Discussion Leading Guidelines

Discussion Leading Overview

When jazz musician Pat Metheny gave the keynote address at the 2001 International Association of Jazz Educators Conference, he said, “One of the great beauties of jazz is its almost unlimited capacity to allow human beings to find out things about themselves and the culture that they live in, through the process of reconciling their own personal experiences with the experiences of others.” Like jazz, with its reliance on improvisation and cooperation, an academic discussion is a collaborative enterprise that invites students to integrate their experiences and ideas about the world with the new insights and perspectives provided by the course material and other students. Similar to a great jazz jam session, a good discussion depends on the virtuosity of all the participants, not just one excellent musician! As a discussion leader, you are dependent on the group: its level of preparation, its enthusiasm, its willingness to participate. However, as the instructor, you often prepare the direction, structure, and motivation for the discussion; for this reason, leading a consistently lively discussion section is probably one of the most difficult challenges for a teacher.


Setting the Agenda

The most important thing to do at the beginning of the quarter, as well as in each class session, is to establish your objectives for the discussion.

  • Do you want students to apply newly learned skills, mull over new subject matter, learn to analyze arguments critically, practice synthesizing conflicting views, or relate material to their own lives? These goals are not mutually exclusive, but they require different types of direction.
  • Share your planning decisions with your students. Let them know what your focus is, and why it is important; also invite students to contribute suggestions for discussion topics and formats.
  • Decide whether to be highly directive—that is, to ask most of the questions yourself and intervene to prevent digressions— or to be relatively nondirective and let the students’ interests and questions determine what is covered.
  • Whichever style you choose, be consistent. If students are responsible for setting the agenda or acknowledging the next speaker, do not suddenly take over the section if it doesn’t go in the direction you would like. Similarly, if you normally decide what is said next, don’t be surprised if students don’t follow up on one another’s comments.
  • Make sure the assigned material is discussed in section; if the students don’t come prepared with questions and responses, do not let the discussion wander. Bringing in specific quotes, problems, or other samples of the assigned material can ensure that even underprepared students will have something to talk about.
  • Distributing study questions in advance demonstrates your own interest and helps focus their preparation. Consider asking students to email you their thoughts to one question. This will also give you insight into the students’ thoughts while you plan the discussion.

Asking Questions

Experienced instructors learn to prepare a mix of questions— those that are easily answered, slightly challenging, or highly complex—that they can draw on as the discussion develops.

  • Begin with material students are familiar with or feel comfortable with. This might be a question that can be answered with information from general experience or from basic data in the subject area.
  • Once students are warmed up, ask questions requiring students to explain relationships among the units of information and to form general concepts.
  • Let the discussion peak by asking questions that require students to apply concepts and principles they have developed to new data and different situations.

For example, suppose you are discussing Plato’s Republic. You might begin by asking questions such as: What are the basic components of Plato’s ideal state? What are the characteristics of a good ruler? Why does Plato ban poetry from his republic? After establishing that students understand the material, you can begin to explore relationships with questions like: How does the allegory of the cave fit into the rest of the work? What are the criticisms of Athenian society that Plato is making? Finally, you can ask the students to apply the material to themselves and their own lives: Is Plato’s republic an attractive place to live? How would Plato criticize a contemporary American university?

Choosing what questions to ask is only half the battle, however. How you ask them, whom you ask them of, and when you ask them can also influence their effectiveness with the group. Pay particular attention to the following aspects of group dynamics:

  • Decide whether to ask questions of a particular individual or the whole group. Sometimes calling on an individual may help to get a slow class going, but it can release the other students from the responsibility of formulating answers for themselves. It also puts students on the spot, which can decrease goodwill and intellectual risk-taking. Directing questions to the entire class may mean waiting longer for an answer.
  • Leave sufficient wait time after asking a question before answering it yourself, repeating it, rephrasing it, or adding further information. Wait at least ten to fifteen seconds before making any change in your question. (You might want to practice asking a question and waiting ten to fifteen seconds in silence by yourself, just to see what it feels like.) Leaving sufficient time between asking and rephrasing gives students time to think, and it shows that you are more concerned with their learning than with being reinforced by quick responses.
  • Avoid rapid reward for responding. Rapid reward means calling immediately on the first person who indicates an answer or approving immediately of a correct response that a student has given. This prevents other students from evaluating the response for themselves and interrupts their thinking process.
  • Avoid programmed answers. Programmed answers turn discussion sections into guessing games as students try to give the section leader what he or she wants rather than thinking critically about the material. Below are some questions with answers programmed in. By asking only the original question and leaving off the “hint” questions that follow, you can avoid this pitfall.

           What reasons did you have for using that procedure? Was it in the lab book? Did you see it in a demonstration?
           What are your thoughts on Thoreau’s Walden? Is he putting nature up against civilization or the individual up against society? —What are some of the basic rules about misting plants? Do you mist the ones with the fuzzy leaves?

  •  Encourage students to sit at the table or in only one row of a circle, so that they can all see each other as well as you. Some students like to hide behind others; try to bring them out. Look around the whole group after asking a question, making eye contact with each student; ask students sitting in all parts of the room or places around the table for their responses during a section.
  • After a response has been given, ask another person to comment on it rather than commenting on it yourself. This indicates that you want the whole group to be involved and want your role to be minimal.
  • Positively reinforce students for responding, whether the answer was correct or incorrect. This helps create a safe environment for students to speak out and try new ideas. Reinforcing correct responses can be done with verbal comment or facial expression; reinterpreting incorrect responses is more difficult. If you asked an informational question, e.g., “In what year did World War I begin?” you must simply acknowledge the answer as incorrect without disparaging the person who offered it.
  • Ask students to elaborate answers rather than immediately correcting them yourself. If you ask an analytic question, e.g., “What themes do you think dominate in Thoreau’s Walden?” and the response is “The importance of society for human fulfillment,” you can ask the student to elaborate on what he or she means by “society” or redirect the response by asking a follow-up question such as “Do you think Thoreau views some people as more valuable than others?”

Increasing Class Participation

By asking good questions in an appropriate way, you will have gone a long way toward fulfilling your responsibilities as discussion leader. Your other main goal is to increase student participation and improve the quality of participation. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Have students nominate topics for discussion at the beginning of a section. These can be problems, confusions, interesting points, or basic ideas in the text. List the nominations and let the group pick those they want to cover.
  • If you assign discussion questions before each section, students can sign up to be responsible for leading the discussion on one or more questions.
  • If the material for the section lends itself to open-ended questions in which a variety of ideas can aid understanding, have a brainstorming session. During the first part of the session, list every idea that students come up with in response to the question you have set. During the second part of the session, evaluate, compare, and synthesize the ideas, as you approach a solution.
  • As an icebreaker, ask a question for which there is no single correct answer and go around the table with it. (Example:What is the first adjective that comes to mind when you think of the protagonist of this story? Or: On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the effectiveness of Allied military leadership in 1916.) With this strategy, you can begin the discussion with 100 percent participation, and you can subvert the usual hierarchy by inviting two or three of the more passive students to explicate their answers.
  • If the discussion group is large, divide it into smaller units, each one dealing with the same or separate problems in the reading. Float from group to group, giving guidance and answering questions when needed.When the period is nearly over, leave about twenty minutes to reassemble the class and have the small groups report to each other.
  • Use material “in hand” to stimulate discussion. You can pass out poll results, historical documents, pictures, etc. Material in hand is easier to discuss than readings done and perhaps forgotten.
  • Begin the class by giving students five to ten minutes to write on a topic relevant to the discussion. This will give them time to gather their thoughts, particularly with complex material. It will also reinforce the utility of writing for sorting out one’s thoughts.
  • Consider asking one student each week to take notes on the major points covered in section. He/she is then responsible for bringing enough copies for everyone to the next class. You and the students should take a few minutes to go over these and make any necessary refinements. Such a technique can overcome the sense that nothing happens in a discussion.
  • Pose an either/or question, e.g., “Is the frontier or the industrial revolution more important for an understanding of American character?” Have the class divide physically into those who favor each side and those who are undecided. Have the pro and con sides debate the issue, with the undecided free to contribute at any time. Instruct students to move to the other group if they change their view during the debate. This kind of debate can encourage intellectual flexibility and help students clarify value positions and levels of argument. If you are uncomfortable having students move around, use the blackboard to set out the two sides of the controversy and to keep track of points relevant to each argument.
  • Give students a chance to develop ideas. Rephrase questions and “near misses” and throw them back to students. Use the Socratic method as long as it is producing insight. However, if you can’t pull out a usable answer from students, don’t go on a fishing expedition; answer the question yourself.
  • A graphic display helps students keep track of an argument and think schematically. For example, put a certain outcome or viewpoint on the board and ask the students to work backwards through the most plausible causal chains or logical defense. Let students explore multiple pathways.
  • Once a few questions have focused the discussion, students may begin discussing among themselves and you may become moderator, mediator, and summarizer. Some groups can keep the discussion going with little difficulty; others will need guidance and more frequent redirection on your part. You will get a feel for each particular group.

Creating a Good Climate for Discussion

You can also significantly increase the quantity and quality of participation simply by creating an encouraging environment for discussion.

  • Know and use the students’ names. In addition, make sure that the students know one another’s names.
  • Arrange the room to maximize student- to-student eye contact; e.g., chairs around a table or in a circle. You might vary where you sit from time to time, to break students’ habit of staring at the front of the room.
  • Arrive at section a little early and stay briefly afterwards to talk informally with students and answer questions.
  • When students ask questions, try to help them find the answers for themselves.
  • If arguments develop, try to resolve the disputes by appeal to objective evidence rather than authority of position. If the dispute is over values, help students clarify their values and respect each others’, even if resolution is not possible. Disputes can often form the basis for interesting writing assignments.
  • Be as relaxed and unselfconscious as possible. Many students enjoy discussion groups when they sense the leader’s spontaneity and excitement about learning. This does not mean that a discussion section should not be well thought out in advance; simply leave room for flexibility as the class progresses.

If you show respect for students in both your demeanor and language, and encourage the group to engage in a common learning enterprise, you can make the students in the group feel comfortable and ready to share ideas. Students often reflect toward each other the attitude that a teacher shows toward them. Therefore, the establishment of “favorites” in a discussion section should be avoided, as should any harsh criticism or teasing. Your primary responsibility is to help all the students in the group learn.