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Teaching and Learning in Small Discussion Sections

Teaching and Learning in Small Discussion Sections

11 June, 2016

  1. Structuring the discussion

Svinicki & McKeachie (2011, p. 38-42) recommend a number of ways to structure or start a discussion section that will encourage interest and build momentum for the session.

A common experience. Creating a shared experience at the beginning of the session, such as through watching a short video clip, reviewing a short reading, or calling attention to a recent campus event ensures that everyone has been exposed to the topic at hand.

A controversy. Begin a discussion with disagreement.

Questions. Questions can be designed to assess comprehension of pre-reading material or background knowledge, or they can be designed to ignite deeper discussions.

A case-study or problem. Showing a problem stimulates students to consider the many factors that need to be considered to resolve the problem and keeps students focused on the same goal.

  1. Ensuring that students feel comfortable participating in discussion

Getting things started right from the beginning will help set expectations for participation. Further, utilizing icebreakers in the first few sessions will help students get comfortable with each other.

To make sure that students feel safe sharing their level of knowledge and various perspectives, referring to a code of classroom ground rules can help. Having guidelines to respect various positions at all times can be upheld by both the instructor and the students.

If any hostility is expressed, it must be handled effectively. Not doing so has negative insinuations for student learning. Reiterating expectations and guidelines for discussion throughout the semester will help both protect students and divert students from behaving in unacceptable ways.

Students will have varying learning styles and some will be more comfortable with discussion than others. For example, extraverts prefer to process information through talking whereas introverts prefer to process information internally. Consider having a conversation about different learning styles and have students reflect on their own preferences. Make various learning activities that accommodate the different learners.

Here is a strategy that is low stakes and most students will feel comfortable participating:

Before having a whole class discussion, have students to take two minutes to write ideas or responses to a prompt. Then have students share their thoughts with a partner, and then to another partner pair. Finally, open the discussion up to the whole group. This ensures that everyone has an opportunity to think about the topic and also to speak about it in smaller and larger groups.

Integrating diversity and using inclusive teaching practices help make sure that students feel safe participating. Consider, for example, how discussions might influence:

  • Students who do not speak English as a first language
  • Students who are more invested in topics as it may affect them more directly (issues of race, class, political affiliations, etc.)
  • Students with learning disabilities

Include statements for diversity and students with disabilities. Having a statements in your syllabus communicates your dedication to adhere to related policies and will motivates students to come forth allowing you to work with the students on accommodations that might be required. Once you learn about your students, always keep in mind how the material or teaching strategies will affect them.

To check in on the classroom atmosphere, incorporate a classroom climate assessment that addresses this.
Ask everyone to respond anonymously to the following prompts:
I am comfortable participating in class
a) all of the time
b) most of the time
c) sometimes
d) never

One or two things that would help me feel more comfortable are: _______

Reviewing these answers will give you a good assessment of what is going on in your section.

  1. Keeping student discussions on track

Discussion sections lead to more uncertainty than delivering a lecture. It is difficult to predict exactly where and how deep discussions will go. A few things can be done to keep students on track so that the discussion leads to anticipated learning experiences.

Display the agenda. What topics are going to be covered during the class and how long can the class expect to spend on any one topic?

Share the learning outcomes for the session. If students are aware what it is there are supposed to be able to do as a result of participating in the session, it will be easier for them to stay focused on the purpose.

Facilitate discussions effectively by guiding students in the right direction. Be ready to redirect when the topic goes in the wrong direction. Useful phrases to use and teach include: “That’s a good point, but how does it relate to <topic>?” or “Let’s come back to the original question.” When necessary, remind students of the goals and purposes of the discussion.

Motivate students to refer to the text. One way to facilitate this is to include numbers on the lines in required readings or have students refer to pages and paragraph numbers.

Be prepared for when discussions ignite relevant issues that lead to further discussion. Perhaps the discussion has gone in an unpredictable way, but the direction could lead to positive and worthwhile learning experiences.

Techniques exist for when there is not enough time to finish discussions or to explore issues that came up on a deeper level:

Continue the discussion online.

Have students write a response after class.

Include a ‘parking lot’ on a board for when additional questions or issues come up so that they can be written down to be revisited in a future class or session.

  1. Managing the various personalities that influence discussion such as quieter students or students who dominate

In every group there will be various personalities that affect discussions. Some common personalities that challenge the productivity of a discussion are dominators, students who remain quiet, and students who are forceful in their opinions. Some students are comfortable being assertive in a discussion while others may look to the instructor for authority.

The following are some general strategies:

  1. Set ground rules for discussion highlighting being respectful of everyone’s perspectives.
  2. Encourage self-reflection to make students more aware of their contributions. Svinicki & McKeachie (2011) recommend recording a section of a discussion for students to listen to and then reflect on how the discussion could be more effective. Similarly, have students fill out a self-assessment form at the end of session.
  3. Structure discussions so that students play an active role that includes listening. For example, assign a dominating student to listen and take notes on the various sides of an issue and to provide a summary and conclusion at the end.
  • Ask students to anonymously respond on index cards to the prompt: Discussions in this section would be more productive if: _______.
  • For dominating students, it might be worth having a conversation about their participation privately in office hours. Tell them you appreciate their input and energy, but explain you are seeking a broader participation with the class.
  • Consider letting students lead the discussion for parts of the session or the whole session, depending on the level of the class. Scheduling this ahead and giving tips on effective discussion leading would be essential.
  • If students are being graded on their participation, explain that students will be rewarded for the quality of their contributions rather than the quantity. A conversation about what is considered “good quality” contributions might be warranted. Using a rubric to guide participation can help.
  • Being strategic with the structure of your discussion will enhance participation. The simplest example of this is to have students respond to a question or statement in pairs, then in groups of four and finally as a whole class. This will very likely lead to everyone contributing sufficiently..
  1. Keeping students engaged

A most common barrier to discussions is the fear of looking less than intelligent in front of your peers and your instructor. Further, students may not feel as though getting involved in a discussion is a worthwhile learning experience or may have developed a habit of passivity in classrooms due to past experiences in less interactive learning environments.

Here are some general strategies to keep students engaged:

Keep an inclusive learning environment

Structure discussions to be low-risk learning activities at the beginning of a class or the semester to higher risk as students get more comfortable (lower risk is reflecting individually or sharing with one partner and higher risk might be articulating an argument to the whole class on a heated issue)

Keep topics relevant

Make the learning outcomes clear and explain justifications for such learning goals

Track the discussion content and what progress has been made by writing notes on a board, giving small and occasional summaries, or asking students to stop and reflect on what progress has been made and what still needs to be done (ask a student to give occasional summaries to the class)

Ask questions that do not have one single right answer, for example, students’ opinions.

Motivate participants to look beyond reaching consensus and to rather dig deeper into an issue

Keep to your role as facilitator and give the group sufficient time to explore all sides of an issue before reaching a conclusion

Svinicki & McKeachie (2011, p 47) suggest a couple of collaborative learning activities that are more likely to get most students to participate.

Buzz groups or Peer Learning
Have students break up into smaller groups of five or six. Give the groups a task, such as to find a solution, think of a relevant example, come up with questions, make a hypothesis or apply a principle. Once in small groups, have each group choose a spokesperson. Give an amount of time, 5-10 minutes or longer, depending on the task, and require each member of the group to contribute one idea toward completing the task. Based on all of the ideas presented, the group has to come up with the best response. When time is up, each spokesperson from each group presents their response to the class.

The Inner Circle or Fishbowl
With a smaller discussion class, divide the class into an inner and outer circle (6-15 in the inner group). The inner group will be the discussion group and the outer group will be the observers. Inner circle involves in discussion while the outer circle observes and takes notes to give feedback. The feedback can be on both the quality of the discussion and the group dynamics. This is also useful for improving student awareness of effective communication within a discussion and also enhances a sense of responsibility to contribute.

  1. How can you know if students are learning?

How you check student learning will depend on the learning outcomes or goals stated at the beginning of the course. Instead of waiting until the end of the course for final assignments and tests, check in intermittently with Classroom Assessment Techniques (Angelo & Cross, 1993) to perform daily or mid-semester assessments in order to evaluate student learning.