Lyons, Orchestrating More Effective Classroom Discussions (TOTW #28)

This is a post from the “Tip of the Week” series by Richard Lyons which is no longer available, although it is archived on Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine. Below this is a link to the full original tip at Internet Archive. 

Orchestrating More Effective Classroom Discussions

While many instructors inherently realize the potential value of classroom discussions, they often fail to orchestrate them in a way that students’ minds are effectively engaged in course learning objectives. Just to refresh our approach to this critical tool, classroom discussions potentially enable students to:

  • Apply information delivered through instructor-directed methodologies such as lecture, video presentation, and guest speakers
  • Evaluate the validity of their previously held beliefs
  • Analyze the perspectives of their increasingly diverse classmates
  • Synthesize concepts learning in other environments
  • Evaluate the evidence and logic of others against their own beliefs.
  • Obtain feedback from their professor and peers for their insights.
  • Gain motivation for further study of issues brought into the discussion.

As we know, effective discussions don’t just happen – they must be orchestrated by a sensitized listener who protects the ideas and dignity of students. The following should be useful in your efforts to achieve more worthwhile discussions in your class:

  • Early in the term – at the first class meeting, if possible – conduct some problem solving in groups of 2 or 3 students. Over time, expand group size, as problems become more complex.
  • Establish clear ground rules for discussions that foster validation of all opinions, civility, and participation from all students.
  • Through an icebreaker, name tents, and other activities, ensure that students know one other’s name and understand something of each other’s background.
  • Monitor ground rules and achievement of learning goals, intervening with refocusing and clarifying questions – either rhetorical or didactic – when necessary.
  • Scan the entire group and encourage participation from those at opposite locations within the classroom, fostering a more dynamic and inclusive atmosphere.
  • Avoid calling on those whose body language communicates they are clearly not engaged – it will only stifle their later participation. Instead talk with them individually after class, assess, and encourage.
  • Be very reluctant to directly criticize an “incorrect” student response, or to provide the “best” answer. Instead clarify in a non-threatening way, and perhaps ask if someone else “sees it another way.”
  • When discussion bogs down, clarify, summarize, and add additional support information before moving on.
  • Close discussions positively by asking if someone would like “the final word” or by connecting the outcome of the discussion to course objectives.

The full post is available at the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Rick W. Burkett runs the John A. Logan College Teaching and Learning Center, teaches history, and heads an educational nonprofit. He publishes blogs on a wide variety of topics, including history, teaching and learning, student success, and teaching online.
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