Day 1: The what and why of the Discussion Approach


/dɪˈskʌʃ(ə)n/    NOUN

  1. The action or process of talking about something in order to reach a decision or to exchange ideas.
  2. A conversation or debate about a specific topic.
  3. A detailed treatment of a topic in speech or writing.

From https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/discussion, downloaded 18/03/2019.

Having discussions in class is one of the most common and embedded methods in university teaching. Discussions can allow for deep and active learning and stimulate critical thinking through interaction, peer to peer learning and the exchange of ideas. Indeed, discussions form the foundation of almost all types of active learning activities, but are often overlooked, unexamined and underutilised in the higher education setting.

So what constitutes an effective discussion both in physical and online spaces? How can we set up and prepare for different types of discussions? What is the role of the lecturer/tutor? How can we coordinate and manage the complex dynamics of a discussion?

Over 4 blog posts, this course will provide an overview of how to effectively plan and facilitate in-class and online discussions to enhance student learning and engagement. It will explore pedagogical approaches underpinning discussions, facilitation skills and techniques and a offer a range of activities that can be employed to achieve rich discussions.


 The discussion approach in a higher education setting is adaptable and flexible and can be tailored to meet specific teaching and learning needs. Discussions can be facilitated in both physical and online teaching spaces, with smaller and larger class sizes, across a broad variety of courses and disciplines. Discussions can be teacher or student led (or a mixture of both), involve the whole class or be run in multiple small groups simultaneously. They can centre around for instance, a course text, a real world problem, a case study, a task, or be inquiry based.

Crucially, discussions need to be facilitated and guided to be most effective, as well as be designed with specific pedagogical reasons in mind rather than simply for the purpose of superficial “engagement”. We’ll look more at this in Day 2.

question mark

If you are a lecturer/tutor, have a think about how you currently use the discussion approach in your teaching (if at all). How and when do the discussions happen and what role do they play?

Why have discussions?

  • Discussions can allow for deep and active learning to occur, and stimulate self-reflection, problem-solving and critical thinking through interaction,  collaborative learning and exchange of ideas between peers, and between the teacher and students.
  • Discussions can help facilitate the internalisation of knowledge and thinking that are practiced in a particular discipline.
  • Discussions can promote student engagement and self-directed learning.
  • Discussions can help improve students’ communication skills such as listening, valuing contributions of others, turn taking in conversations and presenting ideas in a clear and succinct manner to a group of people.
  • Discussions can contribute to students’ affective development by helping them to clarify their values and attitudes. See here for more.
  • This approach also allows for the teacher to gain a clearer sense of what learning has occurred and how well students have understood key concepts.

From a pedagogical perspective, using class discussion is aligned with Lev Vygotsky’s social development theory:

“…which emphasizes knowledge and conceptual gain through peer-to-peer dialogue. Vygotsky understood peers to coexist in the “zone of proximal development,” where knowledge could be shared and  misconceptions clarified through dialogue (Vygotsky, 1962)”, Effective Class Discussions, Yale Poorvu Centre for Teaching and Learning, https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/EffectiveClassDiscussions, downloaded 5/03/19.

See here for more on social learning and its applications in higher education, and here for how the Social Development theory has helped create constructivism.

More broadly, discussion as a teaching strategy is also linked to the active learning model – whereby the student is actively engaged in creating their own knowledge by participating in activities such as group collaborations and discussions, and engaging in critical thinking and reflection.

Want to know more? Check out our coffee course on 7 Key Concepts for University Teaching and Learning, and particularly Day 5.

Examples of discussion activities

There are many excellent resources which showcase many discussion activities that can be effectively used in university settings – for instance, see Day 2 of our coffee course on Engaging your Lecture, as well as here and here. See also UNSW’s excellent resource on teacher-supervised activities and student-run activities here.

What to consider when selecting a discussion activity:

  • the size and layout of the physical learning space
  • the class size
  • the course level (is it an undergraduate or post-graduate course for example?),
  • the course content and how the activity would align
  • how many teaching staff are involved during the class (more staff means more options for multiple small group activities)
  • how much time there is for preparation and planning prior to the class
  • the duration of the activity
  • the student cohort and characteristics
  • the specific discipline

When is the discussion approach not likely to be effective?

  • When covering a lot of content
  • When the lecturer/tutor has limited time and resources for planning
  • When the topic is highly controversial or sensitive 

question mark Discussion/Activity Question

Share an experience when you either facilitated or participated in a rich/effective face-to-face discussion in a higher education setting and comment on:

  • What were some features and conditions that made it so effective?
  • What type of discussion activity was used?
  • What improvements would you make or suggest for future?

Further optional resources to check out:

1. Example of guided tutorial discussions at Griffith University

2. UNSW’s guide to Discussions

3. A review of literature and discussions in postsecondary classrooms

54 thoughts on “Day 1: The what and why of the Discussion Approach

  1. I recently facilitated several discussions on the Syrian Civil Conflict. Each of the 15 tutorial students were assigned an actor from the Syrian Civil Conflict. Actors were assigned randomly to ensure fairness of allocation. Students then were divided into small groups. Each group discussed the actors interests, interactions, and objectives from participating in the Syrian Civil Conflict. The students/actors were then re-shuffled to form new groups with different actors from previous groups. This was done three time to ensure that all students/actors interacted with all other players in the Syrian Civil Conflict. This technique was used to provide for practical examples for world politics and international relations. I will try to improve the experience of discussion by providing students with an open ended statement/proposition to negotiate. I anticipate that this will define the scope of discussion and encourage students/actors to share their knowledge of the conflict and their respective interests more succinctly.

    1. Anas, when you say the tutorials were assigned “an actor”, is this a paid staff member who acts the role, or a student? In the ANU TechLauncher program we have clients and mentors for each team of about seven students. These are unpaid roles, but there is an extremely large amount of work involved in getting and scheduling the sixty experienced people required (plus about fifteen tutors) for thirty groups of students. I attended the ACEN WIL Snapshots Second Chance Conference in Sydney in February where there was discussion of the use of virtual projects and online teams, but I was not convinced.

      1. This is a semester long tutorial activity and I am the tutor. I have 15 students in my tutorial, so each are assigned an actor from the Syrian Civil Conflict for the semester. Students conduct weekly background research on the role of their actor in the conflict. I found that the method described above (i think it closely resembles the Jigsaw approach) was very helpful in facilitating discussion between actors. It has also been helpful in familiarizing actors with the interests/objectives of other actors. I may try other discussion approaches during the next few weeks to compare student’s response.

        1. Hi Anas, thanks for sharing this example – I think this is really powerful example and a great way of how discussion can be used as a tool to build empathy and learn about things from another person’s perspective! Do students have trouble putting themselves in the position of another group/person at all? I’m keen to try role-playing as a strategy but am a bit worried it would require a massive amount of preparation and scaffolding work. Would love to hear more about the preparation involved!

    2. Hi Anas,
      Thanks for sharing how you are using discussions in tutorials – its really inspiring to hear about, and what a great way for students to gain insight into the complexities around world politics and international relations! Like Katie, I’d be interested to hear more about what preparation is needed for both staff and students. Also, I’m wondering if you have to plan for a debriefing discussion at the end of tutorials to help students step out of their specific actor roles or do you find this is usually a seamless transition?

    3. Hi Anas,
      Your discussion activity sounds fantastic! I’m sure your students get a great deal out of it! It reminds me of an assignment I had in highschool when our history teacher gave each of us a role card to write and deliver a persuasive speech either pro or anti-conscription during the first world war. My character was a very angry anti-British anti-conscriptionist man who had migrated to Australia from Northern Ireland. Amazingly, there was a Northern Irish cooking show on SBS at the time so I watched an episode and picked up the accent to be able to really get into the role:). It was an experience I’ll never forget and it probably led to me wanting to study Theatre Studies at the ANU. Drama really brings the subject alive and I’m sure your students will always remember the discussion too! It would have been interesting if our history teacher had made us answer questions from peers or meet each other in character. Such a brilliant idea!

  2. I recently taught a course focused on helping students develop their writing skills. One of the goals of the course was to get students to think about how they can start to understand new concepts and ideas through writing. To model this, I conducted an activity where I set a question to the whole class (roughly 20 students), and then got them to write down their initial responses to the question for 10 minutes. We then came together and students shared their ideas in a larger group discussion.

    I was a bit surprised at how effective this was in generating engaged discussion! The responses flowed really well from across the cohort, and I am now thinking about ways to integrate this approach into my courses more broadly. I had described the activity to my students as “crowdsourcing” a response to the question – however, now I see that it was a version of the “Think – Pair – Share” approach (I wasn’t initially familiar with this). Giving students the time to reflect individually and compose some responses before sharing them seemed to be really effective. It removed some of the pressure of feeling like you had to come up with ideas “on the spot”, and it gave students confidence to plan and contribute their responses.

    1. Hi Kate,
      Thanks for sharing your recent teaching experience – it sounds like it was a very effective and enriching activity! I have found that this approach allows for more students to participate than if I ask for immediate responses. Was that your experience too? Also, I have recently discovered this resource which might be of interest: in praise of think-pair-share.

      1. Hi Karlene,
        Yes I agree, it did seem to bring in a greater range of students into the discussion which was great. Thank you for the link, that’s really helpful! I’ll definitely look to ways that I can keep integrating this approach into my teaching.

  3. * How you currently use the discussion approach:

    As I have been teaching on-line, I use a very structured approach to discussion. First I provide the students with notes on the topic, extra readings, and then I seed the online discussion forum with two or three questions (much like the ANU Coffee Courses). The students are told to first answer the question, then discuss. They are also told how long their replies should be, and when. There is peer assessment, and feedback. Most importantly, students get marks and feedback the week after the discussion. If the marks are left to the end of semester, it is far too late.

    Also, as a tutor, I don’t take part in the discussion. Instead, after seeding with the questions, I prompt a few students privately with a suggested contributions, so the class thinks this is happening spontaneously.

    As a student of online courses, I found that unless there were explicit instructions about discussion, and marks attached, only about ten percent of the class would post anything.

    * How and when do the discussions happen and what role do they play:

    The discussion happens after the student has read the notes and done a quiz, but before a long form assignment.

    This semester I am trying a couple of face-to-face discussions. The first will be in ANU’s new Marie Reay Teaching Centre, purpose built for student group work. These sessions are after the online discussion and before an assignment. Rather than make up new topics, I am asking students to go through what they have already discussed online, in groups of six, then some will tell the whole class what they found. There are eighty students in the class, almost all international students with English as a second language, so this discussion will need to be carefully structured.

    * Rich/effective face-to-face discussion:

    I have never had a rich/effective face-to-face discussion in higher education. To me tutorials always seems forced and artificial, like the “Anyone, anyone” scene in the 1986 movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”.

    In contrast, I have had rich discussions as an online student. What made this effective is that because of the limitations of the communications medium the instructions have to be much more explicit. Also the discussion is usually asynchronous, so participants had time to think, and those less articulate were not intimidated into silence.

    As mentioned above, I am going to try to improve face to face discussions, by blending them with online. Also I have been telling the students why the discussion is useful for them. In particular I have pointed out it is to help with the assignment due the following week.

    However, I am not confident how to assess a face-to-face discussion with eighty students, so it will not be assessed. But without the assessment, how many students will turn up? If they don’t turn up, should I add assessment, or just give up on face-to-face forums?

    1. Hi Tom,
      Thanks for sharing your experiences – it’s great to hear examples of online discussion. We’ll be looking at this more in Day 3, so stay tuned!
      It sounds like you have some great ideas for your face-to-face discussions too, such as highlighting why discussions are relevant to students and facilitating small group discussions.
      That’s also a great question around assessment of discussions, and I wonder if there are other people who can share their thoughts around this?
      I have found this iPad app: http://www.equitymaps.com/ which can track and assess student involvement which is an interesting idea.

    2. Hi Tom,

      I tend to have the opposite problem. I can’t seem to get an online discussion going when it isn’t assessed. Even then, it is more a series of monologues, rather than a conversation or exchange of ideas between people. For the time being, I have given up on online discussions, but am hoping to learn more tips and tools in the coming posts.

      1. Bhavani, if the online discussion isn’t assessed, why are you worrying about it? Students need a really good reason to take the time and trouble to write a good post. If you want students to do it, then assess it.

        To get students to post the sort of discussion you want, give them some examples, provide guidelines and a rubric. When the students posts are not to the required standard, give them low marks, and feedback on what to do.

        Here are some excerpts from my tutor’s guide for forum posts in the “Reflective Learning” module I am running this semester:

        “First Topic: For the first topic you will need to remind students that they need to answer questions in the forum. Students not used to on-line learning can tend to forget to do the work, this even applies to experienced adult learners. …
        Posting Reminder: Here is an example posting reminder message …
        Each Topic: For each topic the instructor needs to prime the discussion forum, provide group summary and feedback at the end …
        Start The Topic Discussion: Start a thread of discussion for each question asked in the notes …
        Provide Individual Marks and Feedback: The general feedback to the class should be sufficient in most cases. Students who are having difficult may benefit from a couple of lines of individual feedback.

        Use the grading system to examine forum ratings and quiz result for each student. …
        Here are some feedback sentences to use …
        General Feedback: Post feedback to the weekly forum for all students. This should tell the students where to find their individual feedback (if any), what the average mark was, some tips and introduce the following topic. … Here is an example weekly feedback message …”

  4. I’ve found that the face to face chat within groups (ie break up into tables) will often move swiftly, and get people having the chatting about the content, and the second it goes back to the centre to discuss, the silence falls like a Dr Who episode. So if people have advice on how to enable the speaker to whole of the room mode on my students, I’m ears and eyes.

    * Share an experience when you either facilitated or participated in a rich/effective face-to-face discussion in a higher education setting and comment on:

    In the Lego Serious Play workshops, it’s a lot easier to facilitate a conversation because it’s very structured, speakers have assigned spaces and times, and a facilitating asset. The fear of loss of face in the marketing subjects has been incredible high, so if I do a “Are there questions?”, get silence, and then close up the show early, I’ll have a queue of people come to me to ask the questions one on one, and they’re questions that could have benefited the room. I need to get a solution to bypass the fear of failure/embarrassment factor.

    Successes I’ve had include I’ve done a few “as an individual, write ideas down, now share to the team, now share to the room”, where the team’s leader can share the concepts to the room, and the room gains. I’ve also taken to using A3 worksheets and sticky labels as a means to facilitate conversation processes so people can write, then speak or speak then write so it’s a combination of skill sets, not just verbal ability.

    * What were some features and conditions that made it so effective?
    Commerce students are seriously risk averse individuals, so they need processes that let them make unattributed comments so they can speak without thinking they’re risking grades. Worksheets, team leaders (speakers) and team visitors (listeners) have worked where you have a small team, and the team sends members to other groups to hear their stories, and report them back to the main team

    * What type of discussion activity was used?
    Small group collaborative – individual share the first idea, then collate the ideas, then move the ideas into a sharing approach.

    * What improvements would you make or suggest for future?
    Discussion based events seem to be a problem where students are wanting lectures and answers, and walk out feeling that they didn’t ‘get taught’ despite having gained education. I still need to find a way to communicate the value of the process to the cohort as something that translates to their ongoing success in the subject.

    Same for getting individuals who will share in small group conditions to share to a larger group

    1. Hi Stephen,
      Thanks for sharing successes as well as challenges you have faced in different contexts. You have also raised some valid points about how scary it can be for people to speak up in a larger group. One thing (amongst others that we look at in Day 2) I find that helps is to allow for pauses and silences to give people more time to think and then they are more likely to answer. This is not always easy to do in practice however, as it can feel a bit awkward! Do you find this helps you?
      I agree too that the expectations students come to class with can really influence the effectiveness of the discussion – I wonder how it would go if you facilitated an indepth discussion in class about the discussion teaching approach and why it can be so beneficial to learning. Would that help to manage the students’ expectations?

    2. Hi Stephen

      Re whole-of-room mode, I move around the room and spend time with each group during the break-out/small group discussions. This enables me to identify who is saying what. When we go back to the plenary, I am able to call on the shyer students, while also trying to make it comfortable for them. Eg, “Stephan, you raised a fantastic perspective on _____. Could you elaborate more?” Students have often remarked that this provides encouragement that their contributions are valuable, and they feel more willing to share openly as the semester progresses.

      Another tool I use is a rule that students cannot have the same person reporting back every time. Before beginning a discussion, students are instructed to identify their group’s rapporteur. For the most part, students automatically sort this out. For one class with a particularly strong extrovert/shy divide, I used a variation of the jigsaw method. I randomly gave each student a card from a standard deck at the beginning of the semester and had students memorise their card. For each activity, I determined group formation by saying things like “number 2s are doing case study X, number 3s are tackling Y”, etc. For reporting back to plenary, I might call on hearts from each group, and then get diamonds to pose a counter-argument. It took an additional 1 minute at the beginning of semester, and ensured students didn’t stay in the same groups, or hide behind the same vocal students, all semester long.

      1. Depending on the size of my next class, I should go and give the deck of cards a trial run again. Used it ages back, and students lost the cards/ate them/forgot their identity etc fairly quickly into semester – is this a thing to do at the start of each session or a semester duration?

        1. For smaller classes, I do it once at the beginning of semester, and take note of who has which card. For larger classes, I tend to do it each class. There seems to be a lot of fluidity in tutes – students rock up to whichever one best suits their schedule for that week.

  5. The best discussions I have experienced tend to be ones where students feel they have something valuable to contribute. In my area, applied linguistics, this is often when we are discussing differences across languages and contexts. In these kinds of discussions, students are the authority and they tend to participate readily. It would be nice to always set topics which allowed this because it’s relatively easy to get people talking, but I think it’s important not to shy away from discussion about readings, for example, where they may feel they aren’t equipped with any special knowledge. When this works, it’s usually because I’ve warmed them up well enough with small groups and warm up questions (e.g. hands up if you agree that X) where they can just raise a hand as an answer. This seems to get people into the zone of contributing.
    I agree with Tom – online discussions have only worked well for me where there is some sort of link to assessment (e.g. participation or hurdle).

    1. Hi Susy,
      Thanks for sharing your experiences and in particular, highlighting how confidence levels of students can influence their discussion contributions and how warm up activities can help overcome this. I like too that you support students to practise speaking up even if they aren’t so sure about what to say. Can I ask about how long your warm up activities are? Do you run them over a few sessions?

      1. Hi Karlene,
        My warmups tend to occur more at the beginning of the semester and after a few weeks people tend to volunteer and participate more readily. I do always let students know that the course includes and expectation of discussion and why in the first lecture. I advise them that if they don’t like that style of learning, then the course may not be for them. To my knowledge, I’ve never had anyone drop a course because of the amount of discussion expected. For harder topics I always set some pair/group work first. I know it can be annoying to discuss something in a group and then be asked to talk about it again in plenary (i.e. with the whole class) so I try to slightly adapt the plenary discussion so that it is worth sharing the small group thoughts.

  6. I have been largely frustrated with large group discussions in my tutorials. The best discussions occur when a sufficient number of students have done the weekly readings and have something to contribute, but even in that setting, the students who haven’t prepared for the tutorials get left behind. I seem to end up talking too much out of nervousness, just to fill the silence!
    I have definitely found that when students split up into groups, they have much more to say. In some of my better tutorials, I’ve split the class into groups and set them a task, such as answering a few questions about an art object or set of objects (I teach art history). On some occasions I’ve had the groups report back to the class and this has worked well. The tension of the classroom has already been broken by the group work and I think it is less stressful for shy students because, if they speak to the class at all, they are reporting shared ideas rather than exclusively their own. I am starting to wonder if I should incorporate group work and reporting into every tutorial. This way, no one is left behind and I’m not stuck trying to force discussions.

    1. Hi Christina, thanks for sharing some of the challenges you face! One of the things that I have always struggled with is that there can seem to be a bit of mystery to me, at least during the class, as to why some techniques or discussion questions are effective and lead to a lively discussion, and other times there is just a stunned silence! I used to teach primarily in social sciences in subjects that were very reading-heavy, and this was a huge barrier for discussion. Recently I have tried using a short quiz using a tool like Socrative to get students to review the material from the reading, which at least gives me a good sense of how well they understood the concepts, etc.

      I wonder if any of the other course participants have any suggestions on methods to foster discussion in reading-based courses, when students haven’t done the readings? I’d love to learn some new techniques!

    2. Hi Christina,

      I often give a small reading (newspaper article, background to a situation) before getting my tutes to work on that current, real-world problem/scenario. This means everyone enters the discussion with at least the same base level of information. In getting them to *apply* theory and content, students are learning, even if they haven’t done the core readings. The ones who have done the readings help fill in the gaps and teach those who haven’t. However, they are not necessarily doing the heavy lifting, because the group collectively needs to apply the core readings (theory) to the real world/short reading and reach a consensus among them. This generates further discussions, which leads to more learning opportunities. Hope that makes sense (it does in my mind!).

      1. Thanks Bhavani, that is sensible to get everyone on the same page at the start of class. I will have to find a way to apply this. Most art history readings are too long to read in class, but perhaps I could pick out some key paragraphs from longer readings.

  7. I think Anas means the students were assigned a role in the conflict to enact. Like a soldier on one side or the other.

    1. One thing we need to be mindful of when asking students to discuss difficult questions, and especially when role-playing, is the strong emotions this may bring out. Stephen briefs students about what to do if this happens, at the start of his Lego Serious Play workshops. I thought this absurdly overcautious: after all we were just playing with building blocks. That was until the participant opposite me broke down in tears, while explaining their build. We need to keep in mind the pressure students are under, and the tensions under the surface in a multicultural international student body.

      1. Hi Tom, this example of a student who was very challenged by what may have seemed initially like a straightforward activity really speaks to me. It shows how discussions can be very confronting for some participants, and highlights to me the need to be empathetic towards others, particularly, as you say, they may have very different life experiences or contexts which can be a major factor in contributing. Thanks for sharing it!

  8. In my experience the best way to get students to engage is to first ask questions of the class where a “raise your hand” if you agree is the answer, then to separate the class into small groups to first discuss a question or a concept relevant to the course. This allows students to develop their ideas with more time for thought and feedback. This seems to make it easier for students to articulate their ideas in front of the larger class, partly because they have the “safety” of the opinion of their group behind them. I find that doing this a few times gets students used to talking and they tend to then be more vocal in the class.

    1. Hi Renee, this is a really great and easy technique to help scaffold students into contributing! It’s interesting because I noticed several of the other commenters recommended strategies to support students to speak which often come under the “think-pair-share” definition. I was wondering if you considered this a type of “think-pair-share” activity? It sounds like many people are doing it but hadn’t heard about the name for it! (Good teaching practice by any other name!)

  9. It is nice to read these posts and see that what I instinctively do has a name like “think, pair share” which I had not heard until this course. I think it helps to think about the structure of the classes. Do people tell the students in class that this is what is happening? Or does it just appear to be a ‘natural’ thing?

    1. This is such a great question! In the context of my current teaching, I do like to explain what techniques I am using and why, which is because most of the delivery I do now is relating to education. I like to name and explain techniques as a form of modelling practices, and invite the students to reflect on how they found the technique, etc. In my previous life teaching undergraduates, I sometimes discussed it but in many cases it wasn’t relevant in the same way it was in teaching education.

  10. I was recently took part in a small group discussion as part of a training series. We were asked to analyse some course content. We were given a framework and asked to identify key points that were relevant to the literature we were reviewing. I found that this discussion was not too effective for several reasons. 1) The scope of the task was too large, and the expectations of the task were not made clear. Because of this there was a lot of time spent in the small groups discussing what the question was and therefore not a lot of time left to critically analyse the material. The lack of clarity around the task also resulted in a (small) argument between two of the members of my group around definitions, which leads me to my second point: 2) the dynamic of the group quickly became hostile which stunted conversation. I think the reason our group failed at this task was primarily due to the broad scope of the task. As this blog points out, without clear boundaries and expectations discussions can be very unfruitful. Lastly, 3) I think that the workshop in which this discussion took place had not provided the class with enough background information to do the task. Therefore there was a highly varied level of expertise in the group. I think that some participants of the group struggled not to dominate the conversation and to not be patronizing when listening and discussing other members ideas. I wonder the best way to manage these situations as a facilitator?

    1. Hi Jhana, thanks for sharing this – it is such a good example of the problems that can arise when discussion tasks are not effective, and it sounds like this situation actually hampered the learning rather than supporting it! We’ll discuss in more detail ways that facilitators can manage and create more productive discussions in the next few days of the course, but I think you pinpointed a lot of the key issues around scope, facilitation, scaffolding, and so on. I’d be keen to hear from you on the upcoming posts if you think that any of the ideas there might have improved this particular case!

  11. Discussions are central to my classes. Lectures are run as Socratic seminars, and tutorials provide further opportunities for deep and active learning through group discussions, role-play simulations, debates, and games. As such, discussions take up 80% + of tutorials, and, usually, 60% + of seminars. The small-group discussions are directed (ie, students are told to break into groups and discuss a topic/case/issue), however, plenary discussions are largely spontaneous. Silence is usually overcome by a few prompting questions. I find playing the devil’s advocate can get some fantastic discussions going. After all, students are unlikely to sit back and accept some of the more out-there propositions (eg, that X suggests that Trump is a good leader). The main challenge I find with this is trying to ensure consistency across multiple seminars and tutorials. However, I enjoy that every class has a different perspective to add. It keeps you on your toes!

  12. I really enjoyed reading all of these comments sharing experiences with discussion online and in class. There are so many takeaways from this discussion that might inform some of us in future discussion activities. One of the ones that seems to stand out a lot in this forum is that discussions will work better when well structured and pre-planned to a certain degree, especially giving participants specific tasks or roles. It also seems that it is very important to support and scaffold quieter and shyer individuals to participate and the main element is reducing the risk each student feels in coming out with a contribution – obviously if the discussion participation is part of some kind of final assessment mark this really magnifies the risk for some students. I like Tom’s idea for the online discussions in prompting some students behind the scenes to contribute an idea or thought, to get the ball rolling. This replicates what I have done sometimes in class, by choosing a more confident student to share their initial thoughts, then building the conversation from there and using various techniques to bring in the quieter students.

  13. Hi everyone! A contribution is better late than never (I hope). I enjoyed reading through the content from day 1, and taking away some ideas of potential new methods to use in future tutorials. In particular I found the Cult of Pedagogy blog interesting. The ones I likes most, or saw as easy to apply were the low-prep style structures such as affinity mapping and snowball discussion. I also liked the ongoing discussion strategies (plug ins as she called them), using technology to engage students in different ways. I like the ides of voxer, might give this a go to set my groups short tasks to do at home. I think this would also assist the students to build trust and rapport with one another, which hopefully will assist them to engage with the learning during class. In my tutorials this year I have allowed the students to organise their own groups (1st year UG nursing tutorials), and it seemed to work well. A lot of my groups are using google docs, and its amazing that they can all type their contributions ‘real time’ into one document. I do sometimes have to reming some of the students to ‘talk’ though haha. I have one question for those who use technology in their tutorials. Im looking for a platform to allow students to engage with a ‘backchannel discussion’. Something that creates a wordle or a cloud of ideas or similar. Can anyone recommend something free and easy to use?

    1. Alysia, before you get more technology for tutorials, rummage through what you already have, to see what might be suitable. Many of the Learning Management Systems, and other tools used for distance education, have had mobile interfaces retrofitted. These can be used real-time in the classroom. This way you, and the students, do not have to learn a new tool, and the conversation can continue beyond the classroom. Some years ago I tried out using the desktop version of Moodle live in a computer lab, and for an industry course in a training room: it worked fine.

    2. Hi Alysia, welcome! Happy to have you join whenever works for you! I have used PollEverywhere to create word clouds during classes. It has a few class size limitations but should hopefully work for a tutorial-sized group? https://www.polleverywhere.com It’s very easy to use – I’m a bit of a fan. 🙂

      1. Fabulous, thank you Katie I will give it a go. Yes its for tutorial groups 25-30. Unfortunately our LMS doesn’t offer any such plug-ins. I’m always trying to engage students in different ways. Thanks again 🙂

        1. My pleasure! There are quite a few options that are similar to PollEverywhere, but have a few different features that might be of interest. I’ve also used Socrative (which I like very much), and I’ve heard others using WooClap. There are also interactive features within Echo360 Active Learning Platform if your institution uses that for lecture recording? This might be useful as it is automatically supported by your institution –

          I hope it goes well! I’d love to hear about how it works!

  14. When I was teaching English to adult migrant and refugee students, I created my own boardgames with a question about them in each square and had sets of playing pieces and a dice in old film canisters (I knew they’d come in handy! :). When a student landed on the square, they would talk about the topic for a minute then the other players would each ask a question about what they’d heard. It was wonderful to hear the students laughing and really getting to know each other and everyone got many turns to speak. Usually I would just number students and send them away to different parts of the room with a board and playing piece set but sometimes I decided to select group members more carefully to ensure all students felt safe to talk about their experiences. I probably should have created even more games like this as my students seemed to love them.

  15. I teach around sustainability studies, so I often have very little problem generating great conversations, even in a large group, because a) as my course isn’t a pre req for anything the student cohort are self selecting and thus are very engaged in the topic and b) so many of the topics have direct relationships to how people are living their lives and so I find that people are very motivated to discuss these issues. However the implications of discussing issues in a way that it is meaningful relative to student’s lives is that discussions often cover personal ground: the ethical choices people are making, the intimate details of their habits. To do this in not only a public forum but also a formal educational one, students must feel a high level of safety and inclusivity in the classroom which I constantly strive to do. For example in one tutorial all of the students have to take an online ecological footprint calculator to work out what their own foot print is, and then they have to physically organise themselves in order of greatest to lowest foot print, and then that generates a lot of conversation and sharing about which of peoples habits are leading to lower and higher footprints. Its one of the more impactful tute activities I have been involved in and does a great job of tying the weeks readings to students every day lives.

    1. Hi Edwina,
      Thanks for sharing your teaching experiences – it sounds like you have fostered a lovely, cohesive and safe group environment for your participants! I also really like how you run the ecological footprint activity – what a powerful way for people to see their choices represented and align with the course content too!
      I have taught a number of self-development workshops, so am also accustomed to creating safe spaces for participants to share what can be very personal experiences within group discussions. I find it a very rewarding experience though!

  16. In teaching undergraduate biology there were a number of instances where discussion based activities worked quite well. We rarely got students to work alone but rather often split them into groups and gave them questions to work with on the whiteboard. I had a rule (in my head), that I never wanted to be the one with the whiteboard marker in my hand, so quickly had to learn how to coax students into participating or discussing things together as a group. This would sometimes be challenging for a number of different reasons. One common one would be that students would feel like they didn’t have enough knowledge to be able to participate in discussion or contribute. I’d encourage them to be able to help look things up online, in their own notes, in the lecture slides, or in a textbook. Another common problem is that someone would dominate the group. If this was occurring I’d try to specifically direct some questions to certain group members or ask them what they thought of the topic or question and if they had anything to add. If the whole group just didn’t know where to start I’d try to ask them some more questions to begin to lead them in the right direction, and then sometimes point them in the direction of a specific resource to get them started. After they got started, I’d try to avoid then hanging over them – in these circumstances I didn’t want students to feel I was standing over their shoulder and watching their every move or listening to their whole discussion – so I’d move away, look at a textbook rather intently or talk to another group.
    I think the success of these discussive activities often depended on the mix of students in the sessions, as well as the physical and mental energy of the students attending. Sometimes students seemed quite tired and didn’t have the extra energy to engage with their peers in such a manner.

  17. In teaching my first-year undergraduate tutorials I have found that giving the students some brainstorming time in small groups is an effective way for them to warm up and get their ideas flowing before sharing them with the broader class. This seems to help in multiple circumstances, including when students may be unsure of their ideas, or if they are unprepared and need some time to skim the readings and gather their thoughts. This tends to help ensure that the class discussion gets of to a good start, and generally helps maintain momentum as once people start talking, they’re more likely to continue generating and sharing ideas. It also gives a chance for a range of students to participate, rather than just the confident ones.

  18. Michelle, do we need to teach students what brainstorming is and what the protocols are for this and other forms of discussion? Recently I was in a training course where we were required to behave like students. In one of the Zoom breakout groups one of the participants was offended by what another participant said and just left. In a face to face setting, it would be possible for another participant, or a tutor, to walk out with them, check they were okay and see if they could perhaps joint another group. But online participants just vanish.

  19. Hi Everyone! I enjoyed reading about all the different courses and various ways to facilitate a discussion and it made me think about how I can include a discussion. I never really thought about facilitating a discussion because I only have limited time and usually try to cover a lot of content. However, I was thinking about providing a couple of resources (e.g. short video, newspaper article) prior to my lecture in order to provide some common knowledge and thus would gain some extra time to include a discussion. I liked Rene’s comment about “the best way to get students to engage is to first ask questions of the class where a “raise your hand” if you agree is the answer”. I think that this would be a great way to “warm up” and get everyone’s attention.
    The number of students or participants can vary between 3 and 15 and thus I would need to adapt my approach to facilitate a discussion. For the very small group of students, I would think that the Socratic Seminars could work well and also sitting in a circle rather than sitting behind their desks could change their mindset in a positive way (I would hope).
    For the larger group, I would think that the Think-Pair-Share approach might work well. I am certainly keen to try it.

  20. Michaela, the trick is to get the students to actually look at the videos and articles provided *before* the lecture. If you have a small number of students (a dozen or so) then you could apply pressure individually. But I have hundreds of students, so have to have assessment associated with *everything* I want the student to do.

    Remember the line by Douglas Adams: “… I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young. ‘Why, what did she tell you?’ I don’t know, I didn’t listen.'”

  21. Thanks Tom. Yes, you are right, I agree. Otherwise the whole exercise is pointless.

    Can you please tell me more about what assessment methods you have for such a large number of students?

    1. Michaela, as in my posts 25 and 28 March 2019, to get students to do things I link the task to assessment. So the student is asked to do something and told there will be a test on it shortly afterward. The first time the student may attempt the task without doing any preparation, but they quickly realise this does not end well. Unfortunately there are always a few students who are unable, or unwilling to do this. But it is easy to identify those students from their low grades early in the semester, and offer assistance.

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