There are many benefits to the student-centered class discussion although it’s sometimes a challenge to develop. There are a number of potential pitfalls, including students talking off-topic, not talking at all, or one or two students dominating the discussion.
However, when it can be developed, benefits of class discussion include increased engagement with the course content, classmates, increased use of critical thinking skills, and practice in students’ second language.
A few methods have been found helpful for increasing student participation in class. Addressed first are some of the basics of setting up a class discussion and then following are more advanced methods.
Keys for Class Discussion: The Basics
Give students time to develop their ideas before discussion. Perhaps have them do a quick write on the topic first to gather their thoughts; this is particularly effective with more introverted students, who, it has been found, usually need more time to reflect before speaking.
Put students in pairs or small groups. Research has shown that when working in small groups of peers, students feel safer and more motivated to explore content than when speaking In front of the whole class.
Provide A Stepping Stone
Provide a list of interesting discussion topics or methods to develop them. We all know that good discussion topics are the ones moving toward universal in focus (rather than dwelling on the specifics of the text), arguable; perceptive, and significant.
Set The Rules
Teach students the rules of class discussion, such as making eye contact, listening actively, and disagreeing respectfully. Some teachers might expect students to just “know” the rules; however, these standards need to be actively communicated and modeled.
Assign Roles Or Tasks
Give students a definite task, or topic, of conversation so that focus is provided to the group. Each student should also have a role within the discussion group, such as taking notes or referring to the reading as necessary, again to keep everyone focused and make sure that the group is not “carried” by a few hard-working students while others slack off.
Give students a time limit. This is a final element to keep students focused on the discussion rather than drifting off.
What’s In It For Them
Students should receive credit for participating. You will notice how some quiet students become more and more engaged when given some course credit to do so.
Beyond the Basics
Once students have mastered the basics of holding a discussion, more advanced skills can be taught.
Opinions, Opinions, Opinions
Research suggests that students should be taught different levels of questioning for discussion, moving beyond the literal to more inferential interpretation of a text. For example, “What city does the narrator live in?” is a literal question, focused on the surface features of the text; more inferential is, “Why do you think the narrator moved there?” If this is not stated directly in the text, students will have to reflect on the text and the narrator’s character to arrive at an answer.
Develop a grading rubric that describes different levels of participation and the corresponding grade; for example:
A: Actively Engaged Discussion Partner * often asks inferential questions * listens actively * volunteers answers and feedback
B: Engaged Discussion Partner * asks inferential questions * sometimes listens actively * sometimes volunteers complex answers and feedback
C: Passive Discussion Partner * rarely asks questions, and if so, literal ones * does not listen actively * rarely volunteers answers or feedback.
Give your students more opportunities for practice and feedback. Students will not learn this skills overnight, of course, so they should be given regular chances to practice, perhaps as much a class session, if only for fifteen minutes. Regular, short periods of practice are more effective than long bouts. For more efficient set-up, students could have a standing list of topics posted and regular groups.
By implementing some basic principles and careful planning, and then moving beyond the basics to a more advanced level, the “dreaded discussion” can be improved and make a substantial contribution to the class and students’ education.
Dr. Stacia Levy teaches writing and reading skills at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California to both native and nonnative speakers of English. She also has taught academic and creative writing at the University of California, Davis. However, she began her teaching career twenty years ago as an instructor ESL in adult education programs and still primarily defines herself as an ESL teacher. Publishing credits include two academic works based on her dissertation, several short stories, and a novel, California Gothic, a story of romantic suspense. Google+
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