Summary: A Conversation about Discussions

How are we using “discussion” in our teaching?

The topic for today was “Using discussion in teaching”. We began our conversation by describing our approaches to using discussion in the classroom, the challenges in using discussion and some tips or strategies for improving discussion in the courses we teach.  So far, we use discussion as “technique” for engaging students in large lectures, as “assessment”, as “presentation” and as “method for collaborating”. Below is a summary of our conversation.

Discussion for engaging students in lectures

Lawrence M. assigns students a paper presentation in which some students are responsible for the presentation and others are responsible for leading the discussion. He finds that by varying his approach, students remain  engaged during long lectures.

Discussion as presentation

John C. has students find and present a current media article related to topics in health policy. This is a good way to “see” what students find interesting and relevant in the media however, some of the topics selected by students have not been that useful in the context of the course. He also has groups of students making presentations on assigned readings. Although they are required to include a few questions to stimulate discussion at the end of their presentation, he finds that the presentations are often too long and it’s challenging to keep them focused. Despite this, students have shown improvement over the term. One advantage to this approach is that you can observe how students prioritize concepts from the reading.

Discussion for clarifying understanding

Malcolm S. described his approach to using discussion has changed over the years. Last year he used discussion as a way for students to “confirm what I was telling them” and this year he is using discussion as a way for students to explore what they may or may not know” and this is followed by my teaching. For example, Malcolm presents students with data from a study and asks them to discuss what the numbers reveal and what they don’t reveal to differentiate between qualitative and quantitative research.  He then uses the information gleaned from the students’ discussion to inform how he teaches the theoretical back ground. Malcolm is learning about the power of discussion as a way for students to unpack their assumptions and own understandings and this information guides him in his teaching. His goal is to expand discussion in large graduate classrooms of 50 or more students, and to create a richer environment such as those found in tutorials where groups cross-fertilize ideas.

Discussion for problem solving

Kate T. uses “scripted” discussion in her senior seminar courses and incorporates activities in which the students solve specific problems.

Discussion for knowledge-transfer

Nienke vH. is interested in using discussion in knowledge-transfer type courses. She is experimenting with this in her 4th year virology class by teaching students about some methodology approaches and then asking them to to apply them to specific research situations. She is also planning some worksheet-based in-class exercises that can be completed in groups. Both Malcolm S. and John C. suggested that the knowledge transfer can occur outside of class by assigning readings,  and then class time can be used to apply the material and probe depth of understanding of challenging topics.  Mark L suggested the use of case studies, he is trying the approach in his third year classes which have similar challenges.

What’s challenging about using discussion in teaching?

Lawrence M. brought up the concern that some students “monopolize the conversation” while other students don’t contribute at all. What are ways to deal with that? Barb B. suggested that supporting students to learn through discussion requires clear intention, design and skilled facilitation.  Discussion, if not well designed and executed in the context of a classroom can be a very powerful strategy for inhibiting participation and engagement, for maintaining the status quo and for reinforcing particular assumptions that go unexamined. Applying facilitation techniques that assist and model ways to build trust, regulate “air time”, foster respect and collaboration or cooperation can go a long way towards improving the quality and nature of the experience for all. Guiding students to adhere to these principles and practices requires time and feedback. Managing small group discussions becomes more difficult in larger classes but supplying student groups with key questions or structured activities will assist them to use discussion as a vehicle to build understanding and to problem solve together.  There are numerous  guidebooks to assist instructors to incorporate discussion into the classroom and in online learning contexts.

Discussion for teaching self-regulation

Malcolm S. is interested in using discussion to enhance self-regulation among students in his graduate course which is associated with specific competencies and objectives. To teach self-regulation he asks students to review the objectives and examine them with respect to their current knowledge and skill with the view to supporting students in taking ownership over their acquisition of the competencies. He uses reflexive writing as a way for students to think about what they are learning in relation to the competencies. One question we posed to Malcolm was “How might discussion be used to enable this process of learning to self-regulate? “What does it mean to “self-regulate”?  This could be a good topic for future conversations.

Discussion for assessment

Some courses include a small participation grade based on discussion (e.g., 10%),  while others may have an assessment component in which discussion plays a bigger role. The challenge in all situations is to determine an appropriate assessment strategy. Numerous questions arise when using “discussion as assessment” e.g. what are we assessing when we use “discussion as assessment”? Are we assessing the “content” of the discussion or the “discussion itself”?  How are we teaching students to facilitate and contribute to effective, productive discussion?

What questions do we have about using discussion in teaching?

1) How do you deal with students who haven’t done their homework?

2) How do we manage and facilitate discussions?

3) What does a good discussion look like? When is discussion appropriate? What type of discussion?

4) How do we incorporate discussion based approaches into knowledge transfer type courses?

What’s next?

This discussion brought up many interesting questions. For example, are we using discussion just to break up lecture activities, or does it contribute to learning? If we look at Bloom’s taxonomy, how do we use discussion to promote active engagement in deep vs. surface learning? Some feel that learning is a social and constructive process and if we believe this then it is the teacher’s role to establish a context whereby discussion is useful, valued and effective. Thus we need to be clear about our intentions in using discussion as a way of learning as well as a way of instructing.

Resources for Enhancing Discussions

1) See books written by S. Brookfield. He is an educational theorist in adult education who specializes in discussion-based learning. Also see Barb’s blog post.

2) Use facilitation guidebooks (library) and web-based resources. Here’s a great one to start on “what is facilitating”?

3) Here’s a course on facilitating groups at Hollyhock sponsored by SFU and the Centre for Dialogue

Discussion is not just about talking more. The more I teach, the more questions I ask and the fewer I answer…