- The action or process of talking about something in order to reach a decision or to exchange ideas.
- A conversation or debate about a specific topic.
- 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.
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.
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
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?