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Tips to Revive a Class Discussion

November 12, 2014

By Lynn Bartels

Discussion can be an effective teaching strategy. A lively exchange amongst students on the class topic can help students formulate their ideas about the material, learn to share their ideas with others, and respond to others’ ideas. Class discussion can also help you assess how well students understand the material. However, when student participation in the discussion wanes, it can be painful.  If your class discussions are falling flat, here are a few tips to get them going again.

Are students prepared for the discussion?

When students come to class without having read and thought about the material, they won’t be prepared to make good contributions to the discussion. One sign that this is happening in my class is when my students participate more the further off topic we get. They have a lot to say but it’s not about the readings. If you sense the lack of participation is due to lack of preparation, it might be time to institute a quiz or other reading check. Additionally, asking students to write discussion questions before class can also enhance their engagement with the material.

Carnegie Mellon University provides a great teaching problem-solving tool with lots of suggestions about how to address lack of preparation and many other teaching issues.

Are introverted students less comfortable participating in class discussion?

In our recent Midweek Mentor video (How Can I Include Introverts in Class Discussion?), Nicki Monahan a Faculty Developer from George Brown College identifies one characteristic of introversion that may impact introverted students’ participation in class discussions. Introverts need time to think before responding, while extraverts are ready to respond more quickly. She observes that the common discussion technique of Think/Pair/Share often becomes Pair/Share for Extraverts. To slow the process down and allow time for reflection, she suggests Think/Ink/Pair/Share. Ask students to take a minute to think about their answer and then take another minute to write down their thoughts before discussing them with a partner.

Another suggestion is to take the discussion online to a discussion board. Faculty report that online discussion forums often increase participation amongst quieter students.

Other ways to get the discussion rolling?

If students are reluctant to share their ideas with others. Try having students write out the responses to a discussion question on a 3x5 card and then pass their cards around the room. Ask students to read the card and comment on the response they are holding after the passing stops. Students may feel more comfortable sharing someone else’s ideas.

Catherine Seltzer, from English Language and Literature suggested that you can shake things up in the middle of the semester by asking students to change seats. Students who normally sit near the front of the class move to the back and vice versa. This can change up their participation patterns in class discussions.

What other strategies have worked for you?

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