As most instructors know, classroom discussions (either online or face-to-face) are an important teaching concept that can help students better understand classroom material, as well as augment their communication skills. The benefits are numerous – classes are more enjoyable for everyone involved, students are exposed to different viewpoints than their own, and students are able to better comprehend concepts when they can describe them back in their own words.
Despite the almost universal consensus among faculty on the virtues of classroom discussion, the hard reality is that many instructors face blank stares and silence when teaching. Getting students to participate is HARD. Students are often unwilling; preferring to be passive listeners than active participants. And then there’s the challenge of online classes, where it is often twice as hard to establish constructive discussion equally amongst the entire class.
However, despite the challenges, there is a lot an instructor can do to create and enhance meaningful discussions. Here are four easy-to-implement strategies for facilitating classroom discussion both online and face-to-face:
As an instructor, it is important to manage expectations for students. The syllabus should clearly outline (and incentivize) that participation is a critical component of the course. Explaining “why” class participation is so critical to the learning process will also help your students better understand how this element is critical to their success. While many instructors feel that grading participation is subjective or infantilizing student, the added weight of a participation grade does signal to students how important it is to become involved in class discussions.
Value Diversity and Inclusion
One of the most critical factors for fostering meaningful discussions is to establish a class culture that values everyone’s voice. Today’s classroom includes students with a wide range of experiences, beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives. It is important to create a culture that allows each of these voices to be heard. This requires leadership from the professor. Set the tone early in the term to ensure each student feels welcome to speak and respectful of others. Furthermore, try leading by example, this could include demonstrating what inclusion looks like and encouraging differences of thought and opinion on a specific topic or idea to get the ball rolling.
Encourage Student-to-Student Interaction
One of the best ways to promote discussion is to encourage student-to-student interactions. Professors can aggregate and consolidate information as it comes in from each student. One way to stimulate student-to-student interaction is to setup small pairs or groups of students to discuss classroom topics. Instructors can also try identifying key perspectives or students in larger group discussions. For example, if Mike has an interesting comment about a topic, then the professor can lead discussion by saying, “Mike thinks this is what’s happening, how do you respond to Mike?”
Plant Questions with the Quiet Students
Many of us remember the dread that faced when worrying that a professor might “cold call” on us in college. For some professors, cold calling is a great way to nurture participation. However, I prefer not to create that level of angst and encourage participation in other ways. In particular, one strategy is to plant questions with some of the quieter students. After a couple of classes, it is usually fairly obvious who the active participants in the class are and who is less likely to speak. Instead of cold calling on the quieter students, I will send them a note (or speak to them in person) and tell them, “Next class, we are going to discuss XYZ topic and I will ask the following questions. Please be prepared to answer some of these questions in class.” For many students, especially those nervous about class discussion, this eases their entry into the discussion and empowers them to participate. It also lets them know that their lack of participation has not gone unnoticed.