Class discussions can pose a number of problems for teachers.
Often they waver between either too structured (a series of discussion points) or a free-for-all (questions thrown out to the class as a whole that disintegrates quickly into the batting around of unrelated topics). There are, fortunately, happy middle grounds—neither too structured nor too free-ranging, organized around of series of principles which a group of “experts” (in this case, students who have developed some expertise on a given topic) agree to use while engaging with each other.
One of these such discussion types is the “roundtable.” The title is descriptive—the participants sit at a literal round table, usually, or at least in a circle, implying no hierarchy, and each in turn contributes his or her ideas and expertise on the topic. In addition, because they are in a circle, they are able to see and hear each other with ease, not always the case in a series of rows that a typical lecture is held in. Each group member at the table contributes in turn. Usually each speaker in turn addresses the topic without interruption, and questions, answers, comments, and possible short debate or back-and-forth are saved until the end.
4 Challenges for a Roundtable Discussion
Each member must be prepared and have developed his or her own thoughts and some expertise on the topic. This is not as hard as one might think. In my own experience as a writer, some basic reading and research from reliable sources on almost any topic, such as pyramid schemes and other similar crimes, for example, makes one more of an expert than 90% of the population.
Roundtables are by nature not hierarchical with equal participation. Everyone has parity, an equal chance, indeed obligation, to participate. That’s why the table is round, the members facing each other rather than lined up. If one person dominates the discussion or doesn’t participate, it is immediately obvious and contrary to the expectations of a roundtable.
Often the members come with different aspects or perspectives or opposing views on the topic. In fact, this is again an expectation, the very nature of a round table, that various perspectives are entertained and build on each other. It is not acceptable to just agree with your peers. Often, subtopics have been assigned: the pros and cons of an issue like gun control, for example; the historic background; the future implications; the issue from various cultural perspectives, and so forth.
The order of the discussion is usually introductions, discussion going around the table, each stating his or her views and perspectives, then any debate between members or questions and answers with the audience, and a final wrap-up/summary of the issues raised. Strict time limits are usually set—again, in interest of equality, to keep one or two members from dominating the discussion and allow an equal chance for everyone to participate.
3 Methods to Address Problems of a Roundtable Discussion
A perennial problem with education in general, group projects like round tables in particular, is the student who has not done the preparation to participate effectively. In some group projects, such as the project when students are constructing or creating something like a mural, or even a debate, the underprepared student can coast by more or less unnoticed on the efforts of his or her peers. In a roundtable, however, it becomes painfully obvious if someone has not prepared when the spotlight is on him or her when his or her turn comes up.
Often such underprepared students won’t allow this eventually: they will approach the instructor, sometimes the very day of the roundtable, with the news they have not prepared, usually with an extensively prepared excuse. A way to deal with this is to tell the student she must participate anyway, as she had ample time to prepare and notify the group of any difficulty. Less cruel might be to allow the student to sit out but demand that he participate as an audience member, taking notes, raising questions—and with deducted points.
Students who just reiterate what prior students said rather than extending the discussion.
A permeation of the student who comes unprepared is the student who has prepared somewhat but when his or her turn comes mostly reiterates the points that have already been addressed rather than extending the discussion with a new perspective or angle on the topic.
A way to address this is by stepping in, reminding the student of what specific subtopic he or she is supposed to be addressing. This can also be addressed earlier in preparation, by asking students to present notes on the topic, to make sure that they have done their research and are preparing to speak.
Students Who Avoid Participating
There are those students who are averse to speaking in public at all. Often, this is just a personal dislike and should be recognized but still the student should be firmly “encouraged” to participate. Some practice sessions building up to the round table will help. Sometimes, however, students have legitimate reasons for not wanting to participate: a nonnative accent or speech disorder they are self-conscious about, for example. Often these concerns are in the student’s mind only—no one else notices, or cares, about the speech problem or accent. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real in the student’s mind. While continuing to encourage the student to participate, some allowances may be made—participating as audience member, for example, or a shortened session in their roundtable participation.
Roundtable discussions are not complicated but do present some challenges of getting everyone to participate. With careful training and preparation, however, as well as some flexibility, an effective roundtable discussion can be held.