Classroom Discussion Techniques- Part 2

Today we explore three more techniques that promote student interaction. Schrynemakers (2013) gamifies review sessions, Zhang (2013) adapts the fishbowl method for fixed-seating, lecture-style classrooms, and Bucy (2006) asks students to represent “expert” personalities in panel discussions.  [New followers of this blog may want to visit Part 1 to read about four other strategies.]

Board Game Discussions. (My name for the technique, not the author’s.) This is a low-tech gamification of discussion pedagogy centering around review questions. Prep work includes developing a set of about 20 questions. The answers should be sufficiently complex that they cannot be quickly surmised. The teacher can create a game board, or simply draw an oval track, divided into approximately ten segments. Playing the game in rounds, each group participates in each round. These are the rules:

  1. Each group, each turn may answer up to three questions.
  2. The group advances as many steps as questions answered correctly.
  3. The group only advances if all questions were answered correctly.
  4. The teacher tells the group to advance, or not. Information about which or how many questions were answered incorrectly is not revealed.
  5. The group that advances farthest wins.

Schrynemakers indicates that Rule 4 plays a significant role in promoting a range of interaction skills. It is also the most puzzling for students. By not telling students information about wrong answers, they are forced to pay attention to the other groups’ responses and debate which questions the other groups got wrong in order to strategize their group’s next move. The debate requires they explain why they think their answer is right and the others are not. The groups must consider their degree of confidence in the correctness or incorrectness of their own and others’ answers. Excitement is enhanced when groups consider the implications of playing it safe with one question or taking risks with more.

I really like the emphasis the game places on students’ listening and paying attention to other students. Students frequently look to the teacher as the fount of all knowledge. The board game setting provides an informal and fun opportunity for students to develop listening skills and practice persuasive oral communication with their peers.

Fishbowl to Roundtable. This is an adaptation of the fishbowl method [See Dutt, 1997 & Young, 2007 for more about the traditional fishbowl]. A fishbowl typically requires two concentric circles of students and seats. The inner circle participants are the discussants, the outer ring are observers. The typical lecture hall does not lend itself to this format since students are in rows and seats are fixed.

Zhang arranges 6-7 chairs in a circle around a table at the front of the room. These students are the discussants. The other students are the observers. Each student is selected to be a discussant, at random, twice during the term. This encourages preparation and attendance since students do not know when they will be selected. Students in the “audience” are invited to participate in the discussion, even though they are not being assessed, “because at the end of the course there is a summative assessment that requires reflection on each of the roundtable discussions” (p. 39, my emphasis added).

I really like that.  It’s a way to keep everyone engaged and focused. It sends a strong signal to students about the role and importance of the discussion in learning. Zhang finds students in the audience, since they are also prepared, tend to participate as much as students who are in the roundtable group.

Expert Panels. In this approach, Bucy asks students to represent viewpoints from well-known personalities who are vocal about a current controversy. Stop to consider the number of courses and disciplines that could adopt this approach. It’s particularly apt for the upcoming fall term, when the US presidential election will be in full swing. Discussions comparing and contrasting the candidates’ positions on medical ethics and policy, healthcare, national security, economics, investment regulation, education, foreign policy, environmental protection, immigration, the list goes on and on.

Bucy organizes five panels. Each discusses a different, controversial issue. To help students get a sense of the personalities, she provides a packet for each one. I wonder if students could (should?) be assigned this task. That’s something to consider. She has good reasons for creating the packets, but there is also an opportunity for students to learn about the personalities by researching for themselves.

Students browse the packets. Each student selects the one they relate to most, or find most interesting, or the one which is connected to the most intriguing issue. Again, I wonder if there is a potential learning opportunity here? What about assigning a personality who espouses a view that is contrary to the student’s? It’s interesting to consider how altering different aspects of this technique may result in vastly different learning implications.

One advantage of the prepared packets: Bucy intentionally selects articles that share quirky information about each personality. She notes that students are generally quite intrigued. Contrary to her expectations, some students begin discussing their personality immediately.

Students prepare for one panel. They are not asked to role-play. This point is underscored by Bucy and I agree with her. Students are asked to represent the views of that personality, not to “act.” This is important feature emphasizes the intellectual aspects of the activity. She notes that in subsequent discussions, the positions of previous personalities often make their way into the current one. Thus, connections across themes is fostered by this strategy.

Reflection, is again, a key to advancing learning from the interactions. Students’ journals reveal that they look at issues through a different lens as a result of the experience. Whereas in a traditional class discussion “students can simply state their opinions, this form of debate requires them to envision a variety of ways to state and argue their case, and to find numerous rationales to validate their views….In these panel discussions, no longer are students talking about events, dates, and concepts. Suddenly they are talking about people with real lives and real reasons for believing as they do. No longer are we having a purely academic discussion; we are talking about things that matter” (p. 224).

One of the problems in introductory classes is that many, or possibly most (all?) students may have limited professional experience. In some cases, they come from similar backgrounds which can seriously limit the diversity of thought on many issues. Bucy’s approach mitigates these circumstances.  More importantly, given how rare civil discourse is becoming in American culture, I see tremendous value and opportunities for learning about content, interaction and civility in activities like this one.


Bucy, M. 2006. Encouraging Critical Thinking Through Expert Panel Discussions. College Teaching, 54(2): 222-224.

Dutt, K. M. 1997. “The Fishbowl Motivates Students to Participate.” College Teaching 45 (4):143.

Schrynemakers, M. 2013. A Method for Motivating Rigorous Discussion in Any Discipline. College Teaching, 61(1): 38.

Young, J. 2007. “Small Group Scored Discussion: Beyond the Fishbowl, or, Everybody Reads, Everybody Talks, Everybody Learns.” The History Teacher 40 (2):177–81.

Zhang, M. 2013. Fishbowl to Roundtable Discussions. College Teaching, 61(1): 39.



About Lolita Paff

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

Posted on June 15, 2016, in Learning, Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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