Class discussions can be rewarding, lively, resulting in changed perspectives.
This, however, takes planning. Too often, however, class discussions fizzle into boredom and students chatting on nonacademic matters. This occurs inevitably if the chat is not planned properly.
Why do classroom chats fizzle?
Often teachers carefully craft well-designed discussion prompts. They also carefully design the discussion groups and roles within the groups. So what then is the problem?
Reasons Class Discussions Fail
The problem is usually students have not been trained in the skill of an academic discussion. This skill does not occur naturally; how to have a thoughtful discussion is learned—a developmental skill. If not trained in discussion, students will probably answer the questions or address the discussion points in the simplest and most straightforward manner—in fact, that is a general role of nonacademic conversation, to get to the point and move on. To go against this prior experience with interaction, students need to learn how to open discussions, respond to the opening, extend it, before drawing to a close, so that an issue may be explored thoroughly and perhaps result in a changed perspective or open possibilities not thought of before. It may take half the semester or more before students begin to gain some competency in this skill.
What, then, is the process to begin learning how to have a class discussion?
This question might be addressed by contrasting academic with everyday discourse.
3 Differences between Academic and Everyday Discussion
In an academic discourse, there is often a general conversation starter to open. It is not meant to be answered “yes” or “no” or other short answer. For example, the question might be something philosophic or near-philosophic: “What do people mean when they say ‘culture’?” or “What is art?” or even “What did you think of the reading?” The individual posing the question would respond with disappointment or annoyance if getting a short answer such as “It’s a painting” or “I liked it.” This is in contrast to the everyday conversation: “Where are the scissors?” or “Would you like coffee?” where brevity is expected, and extending the question with multiple considerations as to the nature of coffee or bringing others into the discussion for their opinions on the location of the scissors will result in confusion or impatience.
There is an expectation in academic discussion that it will be drawn out: the question considered from multiple perspectives and definitions, different people and viewpoints brought in, possible answers, and so forth. The nature of “art” indeed should be examined this way—by different definitions, points of view, both current and past, and future possibilities considered. However, conversations in everyday conversation are usually expected to be as brief as possible: to the greeting “How are you?” no one expects or wants a debate as to the meaning of that question and various ways it might be answered.
Drawing the Conversation to a Close
Again, in nonacademic discussion, succinctness is key. After the waitress has asked me if I want coffee, and I respond in the affirmative, I expect her to leave. The interaction is over. But in nonacademic conversation, the conversation closes slowly, with various members of the discussion asked if they have more to add, final considerations entertained, prior points not covered thoroughly raised again, etc.
So the differences between nonacademic and academic conversations are huge, and students should be expected to have trouble with the academic discussion at first and need to be trained explicitly in its principles.
So how might students be trained in academic discussion?
8 Rules of Discussion to Promote Higher-Level Thinking
Define Academic Discussion
Introduce some of the contrasts raised here. Students will probably, once they begin to understand there is a difference, begin to offer examples themselves. This, in fact, might become an academic discussion on its own, as students redefine what “conversation” means, a fine way to start the class.
Students need to see an example before they begin to understand; academic discussion is one of those concepts that is best defined by the explicit example rather than the abstract definition. Ask a student to just throw out a word or question at random. It may in fact wind up being something like “How are you today?” Show them then how this might be answered in an academic discussion: deconstruct the question— (e.g., “What is meant by ‘how’ or ‘are’ in this sense?”) Entertain various ways it might be answered. This is, of course, taking the process to the ridiculous extreme, and probably will result in laughter—but humor and exaggeration are in fact teaching strategies to clearly demonstrate a point and aid in student memory.
Explicitly Teach Strategies
Provide handouts of the different discussion techniques: questions to open the discussion, ways to respond, how to draw in other people and viewpoints, ways to wrap up and raise final considerations, etc.
Consider Showing an Actual Academic Debate
This example may be either televised or videotaped from past classes or volunteers. An actual demonstration, live or taped, provides much more context than a handout or readings
Practice. Slowly Introduce the Process in the Class
Focus one week on just getting the discussion going, the next week on drawing it out, and so forth. Gradually step up expectations that students gradually take over the process as they learn it, no longer needing prompting from the instructor to respond to the topic or to include others.
Monitor Students and Give Regular Feedback
Note the quality and quantity of students’ individual participation as well as how the discussion went as a whole.
Make the Discussion Part of the Grade
Based on the feedback you’ve given, assign grades and keep students updated on their grades. An improvement in the quantity and quality of discussion will usually result once students have been introduced to the process of academic discussion, and it becomes part of their grade.
I’ve had students with speech disorders or nonnative accents of which they were painfully if unnecessarily conscious. For such students, there should be lessened expectations in discussion participation but adjustments to the grading in other ways—for example, more written reflection on the discussion topics—while still encouraging the student to participate as much as possible.
A good class discussion requires more than simply telling students to talk on a topic. Rather, it requires definition and modeling of academic discussion and using a number of strategies to help students learn the skill. However, with careful instruction and practice, students can become proficient at the academic discussion.