Facilitation Skills: The Way to Better Student Discussions

University students study in classroom with female lecturer
Most faculty aspire to engage and involve students in interesting and insightful discussions. But these in-class and online exchanges frequently disappoint faculty. Students come to them unprepared. They engage reluctantly. Their individual and unrelated comments take the discussion in different directions. There can be awkward silences that force faculty to rephrase questions or make statements in an effort to restart the discussion. Unprepared students tend to deal with discussion topics superficially, and they don’t delve deeply into the issues. Teachers soon feel compelled to add content depth and detail, and the more teachers talk, the less students contribute. Unfortunately, in many cases, discussions morph into lectures and students seem just fine with that. Are faculty aspirations for discussion unjustified? Are they unrealistic, given today’s college students? No. Discussion remains a powerful instructional tool. It affords students the opportunity to learn from and with each other. Students phrase ideas in ways that help other students understand. One student’s question often asks something many students would like to know. Different perspectives are shared, and students come to realize that not everyone understands or experiences things in the same way. Discussions can be stimulating, provocative even. They can cultivate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Students learn to craft arguments and to refute them. Discussions can model civil discourse. For all these reasons and more, good discussions promote significant learning experiences. At the crossroads between what discussion can be, and often is, stands the teacher whose challenge is easy to understand yet complicated to execute: lead and guide the exchange, but without controlling and directing it. What makes discussions engaging is the free flow of ideas, but these ideas stop flowing freely when teacher talk dominates. As teachers, there are several factors that make it easy for us to assume a commanding position in discussions. We have content expertise. We are in charge of the course and who gets to talk. We wield grading power. It’s not surprising that students direct their comments to the teacher during discussion and not to each other.

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Most faculty aspire to engage and involve students in interesting and insightful discussions. But these in-class and online exchanges frequently disappoint faculty. Students come to them unprepared. They engage reluctantly. Their individual and unrelated comments take the discussion in different directions. There can be awkward silences that force faculty to rephrase questions or make statements in an effort to restart the discussion. Unprepared students tend to deal with discussion topics superficially, and they don’t delve deeply into the issues. Teachers soon feel compelled to add content depth and detail, and the more teachers talk, the less students contribute. Unfortunately, in many cases, discussions morph into lectures and students seem just fine with that. Are faculty aspirations for discussion unjustified? Are they unrealistic, given today’s college students? No. Discussion remains a powerful instructional tool. It affords students the opportunity to learn from and with each other. Students phrase ideas in ways that help other students understand. One student’s question often asks something many students would like to know. Different perspectives are shared, and students come to realize that not everyone understands or experiences things in the same way. Discussions can be stimulating, provocative even. They can cultivate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Students learn to craft arguments and to refute them. Discussions can model civil discourse. For all these reasons and more, good discussions promote significant learning experiences. At the crossroads between what discussion can be, and often is, stands the teacher whose challenge is easy to understand yet complicated to execute: lead and guide the exchange, but without controlling and directing it. What makes discussions engaging is the free flow of ideas, but these ideas stop flowing freely when teacher talk dominates. As teachers, there are several factors that make it easy for us to assume a commanding position in discussions. We have content expertise. We are in charge of the course and who gets to talk. We wield grading power. It’s not surprising that students direct their comments to the teacher during discussion and not to each other. That said, teachers cannot afford to stay out of discussions and just sit on the sidelines. When lots of ideas are going in different directions, the discussion becomes disjointed and lacks coherence. Gullette (1992) observes, “Discussion . . . can feel light-weight, loose jointed, like holding hands in zero gravity.” With so many ideas floating around, it’s hard to bring them to some sort of conclusion. As a result, many times discussions just end, often when the session does. Students leave with no notes and no sense of what they should take away. All they know for certain is they pretty much spent the class talking, which to them implies they weren’t taught and didn’t learn. Building facilitation skills What is needed to help teachers meet the challenge of leading and guiding discussions are facilitation skills. Teachers have two main tasks during a discussion: Discussion facilitation and content concerns compete for the teacher’s attention. If, rather than listening to what’s happening in the discussion, teachers are responding to content, the discussion will likely drift, possibly falter, and find its way back to lecture. Most teachers are more comfortable with the content than with facilitating discussions. However, effective facilitation is a skill; it’s not some mysterious gift that you either have or you don’t. With practice, all teachers can learn to facilitate discussions more effectively. Those who study facilitation consider it a complex communication skill that involves these behaviors: speaking, listening, synthesizing, being aware of and managing a group, and being able to nonverbally encourage and regulate the interaction. Facilitation grows out of the collective synergy that results when these behaviors are performed throughout a discussion. Effective facilitation elevates largely superficial question-and-answer exchanges to richer academic discourse. Speaking is the core facilitation skill. Teachers must take part in discussions, but if the goal is to encourage students’ active learning, then a “less is more” speaking approach is best. Questions are preferred to comments. When questioning, teachers must pay careful attention to (1) the language used in asking questions (e.g., ensuring clarity and sensitivity to students’ readiness levels and cultural orientations); (2) the structure of the questions (e.g., avoiding long, compound, complex questions); and (3) the timing of the queries (e.g., the time students need to formulate and share responses). The best questions are open ended, concise, clear, and focused on a single subjective issue. They use language and jargon that students understand. The advice that Plax, Waldeck, and Kearney (2016) offered focus group facilitators is useful to teachers, too. They recommend creating a wide range of questions, from low-level inquiries that are easy for the group to answer to more difficult queries that require deeper analysis. Teachers should research, pre-write, and logically sequence their questions—but also be prepared to reorder them as the discussion unfolds (Welty, 1989). No matter how comfortable, casual, and spontaneous a classroom discussion appears, the best ones result from a carefully prepared teacher plan. When facilitating discussion effectively, teachers spend more time listening than speaking. They listen for the accuracy of student comments (when the focus is objective facts), connections among comments, and how ideas discussed relate to other course concepts. Great facilitators use active listening strategies (e.g., smiling, making eye contact, nodding, and other welcoming body language) that nonverbally validate and reinforce students for their contributions. Good facilitators try to synthesize student input. They highlight important connections among comments and create or call for summaries both within the discussion and at its conclusion. Summaries give students something to take from the discussion and teachers something they can reference subsequently. Some facilitation skills are more implicit than overt behaviors like speaking and active listening. Good discussion facilitators are highly aware of the group’s dynamics. They know who’s quiet, who’s likely to dominate, and what roles class members usually claim (e.g., the devil’s advocate, the follower, the teacher’s pet, the contrarian). They know which students are opinionated or make comments that tend to annoy others. Some of these implicit skills come into play as the teacher thinks through how the discussion will be used to address the content. Then, as the discussion unfolds, an adept facilitator watches for subtle nonverbal behaviors that indicate nervousness, annoyance, or outright anger. Sarcasm, inappropriate laughter, eye rolling, very relaxed or very rigid posture, lack of eye contact, fidgeting, or leaving the room are telling behaviors that the facilitator observes and probes sensitively. Effective facilitators encourage wide participation with commentary that encourages, paraphrases, summarizes, gently corrects, and sometimes even confronts. They deal with opinions that are confusing, vague, aggressive, or passive aggressive by helping students sort through their ideas. These verbal and nonverbal responses create a comfortable communication climate where anyone who wishes to speak is welcome. Facilitators use a nonverbal presence to accomplish these goals of encouragement and regulation. They want ideas to flow freely but they also need to keep the discussion focused and on topic. Smiling and nodding, as noted before, encourage students to talk. Regulation can be accomplished nonverbally as well. Over-participators, sometimes called “talkaholics” (McCroskey & Richmond, 1995) are controlled by always deferring to those who’ve spoken less and strategically avoiding eye contact with those who always have something to say. Moving to sit or stand nearby students who may be distracting others with a side conversation illustrates another way facilitators regulate discussion. At the heart of all these facilitation skills is the teacher’s ability to establish trust within the classroom. Teachers must earn students’ trust, and the way to do that is through authenticity. Students must know that teachers care about them and are genuinely interested in what they have to say. Good facilitators are never condescending. They respond to student comments thoughtfully and with respect and appreciation. They do not deliver undeserved praise, but they do honor the contributions that students make to the discussion. Trust is enhanced when teachers involve the class in establishing discussion ground rules (e.g., we agree that what’s said here stays here, we monitor our facial expressions, we don’t judge). Those who’ve created the rules have more reason to abide by them. What’s the best way to develop discussion facilitation skills? Practice them. Pay attention to what’s happening during the discussion—something that isn’t always easy. Well-known discussion teacher C. Roland Christensen observed that finding time to reflect on discussions as they unfold is a bit like trying to meditate on a speeding fire engine (1991, p. 103). That makes reflection after the fact all the more important. How many different students participated? When were most students listening intently? How effectively was the discussion summarized? An honest appraisal will identify the skills that still need improvement, and those can be practiced deliberatively in the next discussion. Discussion facilitation skills do make a difference. They can be used to engage and involve students in interesting and insightful discussions. References Christensen, C. R. Every student teaches and every teacher learns. In Christensen, C R., Garvin, D. A. and Sweet, A. eds., Educating for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992. Gullette, M. M., 1992. Leading discussion in a lecture course: Some maxims and an exhortation. Change, March-April, pp. 32-39. McCroskey, J. C., & Richmond, V. P. (1995). Correlates of compulsive communication: Quantitative and qualitative characteristics. Communication Quarterly, 43, 39-52. Plax, T. G., Waldeck, J. H., & Kearney, P. (2016). Collecting and using narratives that matter. In J. H. Waldeck & D. R. Seibold (Eds.)., Consulting that matters: A handbook for scholars and practitioners (pp.87-108). New York, NY: Peter Lang. Welty, W. M., 1989. Discussion method teaching: How to make it work.” Change, July-August, pp. 40-49. Jennifer Waldeck is an associate professor at Chapman University and chair of the 2017 Teaching Professor Conference. Maryellen Weimer is professor emerita at Penn State Berks and editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter and blog.