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Teaching Guide: Leading Class Discussions

Although our focus is mainly on writing, discussions provide opportunities for students to think critically about the topics on which they will be writing. Discussions also provide grounds for instructors to check students' understanding on course concepts, assignments, and readings. Effective class discussions create a community in which students are willing to share their ideas about writing and to accept constructive criticism from their peers.

About This Guide

This guide is designed to help you develop strategies for running successful class discussions.

Considering Your Role as Facilitator

Your role as facilitator will vary depending on the type of discussion you are having. If you are discussing an assigned reading, the conversation may feel more student-centered than if you are introducing a new concept or a new assignment. The role you assume will shape the kinds of strategies you use during discussions. Still, many instructors find that some discussion strategies can be applied to various teaching situations. Consider the strategies below and determine which will work best for you.

Classroom Community

Decide what type of classroom community you would like to create. Will you require that all students participate in discussions? Do you mind if three or four talkative students dominate discussions? Would you like students to address each other (sitting in a circle) or would you like them to address you (sitting in rows)? Often, the type of community you create will depend on your students' participation. If you have a quiet class, you may decide that calling on students to answer questions is more appropriate than letting two or three students answer every question. The decisions you make about classroom community should reflect your style and students' needs.

Learning Styles

Accommodate various learning styles. When building classroom community, consider the various ways in which your students learn. There are students who can remember everything covered in a class discussion, while others need visuals to reinforce concepts. Some students respond well to lectures, while others have to participate in order to follow along. Try different approaches and see how students respond to each.

Emphasis on Students' Ideas

Since one of our goals is to facilitate the writing process, keep the emphasis on students' ideas rather than your own. It's best to remain mostly objective on thematic issues discussed in class. If students pick up on your views, they may attempt to only write what they think you want to hear. This keeps them from thinking critically and forming their own views. Also, if you share too many opinions, students may refute these in class. This puts you in a position of having to defend your views.

Be Honest

Validate students' comments, but be honest. Some instructors find themselves so excited when students participate that they don't want to discourage them by offering criticism. These instructors have been known to offer comments like, "that's great" when a student misinterprets a text or provides an incorrect answer.

Although it isn't easy to criticize students' comments, it's important to provide such criticism so that other students don't become confused about important concepts. Keep in mind that providing criticism doesn't need to be awful and humiliating. There are tactful ways to give an honest response while still rewarding a student for participating in a discussion.

For example, you could say to the student who gets off track, "That's a really interesting point, but I'm not sure how it directly addresses the question we're looking at. Could you help me understand the connection?" In this case, the student will either offer more explanation, or admit that there was no connection. Using tactful comments allows you to place the responsibility on a student to correct their own response, rather than on yourself.

Focusing Discussions

Regardless of the type of discussion you're having, one of your most important goals should be to keep class discussions on track. You'll want students to participate, but sometimes their participation can lead you astray.

Picture this: During a discussion about urban sprawl you ask, "What are your views on urban sprawl?" A student raises her hand and says, "I don't like sprawl because it keeps me from riding my horse on what used to be country roads." Another student then jumps in and says, "Did you know that dog food is made out of horses?" Then, another student exclaims, "Oh gross!" And another adds, "I like dogs more than horses." So, what do you do?

There is no single method that will work for everyone when focusing a discussion. Much depends on your personal teaching style and your classroom community. Still, we believe that the suggestions below will help you think about ways to refocus discussions in your class.

If you are an instructor who values a student-centered classroom, please note that focusing a discussion doesn't mean forfeiting student involvement. We encourage you to create a student-centered environment, but we also suggest that students participate in meaningful ways.

Some strategies for focusing a discussion are:

Carefully Planning

Carefully plan out your lesson. The instructor who knows what he/she needs to accomplish in class is less likely to become distracted than the one who doesn't. If you are confident in your plans you will probably see that the goals for a particular class are met. If you haven't taken the time to plan out a class, you're more likely to shift the focus of the lesson to students' thoughts and concerns.

Goal Oriented Questions

When planning questions for discussion, see that your questions meet particular goals. If you know what your objectives for a class discussion are, you'll probably guide students toward these objectives. If your questions are less thought out and only aimed at "getting students to talk" then the discussion is likely to feel unfocused. There are times when an unfocused discussion can be useful (i.e. when generating ideas on topics to write about), but if too many discussions are "floating" students will begin to wonder how these discussions connect to their writing. When planning questions for discussion, consider how you'll need to shape your questions to help students meet the goals for writing in each unit. (See the sample at the end of this guide for an example on how to write focused questions to meet particular goals).

Stay on Topic

Don't allow unrelated questions to throw you off track. Tell the student who asks for his class average during a lesson that he'll have to come and talk with you during office hours. Whenever students raise concerns that are unrelated to the task at hand, it's best to ask them to bring it to your attention at a later time. If you address off topic concerns in class, students will raise them more often and you'll find yourself getting bumped off track.

Encourage Students' Focus

Encourage students to offer comments that are related to the question you're addressing. Try not to reward the student who says irrelevant things by giving them too much attention. In response to the example from the introduction, there are various approaches you could try. You might use some humor to refocus the conversation (i.e. "As interesting as dog food is to us all, we need to address the issue at hand"). Or you might try a firmer approach (i.e. "I'm not sure how these responses relate to the question I'm asking"). Try not to encourage irrelevant comments with responses like, "Why do you think you like dogs more than horses?" You may have a lively discussion, but it won't necessarily improve students' writing.

Focus with a WTL

If a discussion turns into a heated debate, or gets so off track that you're lost on what to do, use a Writing to Learn (W.T.L.) activity to focus students' attention. Ask students to take out a sheet of paper and put their personal views down in writing. Then, tell them that they can post these reactions to the online class forum and continue the "off track" conversation outside of class. With that aside, you can then request that students turn their attention back to the original focus of the class.

Thinking on the Spot

Thinking on the spot may be the most challenging part of running a discussion. You are reflecting on what you've already done, connecting threads of an earlier discussion to what you'd like to accomplish, addressing students' concerns, validating their comments, and pretending to act like your normal, happy self.

Since it is the nature of teaching, thinking on the spot is unavoidable. But there are things you can do to limit the amount of spontaneous thinking you'll need to pull off.

Some strategies for thinking on the spot are:

Be Prepared

Be well prepared. Have examples ready for any new concept you're introducing to limit the amount of thinking on the spot you'll need to do.

Plan Ahead

Plan introductions, transitions, discussion questions, and conclusions before class.

Learn to Stall

Learn to buy yourself time. If a student asks a question that you missed or cannot immediately answer, stall a bit by asking that student to repeat or rephrase the question while you secretly think of a response.

Be Honest

Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know." If you don't have an answer for a student's question, tell that student that you'll find an answer and get back to him/her soon. The instructor who thinks that teachers should know everything is going to have a much harder time than the one who accepts that teachers are living, breathing, humans who are subject to error, like everybody else. In addition, students can usually tell when you're making something up, so you're not saving any face by providing answers. Rather than lying, tell a student that you're unsure and that you'll get back to them. You'll find that they tend to respect you more for being honest.

Don't Fear Silence

Get used to dead air. Many instructors fear silence. All those eyes looking at you. Waiting. Waiting. But there's nothing wrong with dead air. Give yourself time to think before responding (fifteen seconds usually works). It might feel like a lifetime, but students will respect you if they see that you've taken time to consider your response. Likewise, give your students time to think. There aren't many of us who can produce brilliant comments out of thin air.

Rephrase Questions

If you are waiting too long for students to respond, rephrase the question you're asking until someone answers. Sometimes students are quiet because they simply don't know what we're asking.

Checking for Students' Understanding

Checking for students' understanding of important ideas and concepts helps instructors gauge what students are getting and what they need to work on more. It also provides useful feedback to help you plan ways to better meet your students' needs. Instructors who check for understanding usually feel more connected to their students' learning and have a better sense of what to expect from their students' writing. Below are some suggested strategies for checking students' understanding.

Avoid Yes/No Questions

Avoid yes/no questions and phrases like "Does this make sense?" In response to these questions, students usually answer "yes". So of course it's surprising when several students later admit that they're lost. To help students grasp ideas in class, ask pointed questions that require students to use their own prior knowledge. For example, when teaching "assumptions" ask students what assumptions they made about writing before beginning this course. Or, ask them what assumptions their parents might make about them. Students' answers to these questions will help you learn whether or not they understand what assumptions are.

Students' Own Words

examples. If you'd like to check all students' understanding, have students write a summary of the concept and turn it in to you.

Ask Students to Reflect

During the last five minutes of class ask students to reflect on the lesson and write down what they've learned. Then, ask them to consider how they would apply this approach or skill to their own writing.

Using Quizzes

Give a short quiz on important concepts covered in class or ideas from an assigned reading.

Sample Discussion Plan

The following discussion plan and questions are based on an essay by Steven Hayward about urban sprawl. The discussion plan is designed to produce a focused discussion that meets various goals (a combination of the instructor's goals and the course goals).

Goal One: to get students thinking about their views on urban sprawl (10 minutes)

Questions:
1.) What comes to mind when you think of urban sprawl?
2.) Where do you see it happening? How has it affected your life?
3.) Do you think it is an important issue? Why/why not?
4.) From what you've read or experienced, what are the pros and cons of sprawl?

Transition: So all of us have our own views on this issue based on what we've learned or experienced, but there are many perspectives. Steven Hayward offers a view that is somewhat complicated since he doesn't clearly take a position on the issue. Let's take a look at his article to see if we can figure out what he's trying to say and who he's interested in influencing.

Goal Two: to shift the focus from personal reactions to a more critical reading of Hayward's text. To get students thinking about the rhetorical situation that informs the text and our reading of it. (Note: keep running notes of this discussion on the board) (20 minutes)

Questions:
1.) So how would you characterize this text (article, story, personal essay...)?
2.) Where and when was it published?
3.) What do we know about the Heritage Foundation? Will somebody please read from the website's mission statement that I asked you to comment on for today?
4.) Based on this statement, what assumptions can we make about Hayward's audience? That is, members of the Heritage Foundation?
5.) With this in mind, how do you suppose his readers view the issue of urban sprawl?
6.) Now look back at the article. What clues can you find to support that Hayward was writing with this audience in mind?
7.) What do you think Hayward's purpose was for writing? In what way was he trying to influence this particular audience?
8.) What rhetorical strategies does he use to meet this purpose (evidence, tone, language, references...)?
9.) How effective do you think his text was in meeting this purpose?

Goal Three: to connect this analysis to students' own writing (5 minutes)

Questions:
1.) Now look back over this information. Which of these responses might prove useful when writing your academic summaries for next class?
2.) What information might you leave out of an academic summary?