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Instructional Methods: Class Discussions


Basic Principles

Effective discussion-leading is more than simply asking questions and letting students answer; it involves a nuanced set of roles and skills. This complexity is captured well by C. Roland (“Chris”) Christensen, who pioneered teaching by the case method and taught at the Harvard Business School for 50 years:

"[E]ffective preparation for discussion classes takes more time, because instructors must consider not only what they will teach, but also who and how. And the classroom encounter consumes a great deal of energy; simultaneous attention to process (the flow of activities that make up a discussion) and content (the material discussed) requires emotional as well as intellectual engagement. . . . The discussion teacher is planner, host, moderator, devil’s advocate, fellow-student, and judge-a potentially confusing set of roles. Even the most seasoned group leader must be content with uncertainty, because discussion teaching is the art of managing spontaneity."


Specific Tools and Strategies


Learning Student Names [PDF]
Knowing and using student names is an oft-overlooked but vital foundation for an effective discussion. This article, published in the National Teaching and Learning Forum, is a compendium of 27 concrete tips from faculty across the country on learning and remembering student names.

The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start [PDF]
by historian Peter Frederick, points out ten ways to jump-start a discussion, from having students generate concrete images or illustrative quotations from the reading, to engaging in debates or role play. This website summarizes those strategies.

Questioning, Listening, Responding

It is important to think about what kinds of questions to ask, of whom, at what point in the discussion. There are many ways to categorize kinds of questions, as explained in the following resources:

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a summary of Benjamin Bloom’s classic six-part scheme (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation), originally published in 1956. The taxonomy outlines intellectual tasks (easily framed as questions) that build in cognitive complexity.

Facing Common Challenges

Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom, from Harvard University, explores teaching situations where “people’s feelings — often conflictual — rise to a point that threatens teaching and learning.” Such “hot” encounters may center on discussion of particular kinds of issues, or simply arise out of classroom dynamics in any discipline. This document offers helpful suggestions on how teachers might think about the moment, helping the students to think about it, getting the students to do the work, not avoiding the issue, etc.

Models and Case Studies

The Midpoint Reflection exercise can deepen and invigorate an ongoing discussion by giving a student the opportunity to ask questions that have not yet been addressed. Used from the beginning and over the course of a semester, it usually prompts participation from even the quietest students by shifting the role of facilitation away from the teacher, thus encouraging students to turn to each other as sources of expertise.

The Capture is an exercise particularly useful for prompting discussion of secondary texts that may be difficult for students initially to grasp. Students distill answers to four key aspects of the text: the author’s purpose, central message, validations / applications, and values / assumptions. Instructors then can ask students to share and compare their captures, either in small groups or to the class at large.

Strategies for Managing Challenging Moments in Discussions

If tensions arise, let yourself take a moment to decide whether to address the issue immediately, take it up separately with individual students, or raise it in the next class meeting. Try counting silently to 10 before speaking or reacting.

If you feel unprepared to deal with a question, comment, or topic in the moment, mark it as something the class will come back to at the next meeting – and then raise it at the next meeting when you feel more prepared.

Remind students of your discussion or participation guidelines. If you haven’t already established them, propose a few key ones to guide the conversation moving forward out of the ‘hot moment’—e.g., no personal attacks, openness to hearing a range of perspectives, accountability for the effects of our words on others.

Invite students to move around the room, write or sketch quietly, or take a few deep breaths, just to change the energy in the room before diving back in. Sometimes simply naming and then breaking the tension by doing something different with our bodies or minds can be very helpful for moving forward productively with a difficult conversation.

Find a way to connect the hot moment to course topics or learning goals. What does the big emotion in the room suggest about the importance of the topic you’re teaching? Can course materials help inform, anchor, or delimit the discussion that follows a hot moment?  Are there learning objectives in your course related to critical thinking, perspective taking, or precise framing of an argument that can be reinforced through the ways you invite students to engage?

Where appropriate, seek to clarify student comments that have sparked tension. Students sometimes say inadvertently insulting or marginalizing things when they are struggling to understand a new perspective or feeling the intellectual discomfort of having their familiar views challenged. If you think a comment is coming from such a place of cognitive struggle, you might give the student a chance to explain the thought process behind their remark (“What do you mean by X?” or “I heard you saying Y; is that what you meant to say?”) or just ask them to rephrase if it’s evident they understand they made a misstep (“Do you want to try saying that differently?” And then, perhaps, “Let’s talk about why that initial phrasing felt so problematic.”).

Provide a basis for common understanding by establishing facts and questions about the topics raised in the tense moment. You can share key information yourself or invite students to do so. You might write categories on the board (“what we know,” “what is disputed,” “what we want to know more about”) and elicit items for each category.  You can also explain or have the class identify why a given topic or language choice feels high stakes, especially if you think some students do not understand or respect other students’ emotional responses.

Give students some time to gather their thoughts in writing about the perspective, topic, or exchange in question before discussing it as a group. You might ask them to connect it to course materials or concepts. Writing can be especially helpful when students respond to tension with silence. You could ask them to consider, “Why is this topic so difficult to discuss?” or “What do you feel like you can’t say aloud right now?” You might collect such anonymous writings to help you make a plan for returning to the topic at another time.

Try to depersonalize positions of disagreement that have emerged among students (e.g., instead of referring to “what X said vs. what Y said,” referring to “this disagreement about such-and-such” or “the use of phrase/word X in this context”). This can help minimize unproductive defensiveness and invite more students into the conversation.  Similarly, asking for additional possible points of view (e.g., “We’ve heard perspectives A and B -- how else might one think about this question?”) can helpfully move the conversation away from particular speakers to the ideas or perspectives they are raising. You can also depersonalize by acknowledging when a widely-held view has been raised:  “Many people share this perspective. What might their reasons be?” And then: “And why might others object to or feel disrespected by this view?”

Help students in conflict find common ground. This might mean identifying a shared value (“I hear that you both care deeply about achieving X, but you have strongly divergent ideas about how to get there”) or asking the class to (“What do these perspectives have in common? How do they differ?”).

Where possible, give students the benefit of the doubt when they speak words that seem to devalue or discount other people or perspectives. “I don’t think this is what you intended, but...” “You may not realize how this sounded…” “I hear that you’re trying to make a joke, and yet…” While giving the benefit of the doubt, you can also explain the potential impact of given language choices:  e.g., “The word X is a label that’s often objected to by those it’s used to describe because …”  “I could easily imagine that your use of that metaphor would feel like an insult to classmates who …”

After discussing intense issues, guide students to reflect individually and/or collectively on the issues raised and the perspectives they heard on these issues. Consider using a questionnaire where students can share what they appreciated about the conversation, what they learned from it, and what remains unresolved.

Check-in outside of class with the students most directly involved in the moment, to show your commitment to their success in the course, to help them learn from the experience, and to learn from them more about their experience of the discussion.

Connect with your own support network, especially if you felt targeted or personally affronted by whatever emerged in your classroom. It can be very helpful to process your responses with trusted colleagues or friends in order to return to the classroom with confidence and optimism.

Adapted from: University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT)



Class Discussions

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

Christensen, C.R. et. al., eds. Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership (1991). Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.

Managing Challenging Discussions

Responding to Difficult Moments, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of MIchigan

Landis, Kay. Start talking: A handbook for engaging difficult dialogues in higher education.University of Alaska Anchorage, 2008.

Sue, Derald Wing. “Microaggressive impact on education and teaching: Facilitating difficult dialogues on race in the classroom.” In Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, 231-254. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2010.


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