Discussion is a learning activity that involves interpreting information, exploring complexity, probing difference, and evaluating the soundness of others’ reasoning. As Riggs and Linder (2016) (PDF) point out, “The point of discussion should be conversation, analysis, debate, illustration, application, synthesis, and reflection.” Discussions should be “expansive, wide, and deep.”
Why use discussion?
It’s hard to overstate the value of well-designed class discussion. Research studies have found that whether discussion happens in the physical classroom or in a digital learning environment, it can:
- Increase engagement and deepen learning. In discussion, learners move beyond spectating and/or regurgitating information. Discussion can spark interest, motivate students to make connections, and think critically about ideas.
- Introduce students to a variety of perspectives. Discussion surfaces different perspectives, prompting learners to analyze and evaluate information, as well as learn from each other.
- Foster community-building habits among learners.The social interaction in discussion builds connections among students and can strengthen students’ ability to communicate and participate in diverse environments.
Research evidence also suggests that there may be added benefits of developing well-designed asynchronous discussion spaces. Asynchronous online discussion forums have been shown to:
- Center learners’ needs. Some learners need more time to reflect and craft thoughtful responses, and can feel better able to express their thoughts and rethink positions in asynchronous environments.
- Promote deeper learning. Research studies find that learners in online discussion forums recall core concepts better, demonstrate a deeper understanding of the material, and are able to apply their learning to new issues
- Distribute and increase participation. Asynchronous discussion allows all learners to participate. The University of Oregon Teaching Effectiveness Program (PDF) found that online discussion produced higher levels of learner-to-learner interaction compared to face-to-face discussion.
- Empower marginalized learners. Power dynamics operate in all discussions and certainly don’t disappear in online forums, but there is some evidence that asynchronous discussion can open space for those who have been traditionally marginalized in face-to-face settings, as well as those who hold perspectives that are in the minority.
When to use discussion
Before you choose discussion, first reflect on how a discussion would help advance your learning goals. If you are primarily interested in determining whether students did an assigned reading or whether they understand a particular concept, then a quiz or writing assignment might be a better form of assessment. Instead, consider using discussions when your learning goals include critical thinking, analysis, multiple perspectives, collaboration, and/or an opportunity to engage with peers.
Strategies for using discussion in your course
Good discussion often requires planning and clear intentions. Planning can increase the chances that discussion will support learning and foster a stronger, more inclusive classroom community. Here are some strategies that can help make discussion more impactful:
- Set clear expectations. As you think about discussion, ask yourself: How will a student in my class know they have participated fully and effectively in the discussion? Share with students how to engage in the discussion and meet your learning goals and expectations. Articulate how you would like students to respond to your prompts and how they can or should engage with others during the discussion.
- Craft effective prompts.Discussions can easily deflate if your prompts are too narrow. For example, a question that elicits a yes/no response, or a response with only one correct answer, leaves little room for conversation and exploration. On the other hand, discussion questions that are too broad or vague can leave students feeling overwhelmed or confused. Your discussion prompt should allow students to explore a range of specific ideas that are connected to your learning goals for the activity.
- Encourage students to share their thought processes. Invite learners to share how they understand the question or how they understand their peers’ responses. This can be an opportunity for students to share how their lived experiences inform their thinking and their understanding of the course concepts.
- Provide students with multiple ways to engage in the discussion. Some students may feel more comfortable listening. Others may find value in drawing on their own personal experiences. Still others may prefer to focus on what evidence best answers the prompt. Here are some ways to invite students to engage in a discussion:
- Build on a specific comment shared by a peer
- Clarify and/or share about a comment that resonates with you
- Disagree with a comment and explain why
- Summarize and offer a new perspective
- Identify a link between two comments
- Ask the class a question
- Create space for reflection. The best discussions leave students pondering new ideas. At the end of a discussion, make space for students to reflect on the discussion. This could be an individual assignment or a whole-class activity where individuals share their take-aways and/or what most impacted them or expanded their thinking.
Like everything about teaching, there is no “secret sauce” that guarantees success when it comes to discussion. A discussion may soar one quarter and fall flat the next. And that’s OK…sometimes students (and instructors!) learn more from the “failures” than you might think.
There are many ways to assess and grade discussion. In some instances, instructors might simply want to grade whether or not students participated. At other times, it might make sense to grade the quality of students’ contributions to discussion. Here are some criteria that you might use to inform how you assess students’ participation in discussion:
- Quality. The point of discussion is to learn, so consider assessing for quality rather than quantity of student contributions. Be sure to articulate what constitutes a high-quality contribution (e.g., contributions that demonstrate content knowledge, tie ideas together, or build on an idea).
- Constructive dialogue. Ideally, discussion is an exchange of ideas. Talk with students about what effective engagement with peers looks like (e.g. active listening, building on others’ comments).
- Critical thinking and analysis. Help students understand that to learn from discussion, participants need to go beyond just liking or affirming the comments of others. Encourage students to analyze and synthesize information, evaluate arguments, and make their points using evidence.
Select examples of discussion techniques
Larger in-person classes
- Think-pair-share, a specific discussion prompt.
- Ask students to get into small groups of 4-5 with students sitting next to them and discuss a prompt. You can then debrief the discussion by calling on a few groups to share out (e.g., “the group in the back corner to my left/your right”). If you plan to do this, make sure that students have assigned roles (e.g., a “reporter,” or person who will share out with the full class).
Smaller in-person classes:
- Divide the class into small groups, giving each group the same or separate prompts. Move from group to group, giving guidance and answering questions when needed. Then, reassemble the class and have the groups report and respond to each other.
Asynchronous online discussion boards:
Online discussion forums can be important sites of learner-to-learner interaction. In practice, however, online discussion boards often end up feeling obligatory and stilted. One of the culprits behind stilted online discussion is a common practice in which the instructor poses a question and then requires each learner to respond X number of times, and respond to peers’ X number of times. Can you imagine an in-person discussion in which every person needs to answer the same question? To break out of this rigid framework, consider asking/assigning students to do one of of the following:
- Post a reflection based on the discussion prompt
- Expand on someone else’s post
- Suggest ways to refine an idea or argument<
- Ask a question or ask for clarification about what someone else posted
- Identify a theme emerging in the discussion board
- Connect someone’s ideas to your own thoughts or experiences