One of your first, and most important tasks, when leading a discussion is starting it off effectively.
Some ideas for starting off a discussion:
- Frame the discussion around student questions. Have students email questions to you while they are working on pre-readings; classify questions according to themes and create a typical question for each theme.
- Concrete image. You can ask students to create a concrete image/scene/event/moment from the text.
- Sentence completion exercise. Students can be asked to complete whichever of the following sentences seems appropriate:
- The question I’d most like to ask the author is…
- The idea I most take issue with in the text is…
- The most crucial point in last week’s lecture was…
- What most struck me about the readings was…
You may ask them to write down their answers or to think on their feet. As students hear the others responses they jot down the ones they would most like to hear more about. After all responses are given, students begin by asking other students about the responses they wanted to hear more about.
- Strongly worded statement. This can be taken form the group, or created by the leader or a student. The statement should be provocative, even inflammatory. It should challenge assumptions that students take for granted or cling to fiercely. It is important to tell the class not to assume that the person introducing the opinion agrees with it. After the statement has been made, the conversation begins with the group members trying to understand the reasoning and circumstances that frame the statement. Students are asked to come up with evidence and rationales that are completely outside their usual frames of reference.
- Generate truth statements. Students are split into small groups and each group is asked to generate three or four statements that group members believe to be true on the basis of their reading. The point of this exercise is not so much to produce undeniable facts or theories but to generate, and then prioritize, questions, and issues around which further discussion and research are undertaken. This exercise helps participants develop an agenda of items for discussion and suggests directions for future research they need to conduct if they are to be informed discussants.
- Illustrative quotes. Ask students to find relevant quotes from a preparatory text as a way of focusing their attention on the topic at hand and of generating conversation. These might be quotes they found that best illustrate the major thesis of the text or that are the most difficult to understand. In addition to generating good conversation, this exercise has the virtue of respecting the text. One of the most frequent complaints from discussion participants regarding pre-reading is that the subsequent conversation does not draw explicitly on the text they have been asked to spend time reading.
- Variant: ask students to choose quotes from a text that they wish to affirm and quotes they wish to challenge. This can be done in small groups and one is presented to the class as a whole. The quote can be chosen randomly or through deliberation.
- Tales from the trenches. This works well with students who work in the field or involved in some sort of internship or clinical practice. At the start of the class, students describe their most vivid recent experience as practitioners. One of the best ways to provoke some good student tales is for teachers to open the class with a brief tale of their own – it is recommended that these usually be tales of frustration and failure.
- Circle of voices. Four or five students form a circle and are allowed up to three minutes of silence to organize their thoughts. During this time, they think about what they want to say about a topic when the silence is lifted. Then the discussion opens up with each student having up to three minutes to say what they want to say. During that person’s speaking time, no one is allowed to say anything. Then you can move either randomly or sequentially around the circle for the second phase. In this phase, students are allowed to speak only about others’ ideas or comments that were expressed in the circle of voices.
- Hat full of quotes. Prior to class, type out a number of quotes or short passages relevant to your discussion topic; these can be repeated. Then at the start of a discussion, have each student pick from the hat. Give them a moment to reflect on their quote or passage and write down their response. Then, ask each student to read their quote or passage and their comment on it. Those who have quote or passage that has been read can either read their own comment or respond to one of the other comments.
So your discussion is underway. All is right with the world… then suddenly, everybody stops talking at once. What can you do to prevent and deal with this situation?
Questions may be asked to the group when they have stalled. The reasons for stalling may be important in guiding the types of questions you choose to ask.
The types of questions you might ask are:
- Questions that ask for more evidence. If a student states an opinion that seems unconnected to what’s already been said or that someone else in the group thinks is erroneous, unsupported or unjustified. The question should be asked as a simple request for more information, not as a challenge to the speaker’s intelligence.
- Questions that ask for clarifications. It is important that speakers are understood by the rest of the group. These questions should be an invitation to convey one’s meaning to the group in the most complete sense possible.
- Open questions. These are more likely to provoke students thinking and problem-solving abilities and make the fullest use of discussions potential for expanding intellectual and emotional horizons.
- Linking or extension questions. These questions actively engage students in building on one another’s response to questions. They tend to prompt student-to-student conversation and help students see that discussion is a collaborative enterprise in which the wisdom and experience of each participant contributes something important to the whole.
- Hypothetical questions. These questions ask students to consider how changing the circumstances of a case might alter the outcome. They require students to draw on their knowledge and experience to conjure up plausible scenarios. Usually responses are highly creative and can take a group that is reluctant to take risks to a new level of engagement and understanding.
- Cause-and-effect questions. These questions ask students to consider relationships between idea/events/scenarios and are fundamental to promoting critical thought.
- Summary and synthesis questions. These questions call on participants to identify important ideas and think about them in ways that will aid recall.
The large scale of whole group discussions can inhibit participation from some group members. Sometimes, it makes more sense to divide the large group into smaller ones.
- Buzz groups. Students gather in groups of four or five to discuss issues from a reading assignment. This can be relaxed and allow the group members to discuss issues freely with no report back to the large group. It can also be more structured with group members having to answer a series of questions prepared y the instructor and report their answers to the large group (either the teacher summarizes or the group members summarize)
- Snowballing. Students respond to a question as individuals, then they pair up and discuss their responses. The group size continues to double every few minutes until the large group has been reformed.
- Jigsaw. Teachers and students begin by generating a short list of topics they would like to study. Each student becomes an “expert” on one of these topics, first individually and then in discussion with other experts. Later these students become responsible again, through dialogue, for helping non-experts become as knowledgeable as they are.
- Critical debate. Learners are asked to explore an idea or take a position that they find unfamiliar, unsympathetic, even objectionable. They do this as members of a debate team. Students are asked to make the strongest possible case for a position that is diametrically opposed to their own. It is a highly structured and provocative process for reinvigorating discussions that may have lost some of their verve.
- Stand where you stand. The teacher shares a claim that references one side or another of an issue. Then students decide individually whether they agree or disagree with this claim and spend ten minutes writing down their position and their rationale for it, citing arguments, evidence and quotes from readings. Then the teacher displays four signs around the room reading strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree. Students are asked to stand in front of the sign that most closely reflects their position and then students at each position take turns orally presenting arguments that support and justify the stance they have taken. They are then invited to move to another sign if the arguments they hear from their peers persuade them that another position is more accurate or defensible. The exercise ends by spending fifteen minutes discussing as a whole group how the activity altered their perspectives.
A discussion often takes group members in many different directions, exploring concepts, relationships, and perspectives. It is essential that students leave with a sense of accomplishment and closure.
- Students write briefly about how their thinking has changed as a result of their discussion. You can also ask students to put the discussion in context of issues previously discussed. Have students turn in their paragraphs and review a sample to see what they have learned.
- Return to objectives. At the end of the discussion, have your students return to your objectives. Either orally or in written form have them evaluate the discussion based on those objectives.
- Designated listener. Individual students are designated official listeners in the discussion with the expectation that eventually all students will play this role once. As designated listener, students do not contribute ideas of their own. In listening intently, they may ask the occasional questions, check for understanding or clarification, or acknowledge comments with a brief word or simple gesture. At the end of the discussion, they are expected to summarize the main ideas expressed and to comment on the participation levels of the various group members.
- Notes on transparencies. This can be dome by the discussion leader or by a designated listener. Take notes on a sheet of transparency paper. At the end of the discussion, put the sheet up on the overhead and have students review it with you. You may want to relate the points back to the objectives or categorize them according to a salient feature.
- Drawing conclusions. Have groups draw the development of the discussion using a chosen model (for example, a road map). Each group illustrates on flip chart paper the major points or ideas that were brought up through the course of the discussion. Students are then given the opportunity to view the work of other groups.
These activities are extremely useful in determining if your objectives were achieved through the discussion.