Discourse in the Classroom- Now more than ever

I’ve often wished I taught in the humanities. I imagine lively discussions in classes dealing with art, poetry, history, and philosophy. Contrast this with my actual teaching: debits and credits, marginal cost computations, and graphical analyses. Integrating classroom discussion in technical contexts is difficult.

But working with faculty across disciplines reveals my imagination is vastly different than reality. Literature, history, philosophy and art teachers find discussion-teaching and promoting student interaction challenging too.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) survey findings on student attitudes toward free speech reminds me of the value of classroom discussion in learning. (Reported by Inside HigherEd here) Two points struck me:

  • About 92% of students surveyed believe it is important to be part of a campus where they are exposed to ideas other than their own.
  • When students hear an opinion they disagree with in class, about 60 percent said they would attempt to understand their classmates’ views — 28 percent said they might avoid future interactions with the person with a dissenting opinion, but only 5 percent thought the person shouldn’t have expressed it.

What are the implications for teaching and learning? More than half the students surveyed say they are willing to hear each other out, to consider alternate viewpoints. Are we taking full advantage of the opportunities to get students listening and learning from each other? What insights and perspectives might be gained as students, from a range of backgrounds and life experiences, share their understandings of content and issues?

Of course, getting students to talk, particularly about sensitive topics isn’t easy. Many students don’t want to participate. Others do so reluctantly, offering short, tentative comments. When only a few students participate, the rest of the class gets tired of hearing them. The class may stop listening. If only a few students answer, rather than thinking about the question, the rest of the class may wonder when the over-participator will speak up. If the students who are not speaking are waiting for the over-participators to speak, they aren’t developing critical thinking skills, crafting a response, or defending their position. Class discussions can become narrow in focus, representing only the views and perspectives of the small percentage of students who choose to speak.

It’s not just students who hesitate to engage in classroom dialogue. Discussion teaching presents challenges for the teacher too. Discussions are unpredictable. Outcomes are messier to obtain and define. Teachers need to shift from expositor of knowledge to discussion facilitator. That requires a different set of skills, not typically part of graduate training and different from the ways in which many of us were taught.

But teachers are in a unique position to provide opportunities for students to practice discourse, as part of discipline-based learning. Now, more than ever, students need opportunities to learn how to discuss topics with reasoned statements, supported by evidence, without resorting to name calling and hostility.

Here are a few resources on facilitating classroom discussion, to help you get started or reinvigorate your discussion-teaching repertoire.

Brookfield, S. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Jones, R. C. (2008). The “Why” of Class Participation, A Question Worth Asking. College Teaching, 56(1), 59-63.

Petress, K. (2006). An Operational Definition of Class Participation. College Student Journal, 40(4), 821-823.

Welty, W. M. (1989). Discussion Method Teaching: How to Make it Work. Change, July-August, 40-49.


About Lolita Paff

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

Posted on October 12, 2017, in Learning, Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. To your excellent list of resources on facilitating discussion, I’d like to add: Howard, Jay R. (2015). Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

  2. Thanks for the addition Kate. Hope all is well with you.

  3. Maryellen Weimer

    Getting back through the week’s accumulated email. . .this is an excellent post. The two stats are very compelling and do give students more credit than faculty often do.

    Nice job!

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