Facilitating Discussion

While most of your classroom time as a course instructor will likely be spent delivering lectures, there are also occasions when you will need to facilitate discussion.

Setting Expectations: Start by creating shared norms for participation on the first day and setting the stage and tone of the class, which we have already discussed above in section 5.1. Provide learning goals at the beginning of the discussion session and then let students know that you will check back in with those learning goals and provide summaries periodically.

Questions: When writing discussion questions, start by accessing prior knowledge, using familiar vocabulary, and, when possible, asking questions that have more than one potential answer. When delivering questions, give students time to think about their answers before responding. Remember that the way you ask questions also models good questioning to your students. While facilitating discussion, it is imperative to provide positive, reinforcing feedback both through verbal and non-verbal cues. This can decrease insecurities around participation. If student contributions are totally off track, instead of pointing out where a student is wrong, redirect them to the issue at hand and say, for example, “That’s an interesting point. Can you explain how it connects to the topic?” And you can reference the TATP Questioning Techniques sheet while preparing for class discussion.

Invite and Answer Questions: Navigating irrelevant questions without demoralizing the class and still encouraging students to ask questions can be tricky. Let your students know that questions that seem simple are just as welcome as questions that seem complex. But also let them know that some questions you will need to bounce back to the class. For example, a question that is clearly answered in the syllabus should be answered by students or a question that will be more beneficial to students if they find the answer themselves rather than you providing the answer on the spot can also provide a useful learning experience. For all class sizes, but especially those with more than fifty students, consider setting up an online discussion board of frequently asked questions and invite students to contribute. With an online discussion board, all students can benefit from reading each other’s questions.

Recommendations for Leading Discussion: Use small group discussion to stimulate the conversation. When students have a chance to chat in smaller groups they may be less anxious to talk in front of the whole class (since they have already practiced with their peers) and thus, be more likely to participate in large-group discussions. It is also important that we explain that active engagement is important for student learning. And let students do the talking; aim to talk only twenty to thirty percent of the time. Finally, remember to close the session. Save at least five minutes at the end of class to check back in with the discussion’s learning goals and check for student understanding.