Fostering engaging discussions can be challenging for instructors, but they are a great way to build community and get students to more actively engage with important concepts.

Preparing for a discussion

Plan how you will conduct the discussion: To break up course content, plan to hold short discussions in between 10-minute lecturing blocks. Each discussion should have a clear goal or objective, as well as an idea about how you’ll guide or prompt the discussion. Consider sharing a video or a short list of questions on a particular concept that can help get the conversation flowing.

Establish the ground rules: In order for a discussion to be effective, students need to understand the value of actively listening to their peers, tolerating opposing viewpoints and being open-minded. They also need to recognize the importance of staying focused on the topic and expressing themselves clearly. Consider using an online discussion thread before class as a way to brainstorm ideas for proper discussion conduct with students. When students help inform the ground rules, they’re also more likely to follow them. 

Remember that there are many ways to be “present:” Particularly in online learning environments, flexibility is key. Wherever possible, try to include ways to allow students to participate asynchronously in discussions. Online discussion forums are a great way for students to share their thoughts and opinions, regardless of when and where they are engaging in coursework.

Starting the discussion

  1. Use a partner or group activity: Asking students to share their views with a partner or in a small group is a great way to build a sense of camaraderie and connection in your classroom. Here are two ideas that require minimal preparation.
    • Partner: Ask students to come to the discussion with 3 or 4 prepared questions about the topic. Start by having students pair off and alternate asking and answering their questions. This is a great way to prime students for a broader discussion, whether in class or through a discussion thread. 
    • Group: Ask students to contribute ideas for research papers or essays that are related to the discussion topic and write all ideas on a virtual whiteboard or collaborative document. After a set period of time or when students have run out of ideas, encourage studens to critically evaluate all the ideas or categorize themes to strengthen one another’s ideas.
  2. Pose a controversial issue and organize an informal debate: Group students into breakout rooms according to the position they take on a specific issue and ask the groups to come up with a few arguments or examples to support their position. Write each group’s statements on the virtual whiteboard and use these as a starting point for discussion. A natural next step is to debate the strengths and weaknesses of each argument. 

Some questions to consider asking

Here are some examples of questions you can pose to your students to have engaging in-class discussions.

  1. Compare and contrast: Ask your students to make connections and identify differences between ideas that can be found in course readings, as well as other articles and videos they may find.
  2. Moral or ethical dilemmas: Provide students with a problem or situation related to a specific course concept, and ask them to explore one or more of the moral and ethical concerns.
  3. Assess/diagnose/act: This type of question will help students through the process of problem-solving. Each step asks them to evaluate the problem, by prompting them to think of ways to approach the concept. 
    • Assessment: What is the issue or problem at hand?
    • Diagnosis: What is the root cause of this issue or problem?
    • Action: How can we solve the issue?
  4. Paraphrasing: To get a quick pulse check of where students are understanding course material and where they may be struggling, you can ask questions like, “How would you put (course concept) into your own words?” This paraphrasing exercise helps students come to a more personal understanding of the course material.
  5. Make it personal: Ask students questions like “How did this impact your prior knowledge of the topic? Or “What was your initial reaction to this article/fact/source?” to encourage students to reflect on their personal connections to the content they are learning.
  6. Synthesis: This can help students connect course concepts with prior knowledge and other learning experiences. Consider asking questions such as “How can this idea be combined with ________ to create a more complete or comprehensive understanding of _________?”

Encouraging student participation

Give students low-stakes opportunities to think and discuss content: This is a “tolerance for error” approach. Sometimes, students need the space to get it wrong, take risks, or try out different ideas in order to learn. Quizzes, exit tickets and minute papers provide students with a way to demonstrate their knowledge and ask questions without it impacting their grade.

Use online resources and content management systems to extend class discussions: Students won’t all get the chance to contribute in large classes, so offer the opportunity to continue somewhere else.  Students should be given different options to participate to allow for maximum flexibility. 

Limit your own involvement: As an instructor, try and avoid talking too much or responding to every student’s contribution. When you ask students a question, if you really want them to think and be able to give an answer, be willing to wait for it. Try to encourage students to develop their own ideas and to respond to one another before stepping in yourself.

In online and blended learning environments, discussions are a great way for students to interact with their peers and instructors. With some guidance, discussions are an effective student-led way to track understanding and progress against course objectives.

Click here to learn more about Top Hat’s suite of tools designed to engage students in blended, online and in-person learning environments.

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