Engagement

Day 2: How to facilitate effective face-to-face discussions

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: 

  1. Prior to the day:
    1. Getting to know students and creating a safe environment
    2. Being prepared with the specific activities and materials needed (See Day 1 for what to activities consider)
  2. On the day:
    1. Introducing the discussion – this could include icebreakers 
    2. Facilitating the discussion: 
      • Be patient 
      • Listen 
      • Observe 
      • Provide direction and focus
    3. Asking questions and probing (e.g. clarification, summarising)
    4. Dealing with any conflicts and keeping discussions constructive and positive
    5. Bringing closure 
  3. 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.

Closure

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.

Evaluation

Finally, you might like to reflect on how the discussion went, and consider:

  1. What worked well and what you would like to improve on or do differently next time? 
  2. How did various students participate and engage, and what was the quality of contributions? 
  3. Were there any potential conflicts or specific challenges you had to overcome?
  4. What do you think students learnt and does it align with the goals and objectives that you set in the planning phase?

question markDiscussion Questions

  1. What has stopped you from participating fully in a discussion in the past? What would encourage you to participate more in future discussions?
  2. What would you like to achieve in your teaching (or in supporting others’ teaching) by using the discussion approach?
  3. What components of the facilitator role would you like to focus more on and how can you do this?

Extra Resources – Optional

  1. Checklist for facilitating effective discussions and tips on facilitating effective discussions from Brown University.
  2. Great resource from Harvard Graduate School of Education with short videos demonstrating how to Facilitate Discussions
  3. Asking more effective questions
  4. Excellent resources for planning and running discussions here from Carnegie Mellon University and here from Kansas State University.
  5. Video on The Art of Discussion Leading: A Class with Chris Christensen 

17 thoughts on “Day 2: How to facilitate effective face-to-face discussions

  1. 1. What has stopped you from participating fully in a discussion in the past? What would encourage you to participate more in future discussions?
    Personally, I am not always the most spontaneous thinker, and it takes me time to formulate responses to questions (especially in topics that I’m less familiar with). I think many students feel the same in discussion settings. Taking time, often beginning with small group discussions, helps me formulate contributions and make connections with other people’s ideas. Structured prompts and questions would encourage me to participate more, rather than open-ended questions.

    2. What would you like to achieve in your teaching (or in supporting others’ teaching) by using the discussion approach?
    Firstly, I would like to use discussions as a forum where students feel they can consolidate their understanding. I want to encourage students to use discussions to clarify questions that they are not sure of, because discussions are the perfect opportunity to do this! I also like to take a step back in discussions at times – for example, if a student can help answering another student’s question then that is an ideal outcome for me. Where appropriate, I will often throw questions out to the class before answering myself, as a means of facilitating students’ critical thinking skills. Through this, I would like to students to then start pushing and questioning their understanding as well. I would like students to leave discussion with clarity around core ideas, but having also generated new and unexpected questions for them to keep thinking about and exploring.

    3. What components of the facilitator role would you like to focus more on and how can you do this?
    I would like to improve my abilities to encourage quieter students to become involved in discussions. Especially when tutorials are short (as in my area they often are) it is easy to rely on the confident students to generate and drive discussion. However, this can be intimidating to other students. I would like to learn more strategies to encourage all students to participate, including the less confident students. While I don’t like to single out students, I would like to learn some productive techniques to bring quieter students into the discussion, as I find this can be a challenging aspect of facilitating discussions.

    1. Hi Kate, I really like your suggestions for how to encourage anyone who might take longer to reflect, think and formulate their responses in a discussion. In fact, for many people who like to take time to process their answers, online discussion forums are much better, as this medium enables deep, reflective replies. In addition to those very useful methods you propose such as asking structured questions, you could invite students to add more thoughts to an online discussion forum that you could set up parallel to the face to face course, if this was possible. Some students may feel far more open to continuing the discussion after class.

      1. Hi Jill. Yes I agree, I really like the idea of integrating classroom and online discussions as much as possible. Not seeing them as separate, but as different modes of discussion that can feed into and inform each other.

  2. I’m observing the ENGN1211 “lectorial” today on the super floor in Kambri. There are 150 students enrolled, maybe 120 or 130 actually here today. There are a few differernt approaches to discussion happening.

    The course convener is running the show and there are 5 tutors roaming. The lectorial is 2 hours long – the first half being more tightly scripted, the second half including a big chunk of time for the students to work on their project in their (assigned) groups. Students submitted a low stakes assessment related to their project to Wattle just before class. The tutors mark that during the first half of class, and they find each group and give verbal feedback during the second part of class.

    During the first part, the convener invited the students to respond to questions at times using PollAnywhere. She displayed the text responses – maybe 30 or so came in quite quickly. This proved to be a good way to have a whole class discussion – text responses are anonymous and there is no need to be brave and project your voice to answer a question. Some of the answers were insightful and raised controversial points tat the convener could respond to. Others were light hearted, and the convener could decide whether to indulge the joke or gloss over it.

    At other times the convener invited discussion at tables – the project groups are 2-3 people, so many tables have two groups sitting at them. Now, near the end of class, they are discussing their project, so just talking to their team, but earlier they were talking with the whole table while they responded to the PollAnywhere questions.

    1. Kim, sounds interesting, but non-ANU-ites might need some background:

      * ENGN1211: The Discovering Engineering foundation course for engineering at the Australian National University (ANU).

      * Super floor: A flat floor cabaret style classroom taking up most of the top floor of the new Marie Reay Teaching Centre, at ANU.

      * Kambri: The central area of ANU, opened in February 2019, with accommodation, teaching, sporting, and cultural facilities.

  3. I’m observing the ENGN1211 “lectorial” today on the super floor in Kambri. There are 150 students enrolled, maybe 120 or 130 actually here today. There are a few differernt approaches to discussion happening.

    The course convener is running the show and there are 5 tutors roaming. The lectorial is 2 hours long – the first half being more tightly scripted, the second half including a big chunk of time for the students to work on their project in their (assigned) groups. Students submitted a low stakes assessment related to their project to Wattle just before class. The tutors mark that during the first half of class, and they find each group and give verbal feedback during the second part of class.

    During the first part, the convener invited the students to respond to questions at times using PollAnywhere. She displayed the text responses – maybe 30 or so came in quite quickly. This proved to be a good way to have a whole class discussion – text responses are anonymous and there is no need to be brave and project your voice to answer a question. Some of the answers were insightful and raised controversial points tat the convener could respond to. Others were light hearted, and the convener could decide whether to indulge the joke or gloss over it.

    At other times the convener invited discussion at tables – the project groups are 2-3 people, so many tables have two groups sitting at them. Now, near the end of class, they are discussing their project, so just talking to their team, but earlier they were talking with the whole table while they responded to the PollAnywhere questions.

  4. * What has stopped you from participating fully:

    There is the sense of not being at the same level as the rest of the group. As an example, in weekly cyber security discussions I don’t understand many of the terms used, and am too timid to ask. Quantum computing seminars are worse: it is like being in an episode of the “Big Bang Theory”. 😉

    What would help is blended discussions, where it can be ongoing, and I can look things up in the Wikipedia without anyone noticing.

    * What would you like to achieve in your teaching using discussion:

    Would like to know *why* I am using discussion: am I doing it simply because I think this is expected as part of a university course?

    * What components of the facilitator role would you like to focus on:

    I would like to be able to apply some of the techniques I use for online discussion to face to face. But how can I subtly prompt participants to contribute?

    ps: What is an “introduction card”, and what do students do with it? The University of Waterloo suggested using them.

  5. 1) What has stopped you from participating fully in a discussion in the past? What would encourage you to participate more in future discussions?
    Quite often I end up in a learning environment squeezed in between a half dozen other project sessions, events and tasks, and I don’t have the desire to take the floor and spend that energy for speaking/leading, or I’m somewhere that I want to hear the expertise of the speaker. It’s neat we do a lot of peer to peer stuff, but sometimes you want the peer at the front with the ppt to be the person you hear from more than the people in the cheap seats

    2) What would you like to achieve in your teaching (or in supporting others’ teaching) by using the discussion approach?
    Achieve some value for being in the room and contributing to the dynamic, both for the students and for me – the only time I’ve ever felt like flipping a table was the week I’d prepared for 30+ students, and had nobody show, and I was like “Well no, why do we do this mode again?”. We’ve got to get something useful in the exchange of attending/participating for both speaker and listener.

    3) What components of the facilitator role would you like to focus more on and how can you do this?
    Drawing out conversations and extracting contributions from the audience is a key, and I often find that I can do a charismatic hypnosis thing on an audience, then go “Any now your turn…” and everyone is still in the trance/thrall waiting for the next part of the story. Probably because I trained as a presenter/storyteller, not a facilitator.

  6. *particpiating fully – I learn best by reading and writing rather than through listening. Sometime I worry that I missed something obvious from the discussion, so try to figure things out myself that ask questions.
    *achieve in teaching – help students to learn by coming to their own conclusions on topics through discussion, rather than by them listening to me tell them the answers.
    *components of the facilitator role – patience. Dealing with the silence after a question is raised to the class. In a pod cast that I listened to recently they said that you need to leave at least 8 seconds between asking a question of a class and expecting a response. They said it (roughly) took 2 seconds to comprend the question, a few seconds to formulate a response, a few seconds to assess whether or not it was safe to answer the question, and then another two seconds to begin to speak. In the podcast, they did not speak for 8 seconds to show what that length of time is, and it felt like a long really long time.

  7. The main thing that stops me from participating is shyness combined with … a high regard for manners and etiquette? It’s a difficult one to explain. I wait for an appropriate turn (eg, a pause in the conversation) for fear of being rude and cutting someone else off. However, no one else does this, so I never get an opportunity to speak. When I try to assert myself, I am inevitably drowned out by louder voices. These experiences make me more aware of the quieter students in my classes, and the need to give them opportunities to speak up. In this regard, I try to establish a bit of a speakers’ list – acknowledging who is next so that no one has to fight to be heard.

    I want students to take charge of their learning and develop their own critical analysis skills, instead of just passively absorbing and regurgitating information without critically engaging with it. I don’t need my students to memorise things – it wouldn’t matter anyway, given how much uncertainty and change dominates our field (this is a field where the answer to almost everything is “it depends”). On the contrary, it is this very uncertainty that requires my students (the field’s future) to be able to think for themselves, and apply concepts and theories to as-yet-unthought-of situations. In short, I use discussions to (hopefully) prepare my students to take on the world.

    I need to work on online facilitation. I just don’t know how to take face-to-face interaction online. As my classes get larger, I need ways of maintaining the discussion-based deep learning in a less time-intensive (for me) format. I’m hoping the next few days help address this.

    PS: I really like the Vanderbilt University quote at the beginning of this post. It certainly encapsulates how I feel every single class.

    1. Hi Bhavani,
      I definitely relate to what you said about waiting for an appropriate turn which never comes so I was also mindful of this when discussions were taking place in my classes. I like the sound of your speakers list method to ensure that everyone has a guaranteed chance to speak.
      I mentioned the use of board games in my comment for yesterday’s post. Something that surprised me with this was that some students were so keen to talk, they would start shaking the dice in the canister before a fellow player had finished their turn so sometimes I had to remind students not to do this. Thus activities like turn taking in board games and ‘Lego Serious Play’ are valuable for students who tend to hog conversations or interrupt others as it makes them realise that not only do quieter people have valuable things to say too but they may have more insightful things to say because they listen more.
      Were you able to find some useful techniques for online facilitation from day three of this course? I must say I found the Padlet activity very engaging and enjoyed writing comments for each picture posted.

  8. Like others have mentioned, not feeling confident about our knowledge in an area is a barrier to participation in discussion for me. I don’t see this as a confidence problem. As academics, we should be acutely aware of when we are qualified to comment and where our limits lie. Maybe many of us are a little oversensitive to the limits of our expertise (the logical conclusion is imposter syndrome!), but on the whole, I think it’s really worth empathising with our students on this and not viewing it superficially as a matter of confidence. No one wants to discuss, for example, if they haven’t read a reading, didn’t understand it, or read it and have forgotten it because the content was a bit foreign.

    In relation to the ‘why’ of discussion, raised by Tom above, I agree we need an answer to that, and students need it too so they can see a reason to discuss. For me, it’s the fact that talking about something synthesises lines of thought, generates ideas and clarifies disciplinary content in ways that just pondering does not. There is an adrenalin component to the to and fro of face-to-face speech which somehow activates and transforms thought. It has an after-effect too. Thoughts that are forced into speech (public) through discussion become the basis for things we go away and ponder again (this effect is most noticeable in tricky conversations we go away and do again alone, but better after the event, but it happens in a milder way for academic discussion, I think). This all makes for the potential for deeper learning and that’s why I include discussion.

  9. My problem in discussions is sometimes the confidence issue that others have raised here but mostly that I’m a slow thinker and need time to consider a question. I often find that large group discussions move too quickly for me. Well-designed questions certainly prompt my brain to work more quickly.
    I want to encourage discussion in my classes because I believe it is crucial for deep learning. I want the students to come away charged, interested and hankering for more knowledge.
    I want to be able to set student discussions off, rather than filling the silence with my own nervous babbling! I think I need to take the time to think up a good set of prompting questions, and I need to give the students more time to think and answer.

  10. What has stopped you from participating fully in a discussion in the past? What would encourage you to participate more in future discussions?
    Certainly confidence in the complexity of my ideas and contribution to the discussion. Sometimes I had the sense of not being at the same level as the rest of my classmates. This was exacerbated by the fact that I learnt English at a very late stage. English is a fun language, but speaking publicly as an undergrad with less than a year of speaking the language was very difficult. Obtaining discussion questions/topics before hand would have certainly encouraged me to participate more often.

    What would you like to achieve in your teaching (or in supporting others’ teaching) by using the discussion approach?
    Add some value to the students and contributing towards the development of their own critical thinking. I view discussion space in tutorials as the driving factor in encouraging students to lead their learning journey at university level. While I think the way we assess students is still largely based on memorization, I think assessing student’s ability to engage learning material critically is also important. Having worked professionally with different firms before commencing my PhD, I realize the importance of critical and constructive engagement in the future work place for most students and this is what I am trying to achieve by facilitating and encouraging discussion during tutorials.

  11. “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.”
    Were truer words ever spoken? Even after years of running tutorials – with students who get relatively younger and less experienced than me every year – the constant unknown of will this tutorial work, will this discussion spark interest or deathly silence, will I know all the answers to students questions, or will I inadvertently stick my foot in my mouth is always there…

    In terms of things that have stopped me contributing to discussions, it is definitely the fear of being wrong, or fear of being judged by other people. Unsurprisingly a lot of my questions for facilitating discussion in class don’t tend to have right or wrong answers, they are about different views of particular ethical dilemmas for example. Also often I am encouraging a very interdisciplinary group to given examples of how their particular discipline might approach an issue. What I am trying to achieve in my tutorials is actually getting students to be aware of the complexities of issues of why it often isn’t simple to deal with environmental problems, so discussions, where people disagree or offer very different perspectives on issues, are actually the most valuable outcomes.

    1. Hi Edwina,
      I’m glad that you like that quote – it really resonated for me too! I like how you use your insights around group discussions to inform what questions you use with your students too!
      Cheers,
      Karlene

  12. By incorporating discussion into my teaching I hope to not only foster students’ understanding of the subject and course content, but also to develop their own sense of self, confidence, and critical thinking skills. In my classroom I try to make discussions as supportive as possible. As someone who used to be quite shy, I empathise with my quieter students and want to create a space in which they feel comfortable testing ideas and participating with the group. Alongside this, by sharing ideas and debating with one another, I hope that students will develop strong critical thinking skills by allowing themselves to be challenged by others.

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