Classroom discussions should help students learn but getting students to actively participate can sometimes be a difficult task. Silberman (1996) asserts that to stimulate class discussion, “You first have to build interest!” How, then, can we make that happen? A number of strategies are presented here which can change the once “quiet” classroom into one that has lively and meaningful discussion.
Barton, Heilker, and Rutkowski (n.d.) stress that our students should be “attentive and involved and engaged” to help them construct their own learning and engage in discussion. Burton et al. also point out that effective classroom discussion occurs when students talk with other students and not just the instructor (para. 7). Dialog among classroom peers can be monopolized by a few talkative students while other students sit back and passively observe. Helping to break the habit of rote, two-way responses between the instructor and the student while the rest of the class remains uninvolved can be achieved by implementing some of the strategies presented here.
It is important to connect classroom discussions to course goals, objectives and students’ background knowledge.
Plan classroom discussions by talking about its purpose and stress the importance of hearing everyone’s “voice” in the dialogue. It is good practice, though, to never force students to talk if they are not comfortable. Talk with these students outside of class to ensure there aren’t underlying reasons for them not participating. Quieter students may assume a more active role in small group discussions so be sure to include break out sessions periodically during the semester.
Also, talk with the students about ways they can prepare for classroom discussions through required homework and textbook readings. It is important to also connect classroom discussions to course goals, objectives and students’ background knowledge.
It is good practice to go over the ground rules for classroom discussion by describing roles and etiquette. For example, inform students that a major portion of the class grade will be based on active and meaningful participation and that everyone must be respectful of their peers and the instructor. Know how to curb students who dominate the discussion, those who bring about negativity, or students who joke around. Finally, teach students how to listen so they can effectively continue the discussion with a coherent dialogue.
. . . inform students that a major portion of the class grade will be based on active and meaningful participation . . .
Excerpted from Fostering Effective Classroom Discussions by J. Barton, P. Heilker, and D. Rutkowski. Used with permission.
Establish discussion “rules” such as “You are not allowed to say ‘I don’t know when asked a question. If you don’t know, think of a plausible answer, guess, speculate, wonder aloud.”
Prompt students recall of information by asking questions that refer to readings, prior discussions, and exam material.
Take the time to allow students to formulate an answer and avoid answering the question yourself or asking another student for the answer.
Silberman (1996) suggests a number of strategies to engage students in classroom discussions which are organized in an easy-to-follow overview, procedure, and variations. A few of these strategies are presented below.
Classroom discussions can effectively be implemented with careful planning and selecting topics which are interesting and relevant to students. Implementing one or more of the “tested” strategies listed here are suitable to engage students in discussions which are lively and meaningful. As Barton, et al. (n.d.) caution, attempting to implement all of the strategies at once would be “counterproductive.” Instead, select a strategy which would be easy to implement and appropriate for a course. Once the benefits are observed, try introducing another.
Barton, J., Heilker, P., & Rutkowski, D. (n.d.). Fostering effective classroom discussions. http://www.mhhe.com/socscience/english/tc/discussion.htm
Silberman, M. (1996). Active learning: 101 strategies to teach any subject.
Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
University of Wisconsin Whitewater Learn Center (2009). Plan classroom discussions at least as carefully as lectures. http://www.uww.edu/learn/diversity/classroomdiscussions.php
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Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2012). Classroom discussions. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from https://www.niu.edu/citl/resources/guides/instructional-guide