Using Discussions Effectively

A carefully planned and facilitated discussion can be an excellent strategy to get students to actively participate in a class and develop their critical and creative thinking skills.  However, to achieve the goals of high levels of student thinking, discussions need to be as carefully planned and organized as a lecture or a lab. A common tendency for many of us is to note on our plan for a class the word, “Discussion”, and then jot down a few quickly composed questions. The expectation may be that the discussion will develop organically and that it really can’t be planned in advance. This perceived unpredictability of discussions can actually lead some of us to avoid them altogether because we are afraid that we will lose control of the classroom.  However, when discussions work well, they can create great opportunities for student to develop and practice important skills such as the ability to articulate and defend positions, consider different points of view, identify and evaluate evidence, and create new approaches or solutions to challenging problems. According to the Eberly Center of Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University, there are social/emotional and physical factors as well as cognitive factors to consider as we plan and facilitate discussions.

 

Determine and Communicate Learning Objectives

Whether you plan a discussion as a major strategy for a class or use it to follow up a presentation of some kind, there should be a clear and explicit purpose for the discussion and that purpose should be communicated to students. A good question to ask yourself is “What skills, knowledge, perspectives do I want my students to gain from this discussion.

Plan a Strategy

After developing your objectives, you need to think of your approach or strategy. You might ask yourself some of the following questions: “How can I ensure that students meet these objectives? How do I want to prepare students for the discussion? What questions will I pose to spark or guide the discussion? To encourage deeper analysis? Should the discussion be for the whole group, small groups, pairs? How much time do students need to discuss the topic? How will I synthesize the ideas at end of discussion?

Ask Good Questions: Use the Revised Bloom Taxonomy
Anyone who wants to ask stimulating questions to generate productive discussions should become familiar with the Revised Bloom Taxonomy and practice composing questions at each level. Below is a chart with the revised taxonomy and the original one produced by Bloom.

In 1956, Benjamin Bloom headed a group of educational psychologists who developed a classification of levels of intellectual behavior important in learning. During the 1990’s a new group of cognitive psychologists, lead by Lorin Anderson (a former student of Bloom), updated the taxonomy to reflect relevance to 21st century work. The two graphics show the revised and original Taxonomy. Note the change from nouns to verbs associated with each level.

Note that the top two levels are essentially exchanged from the traditional to the new version.

newbloom

New Version

Old Version

Old Version

Remembering: can the student recall or remember the information? define, duplicate, list, memorize, recall, repeat, reproduce state
Understanding: can the student explain ideas or concepts? classify, describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, recognize, report, select, translate, paraphrase
Applying: can the student use the information in a new way? choose, demonstrate, dramatize, employ, illustrate, interpret, operate, schedule, sketch, solve, use, write.
Analyzing: can the student distinguish between the different parts? appraise, compare, contrast, criticize, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, examine, experiment, question, test.
Evaluating: can the student justify a stand or decision? appraise, argue, defend, judge, select, support, value, evaluate
Creating: can the student create new product or point of view? assemble, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, write.

 

The following link (http://www.utar.edu.my/fegt/file/Revised_Blooms_Info.pdf) offers a more detailed description of the Revised Bloom Taxonomy and how to use it.

Although composing questions on different cognitive levels of the taxonomy is an essential part of the discussion process, there are also other factors to consider in generating a good discussion. Research on classroom questioning has identified common errors that all of should try to avoid. Here are some of the most common questioning errors:

Asking high level questions first before we are aware if students know and understand the facts.It is important to remember that the taxonomy is hierarchical, and so if you start by asking students to apply, analyze, evaluate or synthesize, they may be unable to answer because they need to process ideas on the knowing or understanding levels first. So, you can either start at lower levels and build up or you can start higher and if students struggle with a response, you can drop down to lower levels.

Asking too many questions at once. Sometimes we will ask a string of questions such as: What do you think the author’s main point is? Do you agree with him? Is his evidence convincing? Did you find this article helpful? This approach can be confusing to students because they don’t know which to answer first or because it lumps together ideas you want students to be able to distinguish between; namely, the authors thesis and the supporting evidence.

Asking a question and then failing to give students enough time to think about it and respond. Particularly if we encounter silence or blank stares, many of us rather quickly either repeat, rephrase or answer the question ourselves. Students often pick up on our pattern and just wait us out. One tip is for faculty to count at least 10-14 seconds before repeating the question. An appropriate amount of “wait time” is an important factor in getting students to realize that we expect them to respond.

Failing to probe student responses. Although you may ask high level questions, students may answer them at a much lower level. In that case, it is important to follow up with probing questions. This may involve asking them to explain their reasoning, cite data or evidence, give examples etc. Follow up questions push students to think more deeply, to substantiate their claims, and to consider the implications of their positions.

Asking yes/no or leading questions. Asking questions with a yes/no answer can be the starting point of a good discussion but only if there is a follow-up question that calls for explanation or substantiation. Without follow-up questions, yes/no questions can be conversation stoppers. Also if there is clearly an answer that the teacher wants, the students will simply try to guess at it rather than actually start to think for themselves.

Ignoring or failing to build on answers: It is important to acknowledge students contributions when they are insightful (That’s an important point, Sarah, could you elaborate?) or point out when they are problematic (Take another look, Brad, is that what the author is claiming?) You can also engage students by asking them to comment (Do the rest of you agree with Kelly’s conclusion?).

Provide Direction and Maintain Focus

Discussions tend to be more productive when they have a clear focus. Summarizing key issues periodically and refocusing a discussion that has gotten off track are important practices. (That’s an interesting point, Debbie, and one that we will get back to later.)

Bring Closure

It is important to leave time for synthesis of a discussion. Here are a few ways to do so:

You could tell students that one of them will (they won’t know who in advance) be asked to summarize the main points of the discussion, you could ask students to individually write down what they thought were the key issues of the discussion and share them, or you provide a summary, possibly linking it to the objectives that you communicated earlier. The important matter here is that there is summary and closure so that students can take away the ideas that they generated and recognize that they as valuable as ideas presented in a lecture by the instructor.

References

Many of the points made in this piece are adapted from the section on Discussions from the website of Carnegie Mellon University, Eberly Center, Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation.

(http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/discussions.html)