Frequently Asked Questions about Discussion

Article by Joan Middendorf, Director & Alan Kalish, Associate Director
Teaching Resources Center, Indiana University, 9/96

1. How can I get a discussion going?
Discussions need to be carefully planned. Sometimes we see instructors try to get a discussion going on the spur of the moment, by asking a question they have just thought up. These often fail to stir much student response.

Arguably, good discussions can take more thought than a lecture might.

It is important to plan an activity that gets at the most important issue in the class, as we discussed in the workshop. Planning a discussion is easier said than done. TRC staff frequently help faculty plan discussions until they get the hang of planning one.

2. What mechanisms can I use to keep the discussion going?
The problem to solve or question that the group discusses has to be open-ended and complex enough that they have something to chew on. As the facilitator, you can think through how long the discussion is likely to take, and then give them less time then that. You want to stop them when they are cooking, rather than let the discussion peter out or allow students time to drift into talking about last night's party.

3. What can I do if a discussion falls apart? How can I keep it from dying?
A good teacher always has plan B in mind. Planning several follow-up questions helps to prevent the discussion from coming to premature closure. Set the question so they have to do more than only come up with the easy answer. Have an alternative activity if the one you try does not engage students as you anticipated.
This does not mean that if a discussion does not heat up immediately you should ditch it and revert to lecture. Students need to practice discussion activities a few times before they become proficient at them. Hang in there with them as they learn to discuss easily and well.

4. How can I best keep conversation flowing without lapsing into long silences or a lecture?
In one study, instructors waited on average 0.9 seconds before calling on a student or answering their own questions. Silence is an important factor to be in control of in the classroom. Americans are uncomfortable with silence and 10 seconds can seem like an hour. We recommend that you count to yourself while you are waiting for students to answer a question. Few students can come up with any answer in 0.9 seconds, and in our culture, white males are much more likely to be the ones who do. To give women and minorities a chance, push yourself to allow for some silence. At worst, if the silence drags on for too long, some student is sure to answer if only to come to your rescue. Being aware of the value of what is known in the literature as "wait time" can help you to allow your students the time they need to come up with intelligent answers.
If all of your students are reluctant to speak up on a regular basis, it may be that they are afraid of being embarrassed by saying something "stupid." You can give them a chance to try out their ideas more safely by having them practice their answers in pairs or by having them jot their ideas down before you call on them.

5. How can I promote discussion in a large class so that more than just the vocal few are involved?
You can do anything with 300 that you can do with 30, it just takes more planning.

In a class of 300, if you ask a question and one student answers, you have one student actively engaged, and 299 sitting as passively as they do when you lecture. Perhaps even more so, because they seem to value what fellow students have to say less than what the professor says. Discussion in a large class works much better when the students are divided into small groups and given explicit tasks.

To be sure the groups stay on task, take advantage of the power of randomness. Let them know that you will call on some groups for an answer at the end of the specified time, so they all feel the pressure to be prepared in case they are the ones you call on.

It might help you to know that you cannot expect all groups to perform equally well. It has been our observation that in an average class, a few groups will get more energized and work together better than some other groups, and some groups will seem almost dysfunctional.

6. How do you get everyone participating, especially the quiet ones, without putting them on the spot?
Create the expectation that everyone will participate. You can do so by telling them this explicitly, and by designing activities that require different students to have different responsibilities across the semester. Direct students to be sure and let everyone speak. Again, randomness can help. For example, when you tell students that the reporter for today's discussion will be the person whose last name is closest to the start of the alphabet, some quiet students will end up reporting.

What if we never made students who did not want to speak do so? Can you imagine letting someone get a college education and never having them speak in class? Should we also not make them take tests or write papers?

7. How do you handle "discussion monopolizers"?
If the same people answer all the time, you might say, "Let's hear from someone we haven't heard from yet." And then don't call on the students you have already heard from that day.

Do not allow one student to speak an inordinate amount of class time. If one does, take that person aside and ask him or her to limit their comments in class. If they don't take the first warning (some students are surprisingly unaware of how they come across to their classmates), tell them an exact number of times they can respond in class, and don't call on them any more once they've reached that number on any day.

8. How can I evaluate discussions? "To grade or not to grade, that is the question."
The Not-to-Grade Approach: Some faculty say they don't grade in-class discussion directly because it will inhibit students and add some pressure to the group. Others don't grade discussions when it would account for just a small portion of the grade, such as five or ten percent; they say it's not worth the effort to grade.
One approach is to make participation the norm. For example, one professor we know sets the expectation that participation is the norm and is necessary from day one. When she assigns something, everyone knows that they had better read it because she expects them to be prepared to discuss it. One day, she'll start at one side of the room and ask students to discuss in turn the facts in the case. On another day, she'll start in reverse order. If a student does not participate, she talks to the student individually. Day in and day out, that is the mode of learning in her class, and students get used to it.

The Graded Approach: The benefits of grading participation include encouraging even participation by all and providing an alternative to standard tests or paper evaluations. Here are some grading variations:

Teacher assigns grade:

Peers assign grade:

Students self-evaluate:

The Indirect Approach: Discussions can be evaluated indirectly through exam questions and written assignments. Whether one gives an explicit participation grade or not, every faculty member wants to encourage students to think. One of the best ways to do this is to make exam questions or written assignments reflect class discussions and activities. If you don't, these become throw-away activities. For example, three questions on your exam can be from a class discussion. Or, ask students to evaluate a class discussion in writing or tell where they stand on the issue. Grade them on this writing. Again, even if you don't give an explicit participation grade, you can make participatory activities show up in student grades.

The Bottom line on Evaluating Discussion: If you don't directly grade student participation in discussion or a product of the discussions, you should at the minimum include the content of discussions in your normal evaluation of student learning (tests or written assignments).


Guidelines for Discussion of Racial Conflict and the Language of Hate, Bias, and Discrimination

The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), University of Michigan, has developed guidelines to help instructors facilitate classroom discussion around incidents that involve the use of racial or sexual epithets, taunting, and other behavior that expresses hostility, derision or violence.  In the wake of such incidents on campus or in the wider community, instructors may want to plan discussions or handle unexpected questions.  The following guidelines help address both contexts.

Whatever the context, discussion about such topics must be structured in a way that defines boundaries for the process, and that brings the discussion to closure within the classroom.   Discussion should be inclusive of all students in the class.  It should extend discourse beyond polarized and polarizing debates.  Finally, discussion must acknowledge that facts and interpretations of specific social conflicts may change with time, but tools for conceptual understanding and dialogue will continue to be useful past the current moment.

Spontaneous Discussions: Dealing with the Unanticipated

If, during class, a student raises an issue or example of intense social conflict involving language of hate or bias, consider the following strategies:

1. Acknowledge the student who raised the issue or example while noting that students may vary in their responses and concerns.

2. Decide whether you are ready and willing to engage with this topic right away.

3.  Quickly assess whether the class would like to spend time sharing views about the topic. If students want to have a dialogue, schedule a discussion for a later class and suggest ways that students could prepare. Consider the strategies outlined in the “Planned Discussions” section below.

4. If a discussion seems inappropriate or undesirable, encourage students to identify campus forums and reliable sources of information to share with one another, rather than discussing the matter in class.

Planned Discussions

1. Identify an objective for the discussion. Starting class with a clearly articulated objective will shape the nature of the discussion and link it to other course goals.  Examples of general objectives include:

More specific objectives for discussion about social conflicts, especially those involving language of hate or bias, may focus on policies, social conventions, or civic responsibilities, including the following:

(This second list is adapted from Ronald Hyman, 1980, In Improving Discussion Leadership .  New York: Columbia University, College Teachers Press.)

2. Plan to establish ground rules for the discussion. In class, an instructor can present ground rules and work with students to accept or modify these guidelines for conduct during the discussion. Some suggestions include the following:

It is important that students agree on the ground rules before discussion begins.

Also note the section "Handling Emotional Responses," below.

3.  Provide a common base for understanding. For example, assign readings on a specific conflict, instruct students to select their own readings to bring to class, or show a video clip to prompt discussion. An instructor may also have students read short materials during class.

In class, ask students to identify key points of information, stating their source.  (You can ask students to do this individually and then pool the information, or you can simply elicit information from the class as a whole.)  Make a list of these for the whole class.

Use this elicitation as a time to distinguish evaluative, “loaded,” comments from less evaluative statements, and from statements of personal opinion or experience.  Acknowledge how difficult it may be to make these distinctions at times.

In order to identify and situate threads of discussion that are extraneous to the focus, or are very speculative, ask for and identify information that students would like to know to clarify their understanding on these questions or tangents, even if that information is not available.

4. Because any social conflict is a complex topic, it is important to establish a framework for the discussion in addition to having an objective.

5. In order to keep a discussion focused and purposeful, be an active facilitator rather than a passive observer. On the other hand, be careful not to over-control. A facilitator intervenes throughout the discussion to reword questions posed by students, correct misinformation, make reference to relevant reading materials or course content, ask for clarification from contributors, and review the main points.

6. Encourage broad class participation . Do not allow the most talkative or most opinionated students to dominate the discussion, and do not allow any students to claim “expert” status based on their experiences or connections to a particular conflict. Some methods for increasing the number of discussants include:

With each of these methods, the instructor needs to summarize the various responses and relate them to the discussion objectives.

7.  To encourage students to develop their ability to discuss the issues raised by listening to one another and exchanging viewpoints , be prepared with possible interventions, such as the following reminders:

a.  that your goals are to increase insight and to lessen defensiveness

b.  that everyone needs to be actively listening and working on their ability to tolerate opposition

c.  that persuading is different from informing, and that reaching a consensus is not the goal of your present discussion.

8. To respect the diversity of opinions and the varying knowledge levels among students, strive for balance in the dialogue, including

9. One key issue in discussions about social conflicts is the opportunity for students from different backgrounds to interact and to talk in settings that are conducive to thoughtful exchange about differences. Agree to discuss this topic in a way that does not make assumptions about any members of the class (including the instructor). Some individuals may feel more invested in or implicated by the issues (or others might assume they are).  Make sure no one is put on the spot, and recognize that students may have strong feelings and perspectives on the topic, and these feelings and perspectives may be unpredictable.

10. An instructor can utilize various techniques to defuse growing tension in the class or between particular students by:

For additional suggestions, refer to “ Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom ” by Lee Warren.

11. Conclude by summarizing the main points of the discussion. Students are more likely to feel that a discussion was valuable if the instructor, with the help of the class, synthesizes what has been shared.

12. It is useful to obtain student feedback about the quality of the discussion and to identify issues that may need follow-up. The Minute Paper is one strategy for obtaining feedback.

Immediately following the discussion, give students a few minutes to write answers to the following questions: “What is the most important point you learned today?”; and, "What important questions remain unanswered for you?"

Review the student responses before your next meeting with the class. During the next class, briefly summarize the student feedback and thank the students for their participation.

Handling Emotional Responses

Even within a well-planned and thoughtful discussion, statements can be made, and tones of voice used, that will cause emotional responses of anger, confusion, hurt, fear, surprise, or embarrassment.  Such moments can be called “triggers.”

Responses to triggers include the following:

It can be helpful to identify these responses to triggers for the students, and to identify these as normal responses.

(This section on triggers is adapted from Pat Griffin (1997). "Introductory module for the single issue courses" in Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook , Maurianne Adams, Lee Ann Bell, and Pat Griffin, eds. New York : Routledge, pp. 78-79.)

For strategies on responding to expressions of bigotry in everyday life, see the "SpeakUp!" web project of the Southern Poverty Law Center: http://www.tolerance.org/publication/speak/speak.

Handling Issues That Involve the Instructor's Identity

Discussing an issue of social conflict can involve the instructor's identity in a number of ways.  Students may make assumptions about the expectations an instructor has in leading the class discussion.  Assumptions may be based on the students' perception of the instructor's identity, on the way that the instructor has handled other class sessions, and on their personal interactions with the instructor.  Taking the role of facilitator may reduce the extent to which an instructor's identity is an issue for students.

Students may expect their instructor to express his or her own point of view, or they may ask explicitly for this view.  In deciding how to respond, instructors should consider their comfort in expressing personal views, and also the impact such expressions will have on this and future discussion in class.

In addition, some issues and events may trigger reactive responses in an instructor, and students may say things and speak in ways that trigger emotional reactions.  Instructors need to be aware of the possibility (or even the likelihood) of having an emotional response, even if a discussion is thoughtfully planned.  Recognizing the response and the trigger as such will help an instructor to stay even-tempered in leading the discussion.  To handle statements that trigger emotional responses, instructors will want to draw on techniques that will allow them and the class to step back and gain perspective (e.g., naming the triggering issue, giving oneself time by asking students to do a brief writing exercise, working with the class to reframe or contextualize the triggering statement).  If an instructor needs to let such a moment simply pass by, it is important to find time later to talk through the experience, and to address the triggering issue with others who are outside of the class.

In the event that one or more students try to draw the instructor into an emotional response, the ground rules for discussion can play a vital role, and the instructor can model constructive behavior in demonstrating how to unpack such a heated moment by reviewing what had led up to it, in pointing out differences between baiting, debating, and discussing, and/or steering the discussion into a more useful direction.

CRLT • University of Michigan • 1071 Palmer Commons • 100 Washtenaw Ave. • Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2218
Phone: (734) 764-0505  •  Fax: (734) 647-3600  •  Email: crlt@umich.edu