The Art of Class Discussion

I teach a really cool class at UMD. But for the same reasons that it’s cool, it’s also very difficult to teach. In the course I ask students to reflect on and discuss identity roles that society has conferred upon us: gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, physical ability. These roles are deeply ingrained, which makes it difficult for us to acknowledge what we think and know about them; and they implicate issues of power, which makes it very awkward to discuss them with others. Add to that the fact that the class is big (30 students) and incredibly diverse. It’s a gen. ed. course, so the students run the gamut in terms of year, major, ethnicity, geographical origin. And because humans are homophiles (i.e., “birds of a feather flock together”), it seems it would just be easier for my students never to utter a peep.

But this course, and to some extent all courses, not only thrives on but depends on as many perspectives as possible. I had to expand my repertoire as an “expert” facilitator, so I consulted the only place I could think of  where lots of other experts congregate: Facebook! I put a call out for suggestions on “how to ignite great discussion.” I got so many replies, I want to put some of the good ones here so I won’t forget them. Please add any other ideas you have in the comments!

  • One cool idea is to enlist technology. One Facebook friend (FBF) suggested Poll Everywhere, which lets you take a poll that students can respond to on either a laptop or a phone. This looks neat because you can either do a quantitative/multiple choice poll, or you can ask for responses to open-ended questions too.
  • Forced choice. This is where each corner of the room represents a choice– let’s say, one corner is Strongly Agree, another corner is Agree, the third is Disagree, and the last is Strongly Disagree. The teacher (or someone) poses a question and students have to get up and travel to the corner that represents their response. Then the facilitator can call on people to ask why they picked that corner.
  • Write discussion questions on giant Post-Its and post them on the walls around the room. Have small groups travel around the room, discussing the question and jotting new bullet points on each Post-It as they discuss it.
  • Assign small groups to “teach” a reading each week.
  • Collectively establish norms or “ground rules” for discussion. I asked my students at the beginning of the semester to submit one idea for this list and I synthesized them all; we came up with a pretty good list, which I’ll post below. Re-visiting the list throughout the semester is always a good idea.
  • Do a low-tech poll by asking an opinion question and have students demonstrate their response by using their fingers as a Likert scale: 1 finger for strongly disagree, 5 for strongly agree.
  • Ask students to do some writing before discussion. Gets the brain juices flowing.
  • Organize students into small groups, and ask each person to write a question on a notecard. Each person takes turns asking the group to answer the question; if there is consensus on the answer, it is written on the back of the card. Once all the questions have been answered, the small groups exchange stacks of notecards. The next group goes through the stack of questions, trying to resolve them WITHOUT looking at the answers on the back. (I got this great idea here.) 
  • After assigning students to facilitate discussion, ensure that you, the authority figure, remain as quiet as you can. Maybe sit in the back of the room, or quietly take notes on the chalkboard. The more you interject, the more students defer, and the quieter they will become. As my FBF eloquently said, “The trick to fostering discussion in that class, for me, every semester, was to quiet my own voice.” (This one is hard for me– the more animated a discussion becomes, the more I want to join in!)
  • Pass out poster paper to small groups or plain printer paper to individuals and ask them to do an artistic rendering of a reading or concept. Encourage the use of symbols and stick figures so no one is intimidated by the pressure to make something perfect. Hang up the pieces around the room and do a “gallery walk,” where the group walks around freely, looking at pieces, conversing with their neighbors about their interpretations and impressions of the pictures.
  • Loosen things up by saying something about yourself, even if (especially if?) it is self-deprecating or silly.
  • “Never say what a student can say.” If only I knew the magic recipe for this!


Discussion Ground Rules:

Here are the ground rules developed by my students this semester. I thought about writing the list myself, but then figured they would be more likely to follow them if they were invested. We do have to re-visit them occasionally, but it’s a much better list than I could have come up with on my own!

  • Discussion should be on a topic that is interesting/controversial/relevant to the contributors.
  • Be a good listener. Show you are listening with your body language.
  • It places an unfair burden on others if people don’t participate, or if your participation isn’t genuine.
  • It is collegial to disagree with your classmates, but not to disrespect them. Having different viewpoints is healthy.
  • Contribute to an atmosphere where people feel comfortable, and will not feel judged.
  • Making controversial statements is good; if nothing is arguable, then we have nowhere to go.
  • Seek others’ opinions before launching into a counterargument.
  • Come to class prepared; discussion suffers for everyone if you don’t do the readings.
  • Speak from your own experience; avoid generalizations.
  • Avoid being sarcastic or passive. If someone says something troubling, be very honest about why it troubles you.
  • Do not interrupt or use offensive terms.
  • Teacher should facilitate to help draw out those who are quiet.
  • Discussion points or guides are helpful.
  • Teacher will participate as much as students.

Again, if you have experience facilitating discussion, please add your ideas to the mix. Like most teachers, I need all the ideas I can get.