Provide More Opportunities for Classroom Discussion

“The prototypic teaching method for active learning is discussion.”
Svinicki and McKeachie

One of the teaching and learning strategies according to John Hattie that has one of the highest impacts on student achievement is classroom discussion. It has an effect size of 0.82 and is ranked very highly (in the top 10) amongst intervention factors that have an impact on learning.

A great outline of the importance of providing more opportunities for classroom discussion comes from the University of Victoria in Canada and their Learning Impact Library. Stating that classroom discussion:

Brings about student participation: Whenever a classroom-wide discussion comes about, students are encouraged to follow along and suggest their opinion. This also helps them build confidence and gain social interaction skills in a learning environment.

Allows students to become connected to a topic: By encouraging students to participate, and interact with a group about a topic, they are more inclined to gain interest in that topic.

It enables students to be respected for their ideas: By presenting their opinion to the class, students are given credit for their individual ideas (Effective Classroom Discussions, 2012).

Brings about multiple points of views on a single topic: Opposed to narrow-mindlessly thinking about an an issue from one perspective, students are encouraged to consider the ideas of those around them.

Builds intellectual agility in students (Drs. Cavanough, 2001): By being frequently exposed to listening to different approaches on the same issue, students acquire the ability to quickly think on their feet and formulate an opinion.

This morning I ran across a fellow Melbourne educator, Greg Curran’s recent resource of language structures to support a more discursive approach in the classroom.

They provide a useful aid to our thinking – not something to tick off but certainly a resource to remind us of how our own language can open or close discussion. Here is an example from Greg’s post:

Sentence Starters for…Building On

  • Y mentioned that…
  • Yes–and furthermore…
  • The author’s claim that Z is interesting because…
  • Adding to what X said,…
  • If we change Xs position just a little, we can see that…

In many cases we have to construct the climate for classroom discussion to work and to be most effective. A supportive, encouraging and open learning environment is most conducive to this type of learning talk – unfortunately there can be many obstacles that get in the way of fostering participation.

What follows are notes on five barriers to classroom discussion, six faulty assumptions and seven strategies to foster participation. (And a partridge in a pear tree) They are from a great Idea Paper from Kansas State University, Effective Classroom Discussion, written by William Cashin.

In the paper Cashin refers to Svinicki and McKeachie who outline five barriers to good discussion: 

  1. Habits of passive learning
  2. Fear of appearing stupid
  3. Trying too hard to find the answer the teacher is looking for
  4. Failing to see value in the discussion topic or process
  5. Wanting to settle on a solution before alternatives have been considered.

Additionally Davis (2009, p. 107) outlines six faulty assumptions students often hold about discussions

  1. One must argue for only one position
  2. Knowledge is really just opinion
  3. Personal experience is the real source of knowledge
  4. Issues should not be discussed unless there is agreement
  5. Individual rights are violated when ideas are challenged
  6. Individuals in a discussion should never feel uncomfortable.

Finally Cashin refers to seven strategies to try:

  1. Ask general (divergent) questions. Questions that can have more than one acceptable answer (e.g., “What is your opinion about…?”) can lead to more discussion. In addition, give students your questions about the reading before you will be discussing them. (See Svinicki and McKeachie, 2011, pp. 47-48.)
  2. Avoid looking only at the student talking. Although it may seem counterintuitive to look away, and eye contact does tell a student that you are paying attention, looking too long at one student can seem threatening. Also, you need to monitor how the other students in the group are reacting.
  3. Control excessive talkers. Even though the students who talk the most are sometimes the “better” students, avoid automatically calling on them first, even after a seemingly long silence. Ask to hear from someone who hasn’t said anything yet. If one student’s excessive talking becomes a problem, you may want to talk with that student about it outside of class. (See also Brookfield and Preskill, 2005, pp. 169-177.) Sometimes the excessive talker is you (or me) — the teacher! Videotaping a class and watching it later may provide useful information about this (as well as many other aspects of your class). (See also Brookfield and Preskill, 2005, pp. 193-200.)
  4. Ask for examples and illustrations. This is particularly important when discussing complex ideas, or concepts students often have difficulty understanding.
  5. Allow for pauses and silences. Sometimes in American culture, we act as though there should never be a quiet time in our conversations. Silence, even for a minute or more, allows the students, and you, time to think. This “wait time” is especially helpful to students who are more introverted and may not be getting an opportunity to participate (Davis, 2009).
  6. Be sensitive to feelings and emotional reactions. Some topics may generate strong negative — or positive — feelings, or you may notice that a student is becoming upset or angry as the discussion progresses, any of which may become obstacles to learning. Ideally, the student will bring up the problem so it can be discussed. To prompt this, you may simply wish to say, “You seem to have strong feelings about this.” Or you may need to explore: “Would you say some more about that?” You may want to talk to the student after class.
  7. Encourage and recognize students’ contributions. Listen carefully to each student’s comments, sometimes paraphrasing to show that you understand. Give students a chance to clarify what they meant, or link Student B’s comment to something Student A said.

Idea Paper #49 Effective Classroom Discussion, William Cashin, Kansas State University

Hopefully there is plenty there to get your teeth into regarding the impact and development of classroom discussion. It certainly forms a key pillar of the conditions for great learning in our schools.

Tom Barrett

Tom is a writer, speaker and consultant. He has been sharing his thoughts on teaching, learning, curiosity and creativity on this blog for over 10 years. Drinking coffee and writing would be his idea of a perfect day.

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