Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

Teaching Tip: Sparking Discussions

We think most will agree: class discussions are difficult. Many students do not like to participate, partly because they feel intense social pressures not to speak in class. But discussion is one of our very best tools to bring students deeper, more lasting, and more meaningful learning.

We know of no sure-fire recipe for great class discussions. There are many important elements that contribute to success. Here are two:

1. The warm-up. Students must be prepared for the discussion beyond having “done the reading.” They need time to recall details and to prepare responses. One popular strategy is ask students to take a minute to jot down an answer to our discussion question before we ask them to speak from these notes. Reading quizzes also can work well to prepare students for discussions, and individual questions on a quiz can serve as springboards. As we go over answers to the quiz, we might ask, “What are some possible reasons why this detail matters?”

2. The frame. If discussions are by nature unpredictable, they do not therefore have to be aimless. One way to provide the structure that so many students desire is to start the discussion with an objective, perhaps briefly connecting it to a larger course objective. But the end of a discussion is probably just as important, and we should try to leave ample time at the end of a discussion to organize it after the fact. We can ask students to summarize key points and to retrace important connections that arose in discussion. We might also ask them, if we had an objective when we began the discussion, to what degree and in what ways we met that objective.

Discussions are difficult and unpredictable, but the rewards are well worth the risks.

Have you got a tip for us about discussions? We'd love to have it and any other comments you'd like to send us!

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