Energize In-Class Discussions

Last week, I was commiserating with an instructor about her struggle to engage students in discussion during class.  “Sometimes it’s like talking to a brick wall,” she lamented.  Facilitating lively conversations that require students to apply, synthesize, and evaluate their knowledge is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching.  Even the most brilliant lecturer can be stymied by an unresponsive class.  So these are my top tips for improving class discussions:

Plan your discussion prompts in advance.  Thought-provoking questions are challenging to come up with on the fly.  So when planning your lectures and in-class activities, craft prompts as well.  Without prior contemplation, we may resort to asking “any thoughts about that?” and be discouraged by the blank stares we receive.

Use hooks to launch the discussion.  Rather than starting a discussion with a single question, consider building up to that prompt with a hook to pique your students’ interest and start their thinking process.  For example, present a short case study, tell a story, recite a witty quote, show a video clip, or share a current event.  These serve as points of departure that contextualize your questions and give students the opportunity to apply their knowledge.

Ask better questions.  Often because we haven’t given them much thought in advance, our discussion prompts fall flat.  Our questions are too vague, too long-winded, or limited to yes-no answers.  Instead, make sure your questions are succinct, clear, and open-ended.  This may seem obvious, but I often ramble a bit when asking questions forcing students to inquire, “so what’s the question again?”  Some ideas for discussion prompts

  • Ask for students’ input: What should ___ have done? What would you do in this case?  Have you had a similar experience in your life?
  • Ask “how” and “why” questions: How might this argument be made more persuasive? Why do you think the author made this argument?  How does ___ compare to ____?
  • Ask evaluative questions: How compelling is the author’s argument?  What are the implications of ____?
  • Ask prediction questions: What will occur next?  What might happen if. . .?
  • Ask justification questions: What evidence led you to conclude that…? What is the reason…?

Give your students a chance to think.  Many of us are uncomfortable with silence, so when students don’t immediately respond to our questions, we continue talking.  It’s easy to forget that students are disciplinary novices who need greater time to ponder than we do.  So when asking a question, pause for a good 30 seconds before probing further.  Don’t surrender and answer the question for your students.  Force yourself to endure the silence.   

Think-pair-share.  Many faculty turn their noses up at strategies implemented in K-12 classrooms, but that’s where a majority of innovative pedagogy comes from.  Think-pair-share is a simple but brilliant way to encourage conversation. First, after presenting your hook and prompt, let students jot down their ideas on scrap pieces of paper.  Then, ask them to turn to their neighbors and share their ideas.  Finally, bring the entire class together and have the pairs report what they discussed.  This gives students the chance to think and talk through their ideas before being put “on the spot” in front of the entire group.

Use positive reinforcement.  When students contribute to class discussion in ways that demonstrate higher-order thinking, acknowledge it.  Saying, “that’s a great question” or “good point” is an effective start, but be more specific with your feedback.  For example, “Sam makes an excellent point. I appreciate how you supported your claim with evidence from the reading.”  This demonstrates to students what a “good” response sounds like, providing a model they can all use.

Ask follow-up questions. When students respond with brief or incomplete answers, don’t miss the opportunity to ask a follow-up question such as, “Could you tell me more?” or “Why do you say that?” or “How did you come to that conclusion?”  You can also pull in other students to contribute: “Let’s help Jamie out, why might we reach the conclusion that. . .?”

End discussions purposefully.  Before moving on to the next lecture topic or question, summarize what was discussed or ask a student to do so.  This helps students to synthesize new information and integrate it with existing knowledge.  You could also consider ending your class with some type of “exit ticket” such as a minute paper or Poll Everywhere poll (which is a free tool for CofC students and faculty).  Exit tickets are a quick and easy method to help students solidify their understanding as well as communicate to the instructor what they still have questions about.

Do you have other suggestions for facilitating engaging class discussions?  Please share!

For help improving discussions in your online course, check out this post written by my colleague, Mendi: http://tlt.cofc.edu/2015/10/28/tips-for-more-effective-online-discussions/

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