the subject or title of the post when replying. This makes it easier for everyone to scan the discussion and see where their ideas might fit.
  • Ask students to compose in or link to other media and formats. For example, students may submit short videos, audio recordings, or narrated PowerPoints. Or they may bolster their arguments by embedding images or videos in their responses. You might ask students to critique one another’s work in the subsequent week.
  • Consider using Voicethread as a multimedia-rich platform that enables asynchronous discussions.
  • At the end of the discussion, summarize for students or highlight a few key takeaways or lingering questions.

Assessing Discussions

General Strategies

  • Define what a good discussion looks like. You might even do this with your students. Then create a checklist or rubric that maps out the elements of a good discussion and share with your students. You can refer to this rubric if and when things go off track.
  • Assign midterm discussion grades that communicates to students how they are doing in this area. Or you might ask students to assign themselves grades based on criteria you’ve established and shared in advance.

Face-to-Face Strategies

  • Take note of who is participating and who is not participating in class discussions. Avoid only looking at the students who are talking and limit excessive talkers’ contributions. Actively solicit input from quieter students.
  • Reserve five minutes at the end of class and ask students to evaluate the effectiveness of the discussion in small groups or in a free write. You can collect written responses as “exit tickets” when students leave the classroom.

Online Strategies

  • Provide meaningful, timely feedback: Don’t reply or grade every post. Pick out exemplars, offer private and public appreciation.
  • Provide video recaps or written summaries of patterns in the discussion worthy of attention, and give praise to exemplars.
  • Focus on quality over quantity: Reduce the number of discussions; use smaller groups instead of larger ones; ask them ahead of time about format/timelines.

Facilitating Difficult Discussions

Difficult discussions—often involving race, class, politics, religion and gender—can be anxiety-provoking experiences. You might be worried about being forthright with your opinions without hurting another person’s feelings, or about being able to anticipate or even control the outcome of the discussion. However, if you and your students approach conversations about difficult topics from a place of respect and openness to other viewpoints, those conversations can lead to authentic learning.

The suggestions for facilitating discussions are a great starting point for facilitating difficult discussions. Below are a few additional tips for facilitating discussion on difficult topics in ways that add to student learning. 

Explain the Purpose of Difficult Discussions 

Before your course begins, reflect on potential “hot button” topics that relate to your course and the learning outcomes you have established for your students. How do these topics intersect with what you want your students to learn? How might conversations about these topics also engage with your program’s, department’s, or DePaul’s learning outcomes?

For example, using DePaul’s learning outcomes as a basis, you might consider how difficult conversations might help your students “articulate their own beliefs and convictions, as well as others’ beliefs, about what it means to be human and to create a just society” and “evaluate ethical issues from multiple perspectives and employ those considerations to chart coherent and justifiable courses of action.” (Goal 3: Personal and Social Responsibility)

Consider including a statement in your syllabus, if appropriate, about how difficult dialogues may factor into the learning goals you’ve established for your course.

Create Ground Rules for Respectful Dialogue

If you co-create ground rules for respectful dialogue with your students, you can establish expectations early on and have something to fall back on if things get heated later in the quarter. Doing so also indicates that you take discussion seriously as a valuable learning experience.

One way to have students create their own ground rules is offered in Brookfield and Preskill’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms:

  1. Individually, have students reflect on the best discussions they’ve ever had, and give them some time to write down a few characteristics that made them so memorable.
  2. Then have students consider the worst discussions they’ve ever had, and have them write down a few characteristics of these discussions.
  3. Have your students break into groups and share their reflections, beginning with the positive experiences and then the negative. Have students take notes on what patterns emerge—what do they have in common about their experiences with good discussions, and what made the bad ones so awful for everyone?
  4. Taking account of both the positive and negative characteristics that emerge, have students write down at least three suggestions to propose as ground rules for discussion.
  5. Have each group report back, making note of each suggestion on the board. Are there suggestions that came up more than once? Are there suggestions that the whole group endorses as significant? Identify the most important ones and incorporate them as the ground rules for future class discussions.

If you don’t have time to co-create ground rules with your students, consider adopting some for your class to follow. Here are some sample ground rules for discussion, courtesy of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at Carnegie Mellon:

  • Listen actively and attentively.
  • Ask for clarification if you are confused.
  • Do not interrupt one another.
  • Challenge one another, but do so respectfully.
  • Critique ideas, not people.
  • Do not offer opinions without supporting evidence.
  • Avoid put-downs (even humorous ones).
  • Take responsibility for the quality of the discussion.
  • Build on one another’s comments; work toward shared understanding.
  • Always have your book/readings in front of you.
  • Do not monopolize discussion.
  • Speak from your own experience, without generalizing.
  • If you are offended by anything said during discussion, acknowledge it immediately.
  • Consider anything that is said in class strictly confidential.

Facilitate Respectful and Productive Discussion

There are a number of strategies you can use to facilitate respectful and productive discussion and to intervene if the discussion gets heated. 

Encourage Active Listening and Empathic Responding 

Model how to be an active listener by asking follow-up questions meant to aid understanding: 

  • I think I hear you saying… Is that what you meant? 
  • Could you tell me more about that? 
  • What makes this important to you? 
  • What led you to this view?

You can also ask students who are engaged in a heated exchange to listen carefully to one another and state a summary of what they heard before replying with their own point of view. 

Invite Multiple Perspectives 

These are some strategies for explicitly inviting multiple perspectives:

Consider using a therapeutic model like Reflective Structured Dialogue. Using an approach developed by a group of family therapists in Boston decades ago, Jill DeTemple has found good results when things get heated in her religious studies classes at Southern Methodist University. The Chronicle of Higher Education, rreporting on Jill DeTemple's teaching practice (and subsequent research) using this model, offers an example of how this approach might work.

Reflective Structured Dialogue opens ... with the facilitator having participants tell a story that has informed [their approach to a difficult topic]. So to start off a discussion about guns, for instance, students might share their experiences hunting as a child, or describe an act of gun violence that touched their lives. Next, participants talk about the values that underlie these experiences. Then they talk about any ways in which they feel pulled in competing directions on the issue. That third question, DeTemple says, is meant to bring out empathy. Only after working through the three starting prompts do participants start asking each other questions. The goal is not to have anyone switch sides, she said. It’s to help students change the way they relate to one another, to listen and consider different perspectives. Doing so, it turns out, can enrich students’ understanding of difficult content, DeTemple has found, since they have an opportunity to consider it in context.

Work as a whole class to map responses and reactions to a current event or issue. These might include actions, emotions, political positions, articles, videos, etc. Use a collaborative tool like Google Docs or Google Jamboard to create the map.

This exercise is adapted from The Center for New Designs in Scholarship and Learning, as part of their suggested activities for teaching during an election.

Provide each student with 3 minutes to talk. After every student has shared, the discussion is open to everyone. In order to speak, students must explicitly connect their ideas to something that has already been said. Read more about this approach to a discussion. 

Pause the Discussion

Pause the discussion to let students collect their ideas, reflect, and to allow their emotions to cool. Pausing the discussion also provides you with an opportunity to consider how you can keep the rest of the conversation productive.

“The Five-Minute Rule,” as explained by Brookfield and Preskill, is  a strategy that seeks to provide a remedy to marginalized views being discounted or ignored during a class discussion. If anyone during class feels that a perspective is being marginalized, then they can invoke “The Five-Minute Rule,” at which point the class takes five minutes to contemplate the potentially marginalized point of view from the perspective of its proponents. Critiques are suspended during this time and only those who can speak in favor of it are allowed to.

The following questions may be used as prompts, if appropriate:

  • What’s compelling about this view?
  • What are some interesting features of this view that might be missed by those who don’t hold it?
  • If you were to believe this view as true, what would be different for you?
  • In what sense and under what conditions might this idea be true?

Provide students with 5 minutes to write reflectively. Then, ask students to identify how they’re feeling or where they’re at using just one word. Ask students to share that word with the whole class via a tool like PollEverywhere, Zoom polling, a Google Doc, the chat tool built into Zoom or Microsoft Teams, or in person via a white board, sticky notes, etc. Identify trends or ask students to identify trends. You might repeat the activity throughout the discussion and/or refer to the results at the start of any follow-up discussions.

This exercise is adapted from The Center for New Designs in Scholarship and Learning, as part of their suggested activities for teaching during an election.

Gather Feedback After the Discussion

Gather feedback at the end of the discussion to encourage students to reflect and to gather information to help inform future discussions. Look for any patterns in the feedback and report back to your students during the next class meeting. You might also invite them to discuss and comment on the findings.

This is another strategy from Brookfield and Preskill, which solicits anonymous student anonymous feedback at the end of each week, and could be adapted to fit other timeframes:

  • At what moment in class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  •  At what moment in class this week were you most distanced from what was happening?
  •  What action that anyone (teacher or student) took this week did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone took this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What about class this week surprised you the most? (This could be about your own reactions to what when on, something that someone did, or anything else that occurs).

This End of Class Reflection from “Creating a Brave Space Through Classroom Writing” by Lucia Pawlowski in Teaching Race (2019) works well as an exit ticket. Responses to these questions could be collected anonymously: 

  • Topic
  • Did you participate today? (Yes/No)
  • If not, why not? 
  • What struck you the most about today’s class? What are you taking away from today? 
  • What remaining questions do you have about this topic? 

Invite your students to provide feedback about how the course is going during the middle of the term. If you’re regularly facilitating difficult discussions in your course, you might build in a specific question that asks students to provide feedback on their experience participating.

See Checking in with Students Using a Midterm Survey for suggestions on incorporating a midterm survey. 

See Activities for Metacognition for additional reflection prompts and exercises that you can use while facilitating discussions.

Further Resources

Further Reading

References

Brookfield, S.D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for a Democratic Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cashin, W. (2011). “Effective Classroom Discussions.” IDEA Paper #49. 

Nilson, L. (2003). "Leading Effective Discussions." Chapter in Teaching at its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. Second Edition. Bolton, MA.

Paul, R. and Elder, L. (2007). The Thinker’s Guide to Socratic Questioning. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Rotenberg, R. (2005). "The Discussion Classroom." Chapter in The Art and Craft of College Teaching: A Guide for New Professors and Graduate Students. Walnut Creek, CA.

Stella, J. and Corry, M. (2016). “Intervention in Online Writing Instruction: An Action-theoretical Perspective.” Computers and Composition, 40, 164-174.

Svinicki, M. D. and McKeachie, W. J. (2014). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Svoboda, T. (2019). “Stop giving me busy work!” Presentation at Wisconsin Distance Learning Conference. Madison, WI.

Online Discussions

Learn how to use D2L's Discussions tool to facilitate online, asynchronous conversations.

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