Group Discussion

This instructional technique comes from CTLT’s Instructional Skills Workshop materials. How do you think this technique can and should be adapted to interdisciplinary learning contexts and content?

In a group discussion, several people meet to cooperatively discuss a topic of mutual concern. The leader presents a topic and the participants discuss it.

Instructor’s Role

  • determine topic of interest
  • assign reading material before discussion
  • prepare stimulating questions
  • make suggestions as to appropriate behaviour for the group discussion, such as not to digress from the topic
  • keep discussion on track
  • encourage all members to participate
  • refrain from taking sides
  • give summary
  • suggest further study material

Learners’ Role

  • assist with determining discussion topic
  • read appropriate materials before meeting
  • define goals and procedures
  • listen actively
  • build on contributions of other group members
  • contribute only relevant information and opinions

Group Discussion Configuration

There are many different configurations for group discussion. The following list come from David Dunne at the University of Toronto (click here for a pdf of his resource).

  • Cocktail Party: The professor assigns a reading or question, and on class day brings in and serves hors d’oeuvres and non-alcoholic drinks. To create the right atmosphere, the professor serves students from a tray carried around the room. The only expectation of the students is that they find interesting and engaging ways to explore the issue; the class is then brought together for whole-class discussion.
  • Critical Debate: Students are asked to vote, by a show of hands, on a contentious issue. They are then asked to form a debating team favouring the opposite side to the one they voted for. Each team elects a spokesperson and the debate ensues. The debrief focuses on what new ways of thinking were opened up, the strengths and weaknesses of their own and others’ positions, etc.
  • Dramatizing Discussion: Students are invited to report their discussions of an issue through some sort of theatrical offering. This may take the form of a role play of the “right” and “wrong” way to approach an issue, or may personalize an abstract subject (e.g. “Mr. Debit” and Ms. Credit”).
  • Drawing Discussion: Students are supplied with flip chart sheets, pens, rulers, scissors and tape. They are asked to provide a visual representation of the important themes in their discussion. They are encouraged to be creative and playful while maintaining an underlying seriousness about the ideas they want to communicate.
  • E-Mail/Online Discussion: Students are asked to comment on a topic online. The professor can assign a topic and students have time to reflect and read about it before commenting. In one approach, the professor explains that each student is expected to make some sort of online contribution each week. Students may initiate a topic or respond to topics raised by others. As the term proceeds, students are expected to play the role of both initiator and respondent.
  • Jigsaw: Students become “experts” by researching a topic, and explain it to other students in class. For a class of 25, about 5 topics would be assigned and each student would choose one to research. In class, students who have chosen the same topic gather to raise questions and explore areas of understanding/ misunderstanding. Now groups are formed that include at least one expert on each topic; students take turns to lead discussion in the groups.
  • Poster Tour: Groups of students record their discussion on a flip chart or on the chalkboard. At the end of the allotted time, groups tour all posters in the room.
  • Rotating Stations: Groups discuss an issue for ten minutes and switch positions, leaving their flip chart behind. The discussion then continues, with each group using the flip chart as a new basis for discussion. As an alternative technique, groups can stay in place and trade one or more members.
  • Snowballing: This technique involves progressively expanding groups. Students prepare a question alone, then discuss it with a partner, then join another pair to form a group of four, then eight, and so on until the whole class has been brought together.

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