Facilitating Effective Classroom Discussion, the Devil is in the Details

I have been known to berate the quality of classroom discussions—student-teacher exchanges that occur in the presence of mostly uninvolved others. Perhaps instead of berating I ought to be trying to help faculty improve how they lead discussions, and that has gotten me thinking about all the details discussion leaders must keep track of and make decisions about — all on the fly. Leading discussions effectively is not an easy task for any of us. Even those who make it look easy have actually worked very hard to hone this important skill.

Consider what needs to be decided after each student comment:

  • Is the point being made clear and coherent? If not, what follow-up question needs to be asked?
  • Is the answer or comment relevant? Does it answer the question? Is it on the topic currently under discussion? What needs to be done, if it’s not?
  • Should you respond? Invite someone else to respond? Not respond and solicit more comments? If you respond, what and how much should you say?
  • Can the student’s comment be linked to what another student said, to something you’ve said, to something in the text? Who should make that link?
  • Would a follow-up question deepen the answer, sharpen its focus, encourage others to comment? If so, what is that question?

As the discussion unfolds, here’s some of what needs to be monitored and kept in mind:

  • Who’s speaking and how often?
  • Who gets called on when there are a lot of volunteers? What about when there aren’t any volunteers?
  • What’s the level of attentiveness within the class collectively and individually? Who’s clearly not paying attention? What are they doing and does that need to be addressed?
  • Is the discussion losing steam? If so, how might it be re-energized?
  • Is the exchange becoming heated? Are emotions running too high? Does the atmosphere feel tense and threatening? If so, what should be done about it?
  • Is it time for a summary? Do the main points need to be sorted out of the morass?
  • Where did the discussion start, where is it now and where does it still need to go?
  • Has there been enough discussion of this particular point or on this topic in general?

That’s a lot to keep track of at the same time you’re processing content. You might need to summon information to answer a question, come up with an example, or point out other relevant material. When we facilitate discussion, most of the focus is on the content. All of these discussion details are at the periphery of our awareness.

How then do we develop our discussion leadership skills? Let me suggest three ways, each involving one thing: awareness. First, we need to be aware of what discussion involves. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever made a list like the one above —and that’s just a portion of what facilitators must consider to keep the discussion flowing. Next, we need to observe how we facilitate a discussion (or several of them). The idea is to stand alongside and observe, to pay attention to things like the details listed above. Yes, the content still needs our attention, but at the same time we need to become aware of how we “do” discussion. Finally, we need to reflect on discussion after the fact. We need to recall the details and use them to develop an accurate account of what happened during a particular discussion that then becomes part of our larger understanding of how we lead and guide discussion.

Building discussion skills begins with awareness—awareness of what’s involved, awareness of our skills, and awareness of what actually happens during discussion. The individual strategies used in discussion aren’t all that difficult. There are lots of things you can do when a student makes a point that isn’t relevant. There are many ways to respond when a comment isn’t very good. If you consider the options, become aware of how you usually respond, then you can try something different the next time. What’s complicated as the dickens is how many individual responses are needed to ensure a productive discussion and how all of those things must be selected and delivered without the benefit of time to carefully think about any of them.

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