Facilitating Discussions That Work (MSU Workshop)

Workshops based around discussions here at MSU are largely populated with education instructors and those running small classrooms.  As such I oftentimes have difficulty adapting the ideas and applying them to large classrooms where I think my future lies.  Sure, it’s possible to promote discussion based exercises in classrooms of 20-30 students, but how does this evolve and maintain usefulness when you increase the student count 10-fold?  Thus far, I have yet to get a solid answer for this.  So, take the following with a grain of salt and a bit of an imagination if you’re looking at a group of 200+ students on a semi-daily basis. 

There were two main take-home messages which were instilled upon us during this workshop.  The first was that if you want to incorporate discussions into your classroom, you have to set the framework up on day one.  Stress that group discussion will be an important part of their everyday activities.  Do a short activity on your first day/week of class where discussion will be important and show them how to efficiently discuss a topic.  I have a negative view of in-class discussions which I attribute to never having a professor take the time to make it valuable.  Had any professor given me specific tasks to discuss, a framework on how to do so, and made it worth something I might see a greater value in classroom discussions than I do now.  But, enough on past grievances, this is about looking to the future, not the past.

If I have a class where I plan to use discussion frequently, I will create a handout/form that each group will hand in – demonstrating the conclusions reached about the topic/question.  This way, each discussion group has concrete proof to demonstrate that they participated and I have a way to track which groups took the time to do so.  What I don’t know, as of yet, is how to make group participation equal within a group.  I’ve been thinking about having a “discussion leader” within each group (for each activity) who is responsible for either leading that discussion or making sure all parties are heard.  In this case I would make the worksheets worth participation points or small amounts of points  so the pressure is there to discuss in depth, but not stressful enough so that “the smart one” in the group answers every question.  Another thing which could help this is to turn in smaller worksheets individually before, and then a group discussion after.  In this scheme I would be able to assess understanding both before and after the discussion, thereby edging it closer to a formative, rather than summative, assignment.

The second important aspect of using discussions in your lectures are to ask the right types of questions.  Some types of questions, such as factual and evaluative (outlined below) don’t often lead to creating discussions that work.

  • Factual questions often result in a mere regurgitation of fact.  Simple questions where there is a yes/no or definitive answer will end a discussion regardless of whether a student answers it correctly or not.  If you want to use factual questions as discussions, make them deep/involved questions, or those centered on topics which you know are oft troublesome.  This way, students should eventually arrive at a set answer, but using a discussion based format can make the journey a bit more nourishing to the mind.
  • Evaluative questions rely on the opinions of the reader/class member.  This is unlike factual or interpretive questions where your personal opinions are unimportant.  As such, these are good questions to ‘stir the pot’ or get your students to vehemently discuss a topic.  But, what they lack is a need for students to re-visit the material or dive deeper into the subject matter.  Again, if you want to put some feeling/emotion into the subject matter or look into bias on a particular subject, these questions may be for you.  Otherwise, I would stick to well-crafted factual questions, or our last option.

The third type of questions presented at the workshop were interpretive questions.  Interpretive questions can lead to the most effective discussions because they require students to re-evaluate the materials and, if done right, permit multiple answers with merit.  This type of question asks students to interpret what the material or author means.  This leads to a synthesis of information as the student has to put their existing ideas and the new information together – putting the material into their own words.  This means that instead of merely regurgitating the information, they must interpret, analyze, and summarize it.  Interpretive questions are often unintimidating to answer because you’re allowing your students to interpret it, so if they’re off slightly you could ask why they went that direction or have other students interpret their interpretation.  One thing to note – the instructor must be curious and enthusiastic about the answers the students provide as this will draw the students further into their interpretations and thereby drawing more information out of themselves and the material.

Some random tips and tricks:

  • If students aren’t answering the right questions (note how this is different from providing the answers YOU believe are correct) you have several options:
    • Rephrase the question so the students can better understand what you meant to ask
    • Rephrase the question to match what the student answered
      • Note that this only works if the student’s original answer is a viable path to the material
  • Suggest putting that discussion off until later
    • This type of response lets the student know that their answer was intriguing, but not really applicable to the current focus of the class
    • Other suggestions:
      • Give student an option about what to interpret:  If you can’t think of an answer for X, what about Y?
      • Make the questions easy but not simple – avoid factual questions
      • Grade based on participation, not being “correct” because…
      • Emphasize that multiple answers (openness) may be correct and/or valuable
    • Problems:
    • Students who talk too much:  Tell them they can only have one response, or “I’ve already heard from X, let’s see if anyone else has something to say”
    • No participation?
      • Give them something to stir the pot before class – so they come in with an interpretation prepared (even if it’s not written down)
      • Make them write something down before discussing as a class – even the shyest students can read from something they’ve written


What is your method for ensuring equal discussion/participation within group projects?


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