Fostering Classroom Discussion

What is it?

Classroom discussions are a critical instructional strategy that many faculty employ.  But is it effective?  Research has found that student engagement is the key to their academic success (Kuh et al., 2005, as cited in Howard, J., 2015, p. 4). Students learn more when they are involved in their own education and able to think about and apply what they are learning. Fostering classroom discussion is exactly what is suggests. How can instructors encourage and facilitate student participation and engagement within the classroom? How can educators allow the students to take control of their learning through collaboration with other students? How can professors make all of this possible in the classroom?

How does it work?

Think about how much time it takes to prepare and plan a lecture. Creating an effective discussion can take just as much time, however the end result can be ten times more rewarding for students. In order for classroom discussion to take place, students need to be actively reading, writing, discussing, and problem solving with their fellow classmates. By doing so, they are engaging in higher-order thinking skills like evaluation, synthesis, and analysis (Bonwell and Eison, 1991, as cited in Howard, J., 2015 p. 5). 

Encourage student participation.  One way to foster more engagement in classroom discussions is to grade students on their participation. Tell the students the benefits that participation has on their learning and have them understand your flexibility in giving them multiple opportunities to engage. This allows students to know participation is expected of them, if they want full credit for that day’s class. It does not have to be the anxiety-producing speaking out loud in front of the room, but from simply actively engaging within small groups. However, if a student does choose to share aloud to the class, be sure to respond with positive reinforcement. Harsh or embarrassing responses will shut down all communication between the students and instructor. Students want to feel safe and confident in sharing their thoughts or opinions so even when they might be slightly off track, still respond in an encouraging manner, such as, “good”, “Bob has gotten us started, who can add to what he shared?”, or “That is one idea, does anyone else have any thoughts?”. This will create the opportunity for further student engagement and the previous volunteer will not feel defeated (Auster and MacRone, 1994, as cited in Howard, J., 2015; Hemingway, K., 2015). Using peer responses to build the discussion can be helpful.

Create questions that allow for elaboration. Auster and MacRone (1994) recommend the use of analytical questions, rather than factual. Allow students enough time to formulate their thoughts and create a response that they feel confident sharing. Begin your questions with phrases like “Take a moment and consider…” or “Think about _______ for a moment” (Dailey, 2014, as cited in Howard, J., 2015, p. 27). This will relieve the students’ pressure of feeling rushed or unsure that their answer is sufficient.

Change the learning environment. Research also suggests that rearranging a classroom setup, if possible, can facilitate student interaction and discussion. Creating a circle or horseshoe shape with the desks allows the students to see one another, therefore stimulating discussion. The attention is not solely on the professor at the front of the room. Students become the center of attention and the instructor can slip into the background (Barton, J., Heilker P., & Rutkowski, D., n.d.; Hemingway, K., 2015). If the desks or chairs in the classroom cannot be physically moved, it is encouraged that the professor makes the most of the space by moving around the room. Students are less likely to be texting behind their computer screens or doodling on their notes if the professor is constantly changing where they are standing. Studies have found that students consider the appearance of their professors when forming first impressions and creating assumptions. Young faculty, who might not look older than the students they are teaching tend to gain more respect when wearing more formal or professional attire. Benton (2013) stated that when he dressed more formally, his classes ran smoother with few disruptions, fewer grade appeals, and more emails with “Dear Professor” than a casual “Hey”. However, there are students who find instructors intimidating when they dress professionally and feel comfortable engaging with a professor in more casual attire (Howard, J., 2015). Since there is no one right way to dress, Howard recommends that educators experiment with their attire, in order to determine which works best for classroom engagement.

Implement opportunities for student collaboration. At the very beginning of class, allow students to pair up with a classmate and review last night’s homework assignment. If the pair has different answers, they work together in order to figure out which is correct. They are able to learn from each other, not just from the professor. If the course does not have regular homework assignments, clickers or Plickers can be utilized to gauge student comprehension. Students can pair up, discuss a question presented by the professor, and submit their answers. Think-Pair-Share activities can be implemented into classes to get individual students thinking about a topic before discussing with a classmate. This activity begins with individual students completing a one minute paper responding to a question or prompt provided by the professor (Think). Each student then turns to another student near them (Pair) and they discuss what they have written (Share). After the students have shared with one another, the professor can call on any one to share their responses out loud. The designated student will be able to answer with more confidence because they were given the time to organize their thoughts.

Give quiet students a chance. No matter what questions an instructor asks or how small the break out groups might be, some students will never willingly raise their hands. The one minute paper used in collaborative discussions can also be used for individual students. When presented with a question or prompt from the instructor, students take one minute to organize their ideas and put it all on paper. Quiet students will have the opportunity to reflect on a topic, making them more likely to share with the class because they do not have to come up with an answer on the spot. This can also help keep student answers more focused on the topic at hand, rather than allowing dominant talkers to ramble through their entire thought process aloud. Other small assignments can be used at the end of class as a ticket out the door. The Muddiest Point or Most Important Point are two examples Howard (2015) recommends. For the Muddiest Point, students are instructed to take out a piece of paper and write about something from that day’s class that they did not fully comprehend. What was difficult to understand? What did you not get? Students hand their papers to the professor on the way out. Before the next class meeting, the professor reviews the responses to determine any common themes. If the majority of responses are surrounding one point, that can be quickly revisited at the beginning of the next class period. For the Most Important Point, students are asking to reflect on what they learned that day. What was the most important point or takeaway from today’s class? The Muddiest Point and Most Important Point papers can be used in combination in order to avoid students saying they do not have an answer for one. They are able to choose which paper they complete. Typically these papers are handed in anonymously, however instructors can require names for attendance purposes. Having names on the papers also allows the professor to ask specific students to share more about what they wrote for the class.

Get to know your students. Weaver and Qui (2005, as cited in Howard, J., 2015) found that student-instructor interaction outside of class was positively associated with student participation in class. Instructors should take advantage of, or even create, opportunities to engage with students outside of the classroom setting. One way to do this is by having mandatory individual meetings throughout the semester with each student. These can be very brief, as this could require a lot of time. The professor can just check in with each student, see if they have any concerns or need help with any content or assignments. Even if the student does not have a lot to talk about that day, creating a personal relationship could allow for more meaningful meetings later in the semester. It could encourage students to schedule a meeting during office hours to review an assignment or to get feedback on another idea. 

Who is doing it?

Professors in the physical classroom, as well as the virtual classroom, are implementing strategies and best practices to foster meaningful discussion. Educators have conducted multiple surveys and studies to determine the benefits of student collaboration and discussion. Kuh et al. (2005) suggests that students lean more when they actively participate in discussion, as opposed to just listening. Umbach and Wawrzynski (2005) conducted national studies that found students reported greater learning when the instructor utilized active and collaborative learning strategies. Murry and Lang (1997) conducted a study on their own psychology students, stating that students who participated more in discussions earned higher exam grades. They also suggest that their students learned topics better when engaging in active participation, compared to just listening to a lecture (as cited in Howard, J., 2005).

Studies have suggested that online classes elicit greater participation from the students as a whole, than face-to-face classes. Discussion forums are commonly used for interaction among students in the virtual classroom. In a study conducted at Brigham Young University, discussion forums were among the top three pedagogical features used by instructors and students (Griffiths and Graham, 2009, as cited in Howard, J., 2005). Kearns (2012) conducted a study of 24 online courses and concluded that online discussions were ‘the second most frequently utilized assessment strategy after written assignments” (as cited in Howard, J., 2005). Hung and Zhang (2008) studied online behaviors of 98 undergraduate business students currently enrolled in an online class. The results found that students interacted more, not only with their peers but with their instructor as well. Hung and Zhang stated that the online behaviors of the students and their performance were related. They concluded the frequency of accessing materials and the number of messages within forums could predict a student’s performance in the course. Active participation resulted in greater learning and comprehension within the virtual classroom. 

Why is it significant?

Various studies have found that students learn more when they are physically engaged and verbally interacting with the class material. This engagement comes from “involving students actively in higher order cognitive processes like creating, problem-solving, evaluating, and decision making”, while promoting the concept of working in collaborative teams (Kearsley and Shneiderman, 1997, as cited in Dreon, O., 2014). Collaboration and communication are essential for life as we know it. These skills need to be developed in the classrooms in order to set students up for success after graduation. Instructors need to create an open and inviting environment that allows students to be willing to share their thoughts and ideas. Implementing group activities for verbal discussion will help students with their interpersonal communication skills. They will learn to work cohesively as a unit, similar to many jobs they could hold in the future. Throwing in occasional writing pieces or online discussions can assist students in bettering their writing skills. Obviously there should be some standards for formatting and students should be expected to write formally, as if it were any other paper. Discussion in all forms is a learning experience for the students and instructor. 

What are the downsides?

Implementing various opportunities for discussion or collaboration can be a challenge for instructors. For those of you that are used to hearing only your voice during (besides the crickets chirping when you ask a question to the class) getting the students involved will take time and planning. Good discussion questions take thought and activities take planning, along with trial and error. If these questions or activities are successful and the class really begins to take advantage of the opportunities to speak up, all of the material you wanted to get through might not get touched. Exam or assignment dates might have to be adjusted accordingly if material is not covered in the time frame you originally planned for.

There is always the possibility that students will use time in small groups to gossip or talk about anything other than what they are supposed to. Using a tool or method to create random groups could help keep the Chatty Kathys away from each other. Requiring each group to submit a small write up of their discussion or making an activity for the group to complete could help motivate the students to actually do the work. Make sure to let the class know from day one that participation is part of their grade. Be present in the classroom and make rounds to each group so they are aware that you are watching. If you catch a group straying from the path, you can intervene and get them back on track. 

Where is it going?

It seems as if class sizes are increasing and online classes or programs are becoming more popular. Instructors are being stretched thin while trying to give students a worthwhile educational experience. Creating more activities or discussion questions for classes can feel like a ton of extra work up front. However, utilizing groups can help minimize the amount of grading individual assignments. Large classes can be broken up into smaller, more manageable break out groups. Each group can work together and come up with an answer to the question or complete an assignment to hand in. Interactive documents, such as Google Docs, make group papers doable for busy students. These approaches can allow students to fine tune their interpersonal and critical thinking skills. On the other hand, the instructor has less assignments to grade, resulting in less caffeine intake.

When many people think of an online class, they question how a student will get the same experience or learning from it being online, as opposed to being in a physical classroom. Technology is ever changing and from email to Skype, students can interact with classmates or their instructor in many different ways. Interaction and discussion only does not occur in an online classroom if the instructor does not allow for students to have these opportunities. Group work is still possible. For example, weekly discussion boards as a participation requirement can encourage students to share their thoughts and ideas with the class. In order for the instructor and students to not get overwhelmed, try having students submit their individual posts sometime between Monday and Thursday. After that window has closed, have students respond to however many other posts between Friday and Sunday. Breaking these up will give the professor time to observe what is being said and allow the students to breathe before they have to post again. 

What are the implications for teaching and learning?

Fostering classroom discussions allows students to do the teaching, while everyone listening is doing the learning. The instructor is not the only one in the room with good ideas or valid thoughts. Multiple students with great insight could be sitting in every classroom on campus and without the opportunity to share, their knowledge might go unnoticed. The instructors are able to learn what discussion activities work well for certain classes. They are able to experiment with their creativity by coming up with ideas and then asking for feedback from the class. There is room for improvement with every classroom. Allowing the students to practice skills that are relevant for their future endeavors is a huge opportunity to set them apartment from future colleagues. 


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