Tips for improving classroom discussions

It’s a common scenario: an instructor asks a question in front of a classroom packed with students and…crickets.

I think we’ve all had one of those classes, either as a student or an instructor. I literally heard crickets during a discussion I was leading last fall, and I am not using literally by its new figurative definition. Crickets had actually escaped from a nearby lab, and they found a convenient hiding space under the teacher station in my room! It made for a more dramatic silence.

There are other issues that may come up while trying to facilitate a discussion in class. The response to a question from the instructor may not be silence, but comments from the same few students dominating the discussion. Perhaps the discussion only progresses to the point of covering a topic superficially.

How can these problems be avoided during your next class discussion? While there are no simple cure-all solutions, there are strategies that can help you. Hopefully there is a tip here that you will find useful as you plan your next discussion with students:

  1. Be prepared

It seems obvious that instructors should prepare discussion questions in advance, right? It’s not just about having a few questions jotted down before class. It’s important to think about what you’re asking and what responses you’re expecting from students. Make sure you include multiple types of questions. Some questions should be basic and just ask for factual responses, but you should also be prepared with questions asking for interpretation, evaluation, or reasoning. Be careful to limit the number of yes/no-type questions, as that can disrupt the flow of the conversation.

  1. Encourage student preparation

Ask students to prepare a handful of their own questions before arriving in class. If you are discussing a reading assignment, ask students to write a short summary. Regardless of the type of discussion, give students adequate time to recall the material and collect their thoughts before starting the dialogue. This is something that is easy to overlook, and we should remember that many students may be rushing to class straight from work or an intense exam. Furthermore, students will be more likely to prepare if you emphasize the importance of participation by including expectations in your syllabus.

  1. Create a supportive environment in the classroom

One way to get things rolling at the start of the the semester is to start with an icebreaker. You may even provide students with the question prior to class so that they don’t feel put on the spot. During the first few discussions, putting the students into pairs or groups to answer questions and report back may ease the transition for student not accustomed to talking in class. If students are still hesitant to participate and the conversation stalls, be prepared to try out some anonymous response platforms, like Poll Everywhere, to get students comfortable. During the class conversation, provide positive reinforcement by affirming student input (verbally and nonverbally), and carefully correcting erroneous contributions. You can also help set the tone by using student names and rearranging the seating in the room (if possible). Students will feel heard if you repeat or summarize what they have said, which has the bonus of clarifying the comment and helping other students hear what was said.

  1. Be sure the material is suitable to discussion

Typically, textbooks are not good sources for in class discussion. Make sure the topic or reading involves ample viewpoints so that students have plenty of ideas to bring up during the dialogue.

  1. Consider cold calling

Cold calling, or calling on students in class when they have not volunteered, works well for some instructors. If you have fostered a supportive environment or are teaching advanced students, cold calling may work for your class. Warn your students that this may happen during discussions so that they come to class prepared. While this practice is somewhat controversial (just type “cold calling classroom” into Google and you will see a variety of articles and opinions), some research supports this practice.

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