Center for Faculty Excellence

Tips for Teaching

Promoting More Effective Classroom Discussions

The following is a summary of a CFE "brown bag" session involving USMA faculty members from a variety of disciplines

 
What is a classroom discussion?

There were a variety of definitions offered, but most participants agreed that a classroom discussion involves an exchange of ideas among members of the class focused on the course material in some way. A hallmark of a true discussion is the interchange of ideas among students without the instructor having to respond to each and every comment or even to acknowledge each individual's contribution. Instead, the instructor who uses discussion as a teaching strategy serves as a facilitator or monitor of the activity rather than its focal point.
A second related question is "Why" use discussion as an instructional strategy? Discussion gets beyond the surface question and answer of the "punctuated lecture" in which the instructor just elicits knowledge-level facts. In discussion, students will naturally be engaged in higher order thinking--application, analysis, evaluation.

What makes a discussion effective?

A discussion is considered "effective" when there is a lively exchange among the students and when contributions offer insight into the question(s) at hand. Some participants indicated that the criterion of the most effective discussions is when students continue the conversations beyond the class and can be heard continuing to exchange ideas as they leave. Students who appropriately cite discussion comments or insights on WPRs or TEEs is another indicator of effectiveness.

What can a teacher do to improve discussions?

Preparation is the single most effective way to improve classroom discussions. As a teaching strategy, discussion should not be an impromptu choice. Instructors need to insure preparation and establish expectations. For example, one cannot simply assume that because a block of reading is assigned on the syllabus that the cadets will be prepared to discuss that material in class. If the instructor has decided that discussion is the strategy he or she intends to use, that instructor should provide some context for the cadets.
For example, the instructor can distribute in the preceding class (or send via e-mail) three or four key open-ended questions, explaining that those questions will be the focus of the next class, so cadets should prepare some response.
Or an instructor can organize the class into groups of three or four cadets to a group and distribute (or put on the board) the day's discussion question(s). The groups are each assigned a question and told that they have 10 minutes to prepare a response. Other groups are told that they are expected to critique the response. This can initiate a general discussion, but it a technique used best when the material is fairly familiar to the students.
Once students have some experience of discussion, the instructor can have a student (or group) develop discussion questions from the homework and e-mail the questions to the class.

 

Besides preparation, the instructor can contribute to more effective discussion by the physical arrangement of the class. Students should be facing one another (desks arranged in a full square), and the instructor should blend into the group as much as possible. While many cadets (especially plebes) may address all comments to the instructor, the faculty member can encourage interaction by deflecting those comments to other cadets--e.g., "CDT Jones does not agree that the Russian army is a central factor in Hitler's defeat; what's your opinion, CDT Smith?" Faculty members posed the following problems which were discussed in the brown bag sessions.

Discussion Problems

 

How does an instructor better ensure that students listen to their peers, especially with plebes who tend to look to the instructor for the "right" answers?

Participants felt that the instructor should compliment cadets on their contributions to signal the value of their insights to the other cadets. The instructor can also re-direct cadet questions to other cadets for answers to encourage interaction among them. Then the instructor should affirm the cadets' contributions.
Another method for getting plebes to "listen" to their peers is to begin discussion sessions with a rule that in order to speak, a cadet must first briefly summarize what has been said by the previous speaker.

How does an instructor better ensure that all students participate, not just the "select" one-half or two-thirds?

Participants were divided on the question of whether or not everyone HAD to speak in a discussion. However, to encourage participation, instructors can elicit comments from those who are not speaking out. This should be done in a conversational rather than a demanding tone, as though the instructor genuinely wants to hear the quiet cadet's opinion.
Also, it was pointed out that discussion among groups rather than individuals tends to include everyone because the cadets will contribute to their individual groups even if only one member of the group "reports" to the class as a whole. The instructor can also change the "reporter" to insure that most cadets take that role, too.

How can an instructor get a discussion "going" so that the students carry the ball and the instructor only interjects when necessary?

Again, preparation is essential, but there are several ways to get "going."

  • If the cadets have some discussion questions in advance, one cadet can be asked to pose one of those questions to the class and elicit a response.
  • Or the cadets can be arranged in groups with each group responsible for briefly discussing one of the questions and reporting to the whole class. The rest of the class is responsible for asking questions of the group that reports.
  • Sometimes the instructor can begin a discussion session by posing a provocative question that the cadets are certain to have opinions about and challenging them respond.
  • Another good way to insure response is to have the cadets respond briefly in writing to the day's discussion questions. This helps them organize their thoughts and, if no one offers a verbal response, the instructor can ask someone to read his or her response
What strategies can be used to get cadets to engage each other in the discussion rather than talking to the instructor asking the instructor questions?

As noted previously, the instructor needs to control this by deflecting cadet direct questions to other cadets.

Do the cadets seem to feel that the norm is NOT to discuss or engage each other in class concerning the lesson? (Note: This is the impression of one instructor who would like his impressions confirmed or denied)

If cadets seem to have this attitude, it is up to the instructor to structure his or her class so that cadets expect to discuss and engage each other in class. Some research indicates that students form their impression of what should occur in a class during the first two weeks of the semester. So an instructor who wants to use discussion as an instructional strategy should structure some discussion sessions during those first two weeks, making sure that the class is adequately prepared for the discussions and that he/she tries to maximize cadet participation.