There is a real difference between leading a college-level classroom discussion and participating in a college classroom discussion.
As a literature major in undergrad, professors were constantly pushing me to form my own point of view about a book and be able to confidently articulate my thoughts in discussion. The typical classroom experience for a literature major was come to class ready to contribute to a discussion after reading 40-50 pages of a book. We were expected to carry part of the “verbal” load of the classroom experience. Some professors often were more like “discussion facilitators” rather than lecturers. This took awhile for me to adjust to being that it wasn’t until my senior year of college did I regularly speak up and contribute to the conversation. When I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in 2006, I had developed the skill of speaking up.
What I did not know was that being able to confidently articulate my opinion as a student did not automatically translate to leading a classroom discussion. Leading a classroom discussion is a separate, more complex skill. I didn’t realize my incompetence at leading a discussion until about 3 years later after I got a job teaching high school students as a part time youth pastor at a local church. This was a difficult realization to come to considering how confident and self-assured after finishing undergrad. Something was wrong and I begin to ask myself "What am I doing wrong? Why do these students seem bored and uninterested when I speak?"
I then emailed the person who was the best classroom discussion leader I knew, my British literature professor Dr. Daniel Noland asking. I said “Can I come visit you sometime this week and ask you a few questions about how you lead discussion in your classroom?” He said that'd be fine, so I drove to Wilmington and showed up on campus with a digital recorder in hand ready to hear some answers.
That was nearly 10 years ago. That day at Dr. Noland’s office was sort of an admission that I needed to learn something. Ever since that day I’ve been casually researching what it takes to lead a good discussion.
Being a part of a good classroom discussion in a college classroom (or anywhere) can be life-changing. Being a part of a dysfunctional, weak classroom discussion is what makes people want to drop out of college and want their tuition money back. It can be painful and feel like a waste of time.
So what does it take to lead a good discussion in a college classroom? I’ve taught community college English for over 6 years where the classroom discussion is an everyday practice for me. I want to point out a few methods I use that have been effective in generating what can turn into a classroom conversation. What I've learned here is through times of awkward failure when things did not go smooth. Some of the best things I've learned can be credited to former UNCW professor Dr. Dan Noland who knew better than anyone how to provoke students in class to speak up in class. Leading a discussion is something anyone can get better at as long as they are willing to take the right steps to make it happen.
Seven Steps (Anyone Could Do) to Leading a Smoother Classroom Discussion
First, students are willing to speak up on topics that they have had time to think about. They do not want to talk about topics they are surprised by. As a teacher, you will be the expert on the topic speaking to a group of people who want to learn. You are in control of the situation and the authority on the topic. People don't want to be corrected in front of their peers by an expert on a topic they had not previously thought about.
I try to give my students hints on what is coming so that they will grow in confidence. I normally write a question on the board on a Monday morning: “What will America look like in 20 years. What do you think it will look like in 2038?” Then I will announce to the class that we will be discussing the question in Wednesday’s class. This gives them time to ponder the question and a hint of what is coming.
The brain needs to be warmed up just like the body. A student’s mind needs to be warmed up and ready to work before they will ever consider speaking up in front of their peers. If I asked my students the question stated above about the year 2038 on a Monday morning 5 minutes into the class, they might have an answer in mind but are unlikely to share it.
However, if I ask the students to take the first 20 minutes of class to write about what they think America will look like in 2038, they are more likely to speak up. The time and thought it takes to process your thoughts on a piece of paper allows students to think objectively about their own ideas. They can see the words on the page and it gives the more confidence.
Second, assign students to read a page, an essay or a chapter for homework to discuss in the next class period.
This might seem like common sense, but it is more effective than you might imagine. When discussion is centered around something everyone has read, it establishes a framework and a context to respond to. We can’t expect students to show up to class ready to have a “conversation” without any context of a topic. The discussion is no longer about who is smarter or more outspoken, but rather about what each person thinks about what everyone read last night.
The text that you choose in this situation doesn’t even have to be that long. I’ve printed out a single paragraph from a book, handed each student a copy of that paragraph and told them to be ready to discuss the paragraph the very next class.
To center the discussion on something they have read out of a book, allows them to respond to what the author has said. They can agree or disagree with the text, they can like or dislike the text. People are not as self-conscious when everyone has the chance to praise or criticize something everyone is looking at.
The advantage to the teacher is that it puts most of the attention on the author/topic of the article for the class to discuss rather expecting the teacher to carry the weight of the entire discussion. In this situation, the teacher becomes a facilitator who moves the discussion along more than a lecturer.
Third, push students who share their opinions to give concrete examples to explain themselves.
Many people understand their taste, opinions and beliefs in terms “like” and “dislike” or “love” and “hate” responses. See if you can get a student to explain why they did not like the article or pinpoint which part of the article they disagreed with. So, if I can get a student to say “I disagree with this author because his article stereotyped Millennials. You can see it in the story, especially on the 2nd page of the article”---that is making progress. When a student identifies and exact sentence that explains how an author is stereotyping Millennials, that further proves the student’s point. This takes the discussion out of the realm of feelings and more into the realm of reason.
I learned this from Dr.Noland. When I interviewed my professor him in 2009, I mentioned a Wendell Berry essay called “A Native Hill” that I had recently read. Dr. Noland stood up from his desk and walked over to his bookshelf and took down a Berry anthology that included the essay I mentioned. He asked me to find the paragraph that I had referenced and read it out loud. I found it and read it out-loud:
“As for the literary world, I had ventured some distance into that, and liked it well enough . . .But I never doubted that the world was more important to me than the literary world; and the world would always be most fully and clearly present to me in the place I was fated by birth to know better than any other.”
After I read this, he asked me to explain what about that sentence had stood out to me. He said he regularly used the same method on students of asking them to find the passage that they “liked” or remember most vividly. I’ve used the same method in my class. This practice takes the discussion away from a student’s feelings and bases it more in what the text says or a concrete example that the student is thinking of. This is not a method to shut off a student’s opinion, but rather to base the discussion on the text that is being discussed.
Asking the class "Where in the text does it say that?"prevents students getting worked up about something the author never said and prevents the never-ending rabbit trails that waste class time. It also reminds the class of any well-articulated sentences which we want to meditate on and remember.
Fourth, be ready to ask open-ended follow up questions.
Celeste Headlee says in her TED talk “10 Ways To Have a Better Conversation” the NPR interviewer describes her methods for interviewing people on the radio. Her tip of using open-ended questions to have a quality conversation is just as effective while leading a discussion. She says:
“Use open ended questions. Take a que from journalists. Start your questions with who, what, where, why and how. If you put in a complicated question, you are going to get a simple answer out. If I ask you “Were you terrified?” You are going to respond to the most powerful word in that sentence, which is terrified. “Where you angry?” “Yes, I was very angry.” Let them describe it. They are the ones that know. Try asking them things like “What was that like?” “How did that feel?” Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it. And you are going to get a much more interesting response.”
I am trying to push myself to ask more follow-up questions during a discussion and think of it more like a conversation. I have noticed that I often get a good answer and the skip to the next person. However, as Headlee says, asking simple follow up questions after someone can said something can lead to more interesting responses rather than simple ones.
As I said earlier with students often responding to “like” or “dislike,” simply asking them “why” helps them to elaborate why it is they hate the article we are reading. As the professor, this often requires patience to ask follow up questions. If I get a weak answer I often have the temptation to want to take over the discussion and take it in a better direction. However, if can develop the patience for follow up questions, I might get the kind of in-depth answers I am searching for.
Fifth, communicate with yourself whether you want to lecture to the class or you want to class to have a group discussion.
Both leading a discussion and lecturing are forms of teaching. When I was a youth pastor to 15 high school students at a church, I failed in this particular area. I often started with a lecture (or sermon) where I would not ask any questions with the expectation that everyone would listen and be enthralled by what I had to say. However, if the students looked bored or uninterested, which they normally did (it wasn’t their fault), I would suddenly turn it into a discussion. If I saw blank faces, I would ask the group “So, what do you all think about that? Would you agree or disagree with what I said?”
This question was often based out of my fear that I might be boring rather than a sincere desire to know what they were thinking. This often resulted in confusion on my part because if an actual discussion started, I would still want to steer it back into a sermon-style lesson so I could finish teaching from my notes.
Know whether you want a discussion or a lecture/sermon before you teach. When I say “communicate with yourself” I mean it is helpful to decide before class that you are going to spend 15 minutes explaining a concept and then for 10 minutes set aside time for students to discuss the concept. If people look unengaged during lecture, it can be tempting to throw out a question to keep the class’s attention. But make sure that by asking a question, you are signaling to the class that they can ask questions.
If you want to lecture, then lecture. If you are unprepared for the lecture and are hoping that the students will take over the discussion so that you can kill class-time, then make sure you turn it into a discussion and not some kind of confused lecture. I think every teacher has to do this and step in front of a class because they are unprepared with the hope that the students are willing to talk. I have learned that if I want to lecture, I need to prepare myself to speak for 15 to 30 minutes and then take questions afterwards so I do not confuse the students
Sixth, after Julie has made a comment, repeat back to Julie what she said.
Let those in the discussion know that you’ve heard what they’ve said. This is what Dr. Noland said about listening to your student’s responses after they start talking:
“And then when they articulate their response, you have to treat it respectfully. That doesn’t mean you have to accept whatever they say. But they have to know that you’ve heard what they’ve said. So one of the classic skills is to be able to repeat what somebody said. “Is that what I heard you say?” And you’ve got to get it right.”
Repeat what your students say back to them by saying “So you are saying _________________. Is that right?” Then when I communicate to Julie that I heard what she said, I will continue with the discussion. Sometimes this means making other students wait before they say something. Or, more commonly, hesitate to say what I am going to say before I move forward. Dr. Noland said that this often helps model what you want the students to do with one another. If you want students to listen to one another responses, you also want to be accurate in how you heard what another student say. Nothing is more frustrating to be misrepresented in what you’ve said.
Seventh, acknowledge your students in the hallway, on campus and in public.
One time I was riding my bike across campus and my literature professor Dr. Cilano yelled out to me “Nathan, you need a helmet.” I stopped for a minute, to say hello because I wasn’t sure if she was serious or joking. She was about to get on her bike and she was wearing her helmet. Acknowledging my existence on campus was the norm for her. She greeted me in the hallway whenever I saw her and I knew I could talk to her. This further encouraged me to consider speaking up in class because acted like a normal person and less like an authority figure. If I said something stupid in her class, I knew she wasn’t going to hold it against me.
Dr. Noland always acknowledged me when he saw me on campus. When I took his class my sophomore year, I was somewhat afraid of him. However, one day I was standing on campus talking to my friend when he walked up and said “Why do young people smoke cigarettes?” I said I did not know. “Well it is going to kill them.” Then he walked away. I could tell he was joking around. But I appreciated that he was not so much in a hurry that he couldn’t at least make a joke.
What does acknowledging students have to do with in-class discussion? It opens the door to show that teachers are interested in having a conversation outside of the classroom. Some professors prioritize their own intellectual projects and ideas over people, which in which they come off as impersonal in the hallway. Speaking to students helps make professors approachable and shows while they might spend time in the ivory tower, they don’t permanently live there.
How do you know you are good at facilitating a classroom discussion? That is the moment when you step back and the class is discussing the topic without you. As a teacher, I want to instill in my students the skill of being able to confidently and naturally talk about the topic without being self-conscious or uncomfortable. Also, you know you've done a had a good discussion when the students are walking out of the classroom still discussing the topic. Why? Because they are talking about it voluntarily, not because you are requiring it.