Welcome back! Today we’ll look in more detail on how to facilitate effective face-to-face discussions, and unpack the role of the facilitator, as well as offer strategies on how to prepare and design for effective discussions.
What is the role of the facilitator?
“The discussion teacher is planner, host, moderator, devil’s advocate, fellow-student, and judge – a potentially confusing set of roles. Even the most seasoned group leader must be content with uncertainty, because discussion teaching is the art of managing spontaneity.”
(Discussions, Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University, downloaded 19/03/2019).
The lecturer/tutor plays a vital role in facilitating the discussion process and associated activities. They set the tone, pace, structure and level of engagement as well as decide on what types of discussions to use and when.
The facilitator role is multifaceted and nuanced, and facilitation skills – like other skills – improve over time with practice, student and peer feedback and ongoing self-reflection. To improve facilitation skills, it can be helpful to have a colleague attend a session and provide constructive feedback, as well as observe how others facilitate.
The facilitator role is an energetic one, as it requires focus on the delivery of the activity whilst simultaneously, being fully present and attuned to individual participants’ levels of engagement, the overall atmosphere and how the shifting interactions influence the flow of the activities.
In a nutshell, the facilitator role includes:
- Prior to the day:
- Getting to know students and creating a safe environment
- Being prepared with the specific activities and materials needed (See Day 1 for what to activities consider)
- On the day:
- Introducing the discussion – this could include icebreakers
- Facilitating the discussion:
- Be patient
- Provide direction and focus
- Asking questions and probing (e.g. clarification, summarising)
- Dealing with any conflicts and keeping discussions constructive and positive
- Bringing closure
- Post activity: Reflecting and evaluating
Let’s take a closer look at some of these components now, and others we will cover in Day 4.
Setting up the environment
Part of preparing for effective discussions is to set up the environment so that students feel safe, supported and included. Ways to do this include:
- Establishing clear ground rules and expectations – for instance on participation, turn-taking, respectful communication, arriving to class on time etc.
- Communicating the purpose and objectives of the discussion to students
- Knowing and using people’s names where possible
- Managing any emerging conflict – we will address this more in Day 4
- Providing more time for quieter/less confident students to answer questions
- Being mindful of using jargon or complex language when its likely to be unfamiliar to the student cohort
Also communicate what level of participation you are looking for from students. Is it a single word/sentence answer for instance? Are you looking for them to provide thoughtful comments or link between different ideas from the lecture? Is it to provide alternative viewpoints to their peers? How much time are you expecting students to spend in responding in discussions for instance?
Key resource: “Fostering student morale and confidence” – University of Waterloo
Check out the resource linked above about strategies to foster positive environments in your classes. Are these strategies familiar to you? How have they worked for you in the past?
Planning and Preparation
Planning and preparation is absolutely critical to effective classroom discussions – especially for newer facilitators, for facilitating with new cohorts of students, in a untested physical environment and for running new types of discussions. Initially, it can take a lot more time than planning for a lecture.
Where to start
Consider the goals and learning objectives of the discussion: Is it to help students explore ideas around an issue, or to develop deeper understanding of a concept? Is it for students to apply their new knowledge and skills to a case study or analyse an argument?
In short, what are the specific pedagogical reasons underpin the discussion approach intended to be used?
Other things to consider in the planning process include:
- The social/emotional factors (e.g. making high-quality participation count, communicating discussion relevance to students), and physical factors (e.g. arranging seating so everyone can see each other).
- Preparing students – will there be any pre-reading or pre-viewing (of videos) for instance? Many sources recommend preparing students ahead of class.
- How to guide the discussion – will it be with questions, a case study, a video, activities, individual writing prompts?
- The overall structure, format and activities – for instance, will be it conducted in small or large groups, be instructor or student led? See Day 1 for some ideas.
- Are there any materials needed, and what preparation is there for them (e.g. handouts, props)?
- What types of discussion questions to use? See further down this post for some ideas.
- How well do the discussion goals align with the overall course objectives and learning outcomes?
What constitutes a good discussion?
From the facilitator’s perspective, leading a class discussion can be daunting as it is filled with uncertainty and unpredictability, even with careful planning and preparation! So a good discussion needs to include a structure as well as activities and questions that are in line with your overall learning goals and objectives.
In particular, asking good questions is fundamental to a rich and productive discussion. Questions can be structured and categorised in different ways and the type of questions you use will depend on the purpose and learning objectives of your discussion. In general however, open ended questions and divergent questions (where there is more than one answer) are recommended to generate a lively and stimulating discussion. Also consider sorting the questions you will use from simpler questions to more complex during the discussion.
Key resource: “Designing effective discussion questions” – Stanford University
Designing effective questions can be difficult – take a look at the resource linked above from Stanford. What do you think of their advice on how to frame questions? Also take a look here for more on question strategies and here for tips on how to lead a discussion.
At the end of the discussion it’s important to synthesise the main themes and points and summarise – maybe on a whiteboard or online, and link to broader course goals and key course/discipline topics.
Finally, you might like to reflect on how the discussion went, and consider:
- What worked well and what you would like to improve on or do differently next time?
- How did various students participate and engage, and what was the quality of contributions?
- Were there any potential conflicts or specific challenges you had to overcome?
- What do you think students learnt and does it align with the goals and objectives that you set in the planning phase?
- What has stopped you from participating fully in a discussion in the past? What would encourage you to participate more in future discussions?
- What would you like to achieve in your teaching (or in supporting others’ teaching) by using the discussion approach?
- What components of the facilitator role would you like to focus more on and how can you do this?
Extra Resources – Optional
- Checklist for facilitating effective discussions and tips on facilitating effective discussions from Brown University.
- Great resource from Harvard Graduate School of Education with short videos demonstrating how to Facilitate Discussions
- Asking more effective questions
- Excellent resources for planning and running discussions here from Carnegie Mellon University and here from Kansas State University.
- Video on The Art of Discussion Leading: A Class with Chris Christensen