Classroom Discussion Techniques- Part 1

Summer break affords me time to read new articles, reflect, and revisit the stacks of literature piled on my desk, and accumulated in an electronic folder called “things to read.” Discussion pedagogy continues to intrigue, inspire and challenge me. There is so much good work being done! Today’s post is the first of a three-part series. The first two focus on classroom techniques; the third installment considers rewards, signaling and protocols.

Many teachers want to promote and encourage discussion and interaction, for a variety of learning and instructional reasons. In technical fields, promoting discussion can be particularly challenging. Many teachers in technical fields, and I counted myself in this group, face additional hurdles by the nature of the field.  I studied accounting and economics. Neither field is known for discussion as a prominent or primary instructional method. Indeed, a survey of 275 economics faculty report “leading class discussions” represents only 20% of instructional time (Goffe & Kauper, 2014). Based on my current research, I suspect the percentage is even lower accounting.

One positive consequence of the lack of role models in discussion teaching is that it forces me to act more like a researcher. What’s the first thing researchers do when studying a new topic? Review the relevant literature! I’m using “review” very loosely here. These posts should not be construed as comprehensive summaries of discussion-promoting techniques. They are sets of approaches that I rate as straightforward to understand, implement, and apply across a wide range of settings.

Argue-to-Learn. Liu (2014) uses the technique in psychology, but it has roots in the sciences and could be applied in any context where there are controversial issues. During the topic overview, the teacher primes the pump by posing driving questions. Liu’s example deals with nature v. nurture. This helps students identify the learning objectives and structures student thinking on the content. Students form small groups of two or three. Each group generates a claim and writes it on a whiteboard. Students then search for evidence to justify their claim. Sources of evidence might be the textbook, readings, every day lives, or elsewhere. The teacher’s role is to help groups stay on topic and answer questions. Groups report out and answer questions raised by other groups. The small group format allows students from more reserved cultures to share in a less intimidating setting.

Sticky Note Prioritized Pyramids. A prioritization pyramid is a pyramid-shaped image that is used to determine the priority of people’s goals. In business, clients first write their business goals on sticky notes and place them in one of three areas of the pyramid. The top, 20%, represents high priority. The middle, 30% is medium, and the bottom 50% represents low priority.

Wei (2016) adapts the practice to facilitate group discussion. Groups of five or six students are formed and supplied with a stack of sticky notes. Students are asked to individually answer the discussion question. They place their name on the back of the note. Group members discuss/compare/contrast the responses. After discussion, the stickies are arranged in a prioritization pyramid. They snap a picture of the pyramid and email it to the instructor. Each group’s pyramid is then shown to the class and discussed. Sticky notes are collected at the end of class to assign a participation grade. Wei notes two significant advantages of the technique:

  • Students who have initial difficulty expressing their thoughts, use the sticky notes to draft their ideas prior to the verbal discussion, a strategy more introverted students appreciate, and one that forces the more extroverted to remain quiet while thoughts are being gathered and recorded.
  • The nature of sticky notes, allowing removal and replacement, encourages students to think thoroughly and critically about their responses and priorities.

Twice Around. This is a variant of Brookfield and Preskill’s (2005) circular response discussion. The process begins with students’ questions, ensures equal time for all participants, and invites building upon previous contributions. This is Andersen’s (2013) version. In the first round, students pose a question or raise a problem that perplexes them. To support spanning multiple concepts, this technique is particularly suited for end-of-unit discussions. The teacher writes the questions on the board. This reduces the tendency of students relying on the teacher to move the discussion forward, and helps to keep the teacher from talking too much since the teacher is the scribe. Round two begins after some moments of silence, devoted to thinking. The first person responds to a question. It may be her own, a question posed by someone else, or a response to a theme across questions. Each subsequent response is directed to the prior student, beginning with a brief summary of what was said, and then adding a contribution such as a new example, a different perspective, a connection to the reading, a synthesis statement, etc.

Andersen notes the approach works well in small seminar classes, but could be adapted to very large groups by breaking down into small groups with two rounds. Then one randomly chosen representative from each group could be part of a second 2-rounder in front of the class. Early in the course, before trust is established, notecards can be used to write questions anonymously. The teacher can distribute them for the first round. If time is limited, the first and second round could occur on different days. Learning may be enhanced by concluding with a one-minute essay at the end of the period, echoing the opening question.

Technical Talk. (This is my name for it, not the author’s.) Huby’s (2001) technique gets several students talking about problem solving in a chemistry course. The approach is easily adaptable to any course with problem-solving components: mathematics, sciences, engineering, accounting, finance, statistics, etc.

Here’s how it works. The teacher writes two problems on the board.   Two students, at their seats talk through the steps necessary to solve the problem. The teacher prompts as needed. The answer-without the steps-is written on the board. A second pair of students repeats the process with the other board problem.

Then two different pairs of students are asked to write the actual steps that their classmates used to arrive at the two answers on the board. Eight different students have now been involved in solving two problems. There are several benefits reported by Huby.

  • Everyone pays attention to what the students are explaining because no one knows who will be called to the board.
  • It encourages accurate and skillful note taking.
  • It promotes interaction about content, methodology, meaning and interpretation.

All of these approaches are straightforward to implement. They focus on promoting content learning while developing interpersonal and communication skills. Each can be adapted to a range of settings. If the method doesn’t explicitly address student reflection, it can be easily incorporated to further advance students’ learning about themselves as learners as well as the discipline.

In Part Two I’ll share three more approaches: a classroom game, fishbowl-roundtables, and “expert” panels. In the meantime, please consider sharing a method you use or read about.


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on May 24, 2016, in Learning, Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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