Moderating Discussions

Effectively encouraging discussion is one of the biggest challenges for new TAs. Good discussion often appears to be spontaneous, but in fact relies on careful planning. This sheet offers advice on how to prepare for effective discussion.

Planning for Tutorials

  • Consider the expectations you and the instructor have already set for tutorials. Have you given students weekly tasks? Are you anticipating an open-ended discussion every week?
  • It can help to prepare a lesson plan, as you go through your preparatory reading. Know your objectives for each session and map out a structure to meet them. Anticipate questions from the themes in the reading, and store relevant examples.
  • Remember to anticipate 5 minutes at the beginning for “warm-up”, and 5 minutes at the end for “wrap- up”. Real discussion will usually account for only 30-40 minutes of class time in a 50-minute class.

Maximizing Discussion

  • Consider the set-up of your classroom. Discussion flows more easily when students can see each other. Move chairs around if you need to, or break into small groups.
  • Set a positive example with your own behaviour. Be encouraging and ensure you set an inclusive atmosphere where students feel comfortable contributing.

Generating and Moderating Discussion

  • Use different types of questions to “get the ball rolling”:

    Factual questions test recall, e.g. asking for names, dates, definitions.
    Probe questions ask for clarification, e.g. “what do you mean by that?”
    Critical questions encourage self-critique, e.g. “what are you assuming?” or “is there another side to this issue?”

  • After asking a question, wait for a response. Count to ten in your head, or turn to the blackboard if there is a silence at first: allow students time to consider the question.
  • Make a provocative statement that will encourage students to take a side on a particular issue, such as a quote from a reading. Form a debate by assigning positions to different groups.
  • Build on previous responses. Ask general questions like “does anyone agree with that statement?” or “any other reactions?”
  • Use interactive discussion tools to manage a shy class, or moderate an overly-talkative minority. Divide students into “buzz groups” where they prepare an answer on a question you assign. Ask them to role- play a scenario from the perspective of a key figure in class.

Go with the Flow
On some days, getting your class to contribute may be like pulling teeth, but on other days the discussion may go in an unexpectedly fruitful direction. Remember that your job is to facilitate: you are the “guide on the side”, not the “sage on the stage”! It’s your students’ responsibility to make the contributions. When you come to tutorial prepared, you and your students will be ready for open and productive discussion.

Martha Harris, Trainer, TATP – © 2006