Day 4: Troubleshooting discussions – challenges and strategies

Welcome back to the last day of this coffee course. In today’s post, we discuss some of the common challenges faced in facilitating discussions and how certain risks can be reduced or mitigated.

“We are not natural facilitators.”Managing challenges

Most teachers in higher education are not trained teachers or facilitators – they are often researchers and content experts who have been placed in teaching positions. Some people have the flare for facilitation while others, like myself, may not always find it easy. Day 2 provided an in-depth discussion into the role of the facilitator and in this short section, we’ll share some tips to troubleshoot through sticky situations.

  1. Prepare answers – Beyond planning the format, structure, questions, etc. for the discussion, you can also plan your answers ahead of time. These may range from content specific answers, relevant resources to what you might say in a conflict situation.
  2. Invite a co-facilitator who may be a student – In this way, you can bounce ideas between each other or take much-needed breaks.
  3. Listen – As a facilitator, it is important to breathe, listen and ask follow-up questions. Students want to know you value their opinion.
  4. It is okay to not have all the answers – During discussions, tricky and complex questions may be raised. You can open these questions up to the class or simply acknowledge that you don’t have the answer as yet and provide further details at a later date.
  5. Silence is okay – Silence can be uncomfortable and we are often eager to fill the void. However, these silent moments may serve as opportunities to reflect on the questions asked and invite new perspectives to be formed. If the silence goes on for a long time, remember that it can be confronting for students to discuss a contextually difficult question and instead of expecting students to speak up, provide examples or ask more relatable/easy to respond questions (e.g. personal experience).

Participation in discussions

In discussions, offline or online, you often get a few active participants while others remain silent. While these active participants are very valuable, it can also narrow the scope of the discussion. You may want to:

  1. Summarise what an active participant says and ask for additional inputs. Sometimes, it may be as simple as asking if others agree with the sentiments and why.
  2. Redirect the conversation through asking other questions or reframing the issue.
  3. Assign roles to students so that normally active participants become observers or note takers while quieter students are assigned to take the lead in discussions. Be sure, however, to provide students with adequate time to prepare for their roles!
  4. Ask relatable questions – non-participants may not be responding because they are afraid to “get the answers wrong”. Try asking questions that ask for examples or experiences and build towards unpacking these through a conceptual or theoretical lens.

Other response management strategies include:

  • Get students to talk to each other instead of with you
  • Give students time to think, prepare and even write their responses before a discussion
  • Provide students with different avenues to respond – e.g. Padlet
  • Move around to break down the power dynamics/distance between you and them

Discussion goes off track

Just like day to day conversations, discussions can go off track very easily. This may not be a bad outcome as it exposes students to other related conversations to the topic. However, when discussions go way off track for too long without any sign of heading back to the original discussion, it is important for facilitators steer it in the right direction. Some techniques include:

  1. Framing: Having a list of questions, discussion objectives and/or issues to be covered available in a visible space. This may be on a slide, the whiteboard or at the top of an online forum.
  2. Take notes: Facilitators or students may be able take notes that are visible to all during the discussion. This can help you to keep track of where the discussion is heading.
  3. Redirect: Facilitators can acknowledge students’ points and ask questions to redirect conversations back on track. In an online discussion, it is still important for facilitators to acknowledge students’ contributions even if they are not addressing the question! Remember that your role as a facilitator is not just to assess their contributions but to help them think deeply and critically about the topic of discussion.

Controversial topics and managing conflict

Conflict management

I once sat in a class where a student said: “We should take a global and westernised approach to human rights!” I don’t remember how the tutor managed the discussion but I remember the shocked faces.

Controversial comments may come up at different points in a discussion. Certain topics and issues invite more controversy or contention than others and preparing for them is important. Conflict may be between participants, participants and yourself or participants and the topic in question (e.g. Contentious topics like abortion). As a facilitator, you may be caught off guard and may not have a suitable response at hand.

Here are some tips on how can you tackle controversial topics and manage conflict:

  1. Acknowledge the issue and clarify the conflict
    1. If it is a factual dispute, point them to the right resources to clarify the error
    2. If it is one of values, help participants to become aware of the values involved and reflect on them
  2. Identify and clarify the purpose of the discussion – If you know your class will be tackling a controversial topic, always be sure to clarify the purpose of the discussion – e.g. What is the outcome you are looking to achieve?
  3. Establish ground rules – Remind people to be respectful; criticise ideas, not people
  4. Provide a common basis for understanding – Setting up context and boundaries around the topic for discussion can help reduce misunderstandings and confusion
  5. Be sensitive to feelings and emotional reactions
  6. Prepare writing exercises like one minute papers to provide opportunities for pauses and breaks
  7. Defer the conflict/argument if it is becoming unproductive or personal and move the discussion on to another topic. Ask students to talk about the disagreement (particularly if it is personal) after the session.

As a facilitator, how do you deal with conflict? What is your role in conflict management?

question markWhat are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a facilitator? Share your experience and let us know how you dealt with the situation.



Brown University (N.D.). Tips on Facilitating Effective Group Discussions, The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/sheridan/teaching-learning-resources/teaching-resources/classroom-practices/learning-contexts/discussions/tips

University of Michigan (N.D.). Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics, Centre for Research on Learning and Teaching, retrieved from http://www.crlt.umich.edu/publinks/generalguidelines

17 thoughts on “Day 4: Troubleshooting discussions – challenges and strategies

  1. I think the main challenge I have faced is managing the different levels of engagement and contributions from students. While I always hope to get a few students in class who are confident to talk and discuss publicly, you also don’t want them dominating discussion to the point where it excludes or intimidates other students. Levels of engagement in my field can be extremely different from one tutorial to another.

    Also, talkative students are not necessarily the most critically engaged with the topics. I’ve had many occasions where some students would never say a word in class, however would write some of the best essays or assessment tasks. I’m now wondering about the relationship between the order of discussions and assessment. In my field, generally the standard order is 1. Lecture 2. Tutorial 3. Some form of assessment (i.e. essay/written paper) – And then we move on to a new topic. Perhaps we need to build in more late/follow up reflections on key topics, especially after assessment tasks have been completed. Then students can reflect not just on the topic but also on their own processes of learning, and use that as a way to bring in the more hesitant speakers in class.

    In my Centre we have not yet adopted or embraced the “Flipped Classroom” model, which can also help in this context. But I am keen to explore what opportunities it could bring to our standard teaching models.

  2. So far the comments in the discussion forum here have focussed on how to facilitate good conversations, both face to face and online. With particular reference to facilitation techniques, activity design and the use of computer mediated tools (i.e. discussion forums like those on WATTLE). Can I add to this discussion by making a case for why and how students should take greater control of class discussions (online and face to face).

    Many many years ago (1999) at a conference in US I came across a presentation by Don Winiecki (who has since become a good friend) from Boise State University who argued that in face-to-face interactions, conversations rely on several tacit communication practices to maintain a discursive flow of messages and a mutual understanding of others in the conversation and the topic(s) being discussed. These practices include 1) turn-taking, 2) repair, 3) overlap, and 4) formulations. He challenged us to think about how do we replicate this in online settings.

    The really interesting point I took away was that if we (teachers) are essentially playing the role of repairing conversations then we end up being the conduit or even worse the block that hinders students’ learning because students are relying on us to make sense of the messiness that can happen in all conversations. In a face to face classes we would want students to make their own sense of the conversation by engaging in it. We would recognise that translating or rephrasing too often what students are saying in class – using our our own words – can undermine not help student learning. Students themselves need to be able to repair a conversation when it doesn’t make sense to them. They often do that repairing by asking questions, rephrasing what has been said…etc. It is more challenging to maintain the discursive flow given as pointed out by Lye Ee Ng in her breakdown of synchronous and asynchronous communication but students need to learn the same skills of making sense in online discussions. Don had a really simple technique to do this. He proposed teaching students to generate discursive flow online (that doesn’t require a software/discussion platform design solution that Stephen has alluded to) by simply getting students to, before they post anything new, to briefly summarise the conversation to date, thus allowing other students to better make sense of anything new (and allowing them to engage in the discussion without always having to trace back thru all the messages). Teaching techniques as to how students can create and make sense in conversations to me is our first and most important role as educators. Making sense of difficult stuff for them is secondary – given that is what students need for themselves to be able do. I of course advocate occasionally modelling how it can be done, but increasingly we should be looking to remove these scaffolds as student learn to apply the skills of meaning making.

    Don’s work is supported by more recent linguistic research (see Elimam, A., & Chilton, P. (2018). The paradoxical hybridity of words. Language and Cognition, 10(2), 208-233.) that makes the point that meaning is not just an act of understanding words (an assigned cultural definition) used in a discussion but it is the “discourse under construction” (the act of cognition) that facilities meaning. Students need to create the discourse and not just be passive recipients of the linguistic outputs.


    You can access Don’s paper at:

  3. Computer science tends not to be that controversial, so I have not had to manage much conflict. The most common problem is encouraging the students who have English as a second language to speak up, and the students fluent in English to give them time to.

    I do have some teacher training, but I still find it really, really, hard to get a free-flowing discussion happening. I can cope chairing a formal meeting with an agenda, which is why I tend to structure classroom discussions that way. But when it all goes off track I feel lost, and what to blow my whistle.

    I worry that tech solutions, such as Padlet, may be just a workaround. Do we need to teach students to be able to have a discussion without the tech support, or assume they will always have it? That said I have seen it used successfully in events with many hundreds of participants.

  4. Glen, I enjoy tutoring ANU TechLauncher, because the students are encouraged to take control of the discussion. The format is four teams of about six students each, with tow tutors. Teams give a report of 1 to 5 minutes as to where they are up to, in front of the whole group. We then break into two groups and the teams give each other feedback. The teams have leaders, and note takers. The role of the tutor on a good day is to say “What are we doing next?”, “Who is on next?”, “What are we doing next week?”.

    The point of this is students are learning how to manage their own discussion, as that is what they will be doing immediately on graduation.

  5. Thanks Glen. Good reminder to focus on the why of teaching, rather than the how.

    My main facilitation challenges have been when I didn’t set the right expectation and environment to achieve the type of discussion and learning I had envisaged. While I initially blamed the students (for not preparing, not being intrinsically motivated, not engaging, etc), I realised on reflection that it was my fault. Since then, I have changed my own approach to facilitation, put a lot more preparation in, and, for the most part, things seem to flow fairly smoothly.

  6. I’ve probably gotten more out of reading these than I am putting in ! (One of the discussion “troubleshooting” problems, heh?). But I wonder if we should question the role we play in “troubleshooting”, or thinking there is “trouble” to shoot. Making everything go “smoothly” is like snowplow parenting. And we all learn best at getting it “wrong” the first time . . . is it a surprise that discussions are not smooth amongst strangers, spanning different power levels (I give marks) and different generations (and I don’t hide my age)?

    As I teach flipped courses in science, I have an underlying goal to get a set of problems done. I generally achieve that by pushing through and in the first few weeks, discussions aren’t very satisfying to me and one might say I need to “troubleshoot”. But I also recognise that around week 4 or 5, discussions DO happen spontaneously around the goals- students engage in more discussions just at a time when they are becoming swamped with homework and worrying about exams. Perhaps after those first initial weeks we’ve learned enough about each other to engage with one another meaningfully, or perhaps the engagement is one of necessity (homework is due and its more efficient to (really) discuss rather than wait for Edie to go through a long drawn out explanation from which to glean that little nugget one needs to solve your problem. It helps somewhat that my contact hours are all “workshop” so I am able to PERSIST. Also, with a biggish class (70 students), physics provides really wonderful PhD students/undergraduates to help these discussions along at small tables; in chemistry the class is much smaller (<20) and I handle this myself. Once discussions work though, be prepared to respond positively to students ideas/requests – and sometimes it takes SO long to understand a student's point (but that's a discussion skill to be improved on both sides).

  7. Getting students to lead discussions works well if it’s set up well. They absolutely have to feel they can lead, for example, by having been given a leadership role such as choosing a topic, stimulation material or reading. I’ve done this with both large and small classes, but it is always somehow indirectly assessed, with the discussion a formative hurdle and then a summative task attached. For example, in one class students brought in stimulus material (in that class, it was an example of language use which related to some component of sociolinguistic theory). The task was to present then lead discussion (they had explicit instructions on how to do this). There was a common group sympathy for the discussion leader because everyone had to do it at some point so just though good will people tended to participate. It wasn’t all wonderful, some fell flat because they missed the point or other reasons, but in general it worked with a class of 80+. Students commented positively on it in feedback too.

  8. My greatest challenge is getting students to speak! I have to acknowledge that, to some extent, this is owing to my inexperience as a facilitator (which is why I’m taking this coffee course!). I assume that students will be prepared for discussion when they arrive and, when they aren’t, tutorials seems to fall flat and I struggle to get through them. It’s heartening to see that others have similar problems. Edie’s suggestion that discussions do not necessarily have to go smoothly gives me food for thought. This course and the comments from participants have given me ideas to keep discussions flowing. I need to be more prepared. I will be sure to organise a list of questions and answers for classes from now on, rather than expecting a discussion to flow naturally.

  9. Hi everyone, some really great comments and conversations happening here. I absolutely agree with Glen that we should provide students with the space and agency to create their own discourses during discussions, encouraging them to take control (as Tom mentioned). After reading the first few comments, I thought I’d take a step back and let people direct the flow of the conversation. Part of good facilitation, I think, is to provide this space, or “silence”, so that students can take time to think and respond to each other without feeling like they are only talking to the facilitator. Invisible facilitation, where you are there to support rather than lead discussions, is as important as active facilitation.

    I also enjoyed the discussion around Edie’s comments on “troubleshooting” – absolutely agree that discussions do not always go or need to go smoothly. There are many parts to having a discussion, from dealing with the actual content to delicately handling various interpersonal dynamics. I actually had a chat with some of my colleagues around the question of success and effectiveness in discussions. While we can try to prepare as best as we can for a discussion, they may not go as we envisaged or close with resolution – something that I’m reflecting on quite a lot right now from the discussion we’ve had here!

  10. I think the techniques listed for getting discussions back on track are very sound. I’m not a great fan of whole group discussions but when I used them I would get students to discuss in groups (normally no larger than four) then call on different people to report back so we weren’t always hearing from the same people.
    I also reckon presenting scenarios is a good way to ensure everyone has the same amount of information and something to say on the matter. When teaching English, I came across an activity for my higher level students where they read a scenario about a young woman called Sophie who had three suitors who had quite different positive and negative characteristics. They had to discuss in small groups who, if any, they would advise her to choose. It was very interesting to hear who advocated which suitor and not many said she shouldn’t pick any of them. However, once they had discussed the situation in smaller groups, perhaps it would have been better to regroup the people by which option they thought best to work together to try to convince Sophie why their advice was the best then report back.

  11. The biggest challenge I have as a facilitator is a lack of technical training – I’ve had technical training in presence, voice projection, PPT design and layout, and an amateur background/sidehobby in being a visible dominant force on a sports field (it’s one thing to be loud, it’s another to be loud, concise and precise). So I’m good at occupying a spotlight/lectern, and being the voice in the centre.

    I was trained in facilitating the LSP technique, with a lot of discussion as to how our role is to be removed from the content, and to place ourselves in position on the edges of the conversation to assist, guide, and otherwise be invisible until needed. That’s in the context of the very specific techniques on delivering, creating and supporting the discussion conducive environment for the LSP to work as a facilitation technique.

    I’ve never had any close quarters teacher training, and it frustrates me, because there’s an assumption that tutorials/seminars can be facilitated without training, and just because I’m the lecturer, I should naturally be a good tutor. I’m not, and as we move away from the Sage on the Stage, big ticket lecture events, I’m running into the problem of having a long career, and a wonderfully obvious gap in my repertoire of skills. Like, I’m not a close quarters conversation person, I don’t enjoy the socialising/networking aspect of conferences a quarter as as much as I love delivering the papers, so there’s a personality mismatch, a skill mismatch, and a whole world of other skills (pedagogy, curriculum design, technical LMS training, assessment design) that I have, but the one I lack (aka have never been trained to perform) is the small group close quarter conversation.

    So, where do I get technical training to resolve the gap?

    1. Hi Stephen, this is such a fantastic comment – I really appreciated reading it, and I think this is a really common situation for higher education teachers to be in, especially as universities move more and more towards these “guide on the side”, small group discussions as the recommended approach. I know that the CHELT Foundations program has a new module now which specifically addresses facilitating small group and collaborative learning – module 3. Details are here: https://services.anu.edu.au/training/teaching-and-learning-at-anu-foundations Maybe you could join that one module if that is the sort of thing that would help?

      I have been organising masterclasses and workshops – perhaps this can be an upcoming topic for us to do as well? Would love to chat more about it.

  12. Courses on international relations and political science tend to generate a fair level of controversial discussions. I have had to manage very heated discussions between students on topics such as immigration and climate change. Much of the techniques and tips displayed in this course will certainly help me in managing future discussions. I find that being prepared and drawing a framework reduces tension, if any, and helps students get the most out of the discussion by sharing their points.

    I also appreciate the tips provided above on tackling controversial topics and managing conflict. From past experiences, I tried to revert to the original purpose of the discussion as well as providing common basis for understanding between differing opinions. Giving students 5-10 minutes to write their positions/discussion points was also helpful. Assigning students different roles, in terms of actors in international politics for example, has been constructive in bridging some gaps on controversial topics.

    My role as a facilitator is largely shaped by providing flexibility and space for students to share their thoughts, but participating more actively to foster a constructive discussion. At times this means changing the topic or summarizing previously prepared points, discussing maps (very relevant in international politics), or less controversial contemporary news.

  13. Last week I taught a 2 day intensive course. I taught the course last year as well. This year instead of providing the students with all of the discussion questions in the notes that they received prior to the course, I left them out so that the first time that the students saw them was during the lecture. I thought that this worked better in terms of the students being willing participants in small group discussions. None of them had been able to prepare in advance or to flick through the future notes to find the answers prior to or even during the class. They were more engaged than the previous year, and it gave me more control of the class. I could leave questions out if they were no longer relevant given the course of the lecture. I could also add in questions that I thought they might enjoy. It also gave me better control of time. The students didn’t know any different and I think the delivery was better because I could tailor the course to the class as I went. The tips from doing this course also helped immensely. I don’t think I did anything that different to last year apart from the discussion question timing. However, I now have more confidence by knowing strategies to deal with difficult questioners and knowing that silence can be a good thing as students process ideas. So thanks.

  14. I think the biggest issue I need to trouble shoot is to make international students feel included in discussions. Often if they are nervous I find just inviting them to explain the links between issues and their own country can show them they have valuable insights and they don’t have to be experts on what they may feel are Australian topics. For example one week we looked at the ethics of Kangaroo culling and it was apparent that a few of the students didn’t think they had much to offer, but when I asked if there were similar issues in their country we ended up having a fascinating conversation about culling pigeons in south korea. The students felt included and the rest of the class and I learnt something really interesting.

    More broadly as smugly stated in earlier days, overall I don’t have much trouble getting a good discussion going in my classes but that glosses over a lot of emotional energy I put in to keep flow going, from gently prodding people to go deeper, encouraging students I know hold different opinions to offer a rebuttal, to include students who haven’t participated as much, to gently pushing back on students dominating the conversation, to getting students from particularly different disciplines to offer their perspective on issues. And it can all be very exhausting, it sometimes feels like being a personal conduit for everyone in the room. And while overall I love it, I can understand for some people, particularly introverted teachers it could be really taxing to teach in that format.

  15. The main challenge I’ve faced as a facilitator is maintaining engagement. Particularly as the semester progresses, students often become very busy and may not have completed all of the required readings prior to class, or may simply have too much on their minds to have the space to actively participate in discussions. I’ve tried a number of strategies to deal with this, including allowing brainstorming time, offering suggestions for efficient reading, etc. I think that it is important to realise that the reality is that undergraduate learning is jam-packed and it can be difficult for students to manage everything. Adjusting the ways I approach tutorials depending on the stage of the semester (for example, doing more small group work or focused analysis that can be done in class during busy assessment weeks) is one way to deal with this. Tailoring activities so that students can see their value for not only their general learning, but also their upcoming assessments, also seems to be useful.

  16. I never had to facilitate a discussion with students but with colleagues and collaborators, either face-to-face or online. It is funny that I actually differentiate between the both but facilitating a discussion face-to-face is much easier for me. I guess, I find it awkward to talk to my computer and it is also more difficult to read the people.
    Thinking about facilitating a discussion with students, I absolutely agree with Christina. One needs to be prepared well in terms of having various questions and answers ready and that one cannot simply assume that all of the students engage naturally in the discussion.
    I particularly like the first quote of today’s course “We are not natural facilitators.” It’s true, for some if feels easy (or easier) to keep track of who is participating and how and having strategies to involve the rest (like Edwina was saying) but I’m confident that with practice and more importantly reflection one can become a good facilitator over time.

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