Last month (where has the time gone?) we had a teaching conversation about using “discussion” as a technique in teaching. There are so many instructors using discussions in various ways, with a range of results that we felt it was valuable to once again revisit this teaching technique and unpack some of what we are currently trying to do in the FHS classrooms.
What are instructors currently doing with “discussion”?
People are using discussion in the classroom and other contexts such as student orientations to:
i) engage students and promote deeper understanding of the readings, ii) examine complex topics through sharing and exchange of ideas, share perspectives; (iii) problem solve; (iv) build social environments that support students in getting to know each other and to promote connections; (v) share future plans and experiences of learning in FHS.
Some of the challenges expressed include: i) getting discussion started when people don’t know each other; (ii) having enough time (weeks) for a new group to gel and this can pose challenges if they are required to produce earlier in the term; (iii) dealing with large classes since the size of the group has an impact on the quality of discussion; (iv) marking discussions. One has to be clear on the intentions and indicators of a good discussion and students need to know what this looks like.
Tips for Improving Discussions:
- Laurie uses a discussion guide to assist grad students to examine issues and analyze themes. She considers the size and mix of the groups and how these two factors can influence the nature and quality of the group discussion.
- Meghan, in her undergrad course, considers how groups and discussion come together to add value to the learning going in in the classroom. She has tried using discussion guides, changing the groups around, structured processes, and more.
- Malcolm, in 815, has attempted a “no ppt – domain” to shift the dynamics in his classroom from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”. He uses questions to prompt discussion and encourages the students to ask questions that can stimulate further, deeper knowing.
- Nienke is experimenting with discussion for peer teaching in her large lecture science classes. One thing she noticed is the level of energy, or “buzz” in the classroom. A successful exercise will create buzz indicating a high level of student engagement. Whereas a low buzz or ‘chatty buzz’ indicates that students are not engaged in the problem. The challenge is in facilitating the right balance of buzz. Nienke finds that the most successful exercises are the ones which have undergone the most planning.
- Mark has incorporated a discussion element in group projects where students must talk about the specific tasks required in the project and come to understanding together. Challenges faced include marking or not marking discussions; motivation and sophistication of students in discussion groups and the value-added of discussion in this context. The tasks include a range of activities from analyzing case studies, reading literature, comparing homework or doing an assignment together. Students produce an artifact based on the discussion that is shared with the larger group.
Summary of the Design Considerations:
Incorporating “discussion” is a great technique for building on the experiences of students, assisting students to get together to work things out and to build practical skills such as facilitation and being part of a group however, there are design considerations for all instructors and staff using discussion in the classroom to promote “engagement” and learning. Some of the considerations we explored are:
- using discussion to accomplish a task or to support process
- the size, composition, and stage of the group
- role of the teacher as sage on the stage or guide and facilitator
- passive nature of some students and groups
- the role of the expert
- using structured guides to providing no structure and allowing for “free flow” discussion
- the differences between discussion, dialogue and debate.