Leading a discussion in a classroom can help students converse with each other to gain insight into a given topic. However, if you’re a discussion leader, you may be nervous about how to keep the conversation going while engaging the members of your class. If you find yourself needing to lead a class in college or high school, or if you are simply interested in alternative ways of learning, then you can be on your way to leading an engaging and thought-provoking discussion after a bit of hard work and effort.
Opening the Discussion
Ask a question that inspires a productive conversation. The best questions are neither too open-ended nor too limited. “Yes or No” questions halt discussion, and broad “What do you think about young people getting married?” questions also tend to discourage students. The best questions are open enough to have a few possible right answers, yet closed enough that people know how to approach them, and feel motivated to start talking. If you’re discussing Romeo and Juliet, you may start by asking, “In what ways does the Friar err in his advice to Romeo? In what ways does he succeed?” This question will lead students in a productive direction without feeding them the answers.
Giving the students a few discussion questions to be prepared for before class can also give them more time to provide thoughtful contributions to the discussion.
Be prepared. As the discussion leader, you should come into the meeting with several “big” questions. Be prepared to ask the next one when discussion dies down, when people need more food for thought. The more prepared you feel when you walk into a classroom, the more confident you’ll look. If you look confident in your ideas and your approach, students will be more likely to respect you and to cooperate.
It can be helpful to give students a sheet of questions you’ll discuss, or to write them on the board. Some students learn better and think more effectively if they have the questions out in front of them. This can be an excellent resource for you as well.
In a 2 hour discussion, 2-5 good questions should suffice. It is also good to have 2 or 3 smaller sub-questions for each main question. However, you should prepare for at least 1.5 times as much material as you think you’ll cover, just in case students are particularly reticent that day or in case one line of inquiry wasn’t as fruitful as you thought it was.
Provide clear guidelines for participation. If you want to start the conversation off on the right foot, then you have to let the students know exactly what your expectations are. If you want students to just speak freely without raising their hands, then say so; if students need to raise their hands before they speak, then make this clear. If there are other things they need to know, such as how to respectfully address other students, how to avoid personal biases in their responses, or any terms to use or avoid, explain these expectations from the beginning so your students start off strong.
If you have a handout with “Dos” and “Don’ts” listed on it, this can help students stay on track, too.
Provide a shared frame of reference. It’s important for you and the students to have something you can all talk about before you begin the discussion. This can be the assigned reading for that day’s class, a news story or poem that you bring to the classroom, a short video clip, or even a work of art. You and the students should have something that you have all studied and considered so the discussion can move forward, and so you have concrete details you can point to instead of falling into abstractions. Make the expectations for being prepared clear. If you don’t have incentive for students to do the homework or consequences for students who are unprepared, then they’ll be less likely to come to class with fresh, exciting ideas.
Maintain enthusiasm for the topic. One way to make sure that the discussion goes well is to show your enthusiasm for the subject right from the beginning. If you have engaged body language, are alert and energetic, and show how the topic is important to your life and the lives of the students, they’ll be much more likely to be engaged. If they think that you’re tired, apathetic, or just trying to get the discussion over with, then they’ll be less likely to care.
Even if a topic isn’t inherently fascinating, don’t try to cushion the blow by saying, “I know this isn’t that exciting, guys…” Instead, show that the topic is worth caring about, and your students will follow.
Sometimes, showing that something has real-world applications can help your students care about it. If you’re studying a historical event, for example, then starting off the class with a news article about an event with similar themes or values behind it — such as current protests against discrimination in relation to race riots of the 1960s — can help students stay engaged.
Define key terms. One helpful way to begin the discussion is to define any key terms that may be useful to your students throughout the discussion. For example, if you’re giving a lesson on poetry, you can discuss simile, metaphor, allusion, or any other literary devices that are central to the poem. If all of your students feel like they’re on the same page and have a strong foundation before they begin the discussion, then they’ll be much more confident about participating.
Even if it feels like you’re oversimplifying things a bit, it’s better to have everyone on the same page before the discussion really kicks off than to lose a few students. Some students may be too shy to admit they’re confused about some of the more simple terms, and it’s important to explain them before you can move forward.
Present yourself well. In order to lead a meaningful discussion, you have to present yourself as a professional and an authority on the subject. You have to have confident body language, stand tall, make eye contact, and show the students that you have your act together. At the same time, you don’t have to act like you’re perfect and like you have all the answers, or your students will feel less inclined to participate.
Don’t act like you know absolutely everything and show students that you’re just as eager to learn as they are.
Be genuinely excited about your students’ ideas to help generate enthusiasm for the topic.
Maintaining a Meaningful Conversation
Maintain an atmosphere of safety and respect. If you want to encourage your students to participate, then you have to give them a safe environment for doing so. You have to make it clear that all of the students’ ideas deserve respect and that your classroom will reserve all judgment and won’t make people feel unworthy because of their ideas and opinions. You should treat students positively and reward them for contributing, and never make them feel like any idea is stupid, pointless, or just plain wrong. If a student is being rude to another student, address the problem head-on instead of letting the conversation go on; if you say nothing, you’ll make it look like it’s acceptable for students to be rude to each other.
Encourage students for speaking instead of tearing them down. Make them feel excited to join the discussion, instead of self-conscious.
Make arguments. Don’t just share your feelings or opinions without backing them up. If you’re discussing Romeo and Juliet and someone asserts, “The Friar shouldn’t have given Romeo any advice!” ask them why that is so, and discuss possible support or objections to their claim. Use the “Pros and Cons” model; argue for a position, and then argue against it. Which conclusion would hold up better in a court of law? This can lead to meaningful results without having the students feel like you’re spoon-feeding them the answers.
Help guide students to reach conclusions for themselves. If the objective of the discussion is only to make the students see the “right” answer, then you might as well have lectured at them instead.
Move from the known to the unknown. Good discussions depend on the ignorance of the participants. If you already know, how can you learn? If you feel you have answered a question, press deeper, to find another puzzle you don’t yet understand, or move to the next area of interest. Once you’ve established something you and the group have puzzled out, move on to a new, more complicated mystery. Use your previous discussion as a reference point and continue to dig deeper.
Treat each new “unknown” as an exciting mystery that the students will solve together. Even if you’ve already thought it through, act like you’re figuring it out right along with them.
Manage personalities. Specifically ask the quieter members what they think of the topic; and, as kindly as possible, reign in the unrelentingly verbal members who don’t let others speak. Make sure every participant has an opportunity to be heard. Work to make sure that every student is heard, and that some students aren’t heard too much. Make it so students with conflicting personalities don’t have misunderstandings and that everyone gets along, for the most part.
Be aware of the different personality types in your classroom and of how they succeed the most in group discussions. For example, if you have a student who likes to absorb the conversation and then weigh in toward the end, let this student take the time he needs instead of forcing him to speak when he’s not ready.
Write ideas down. One technique to help maintain a productive class discussion is to write down the ideas of your students throughout the discussion. This can remind students of what you’re talking about and can give them something to point back to. You can even write their ideas down in a slightly more articulate way to help frame the discussion. If you do this, though, make sure you write down most of the ideas that are said so some students don’t feel discouraged if you don’t write down their ideas. You can even consider having one student as a designated “note taker” who stands at the board and writes down the ideas as they come.
Remember that it’s about the topic, not you. When you lead a class discussion, you may be feeling self-conscious and thinking that if it’s not going well, that it’s because the students don’t like you or respect you. This line of thinking is not productive and will only lead you to think negatively about yourself instead of focusing on the topic at hand. If your students aren’t responding well or aren’t as engaged as they could be, then remind yourself that this is because the topic could be presented in a new light, not because there’s something wrong with you.
Once you stop focusing on there being something wrong with you, you’ll have more freedom to turn to the discussion topic and to make the conversation as dynamic as possible.
Manage your time well. One important aspect of leading a discussion is making sure that you hit most of the important points you wanted to hit. If students get too stuck on one point that isn’t central to the discussion, then you can move the conversation along to the more important aspects of the day’s material. That said, if you find that students are having a fascinating conversation about something you didn’t intend to hit and that they are really learning from each other, then you can continue to use this time to explore a new line of thinking.
Time management is an important part of leading a class discussion. It’s important to keep the students on track and avoid talking about one minor quibble for the entirety of your class time.
Find a way to subtly check the clock or your watch from time to time. You don’t want to make the students nervous when you do this.
Help students address each other. One way to help move the discussion forward is to help students talk to each other instead of to you. As long as the conversation is respectful and well-meaning, then having them directly address each other’s points can help them get to know each other and can facilitate a meaningful discussion without any barriers. If you find that this technique is making the conversation too aggressive or argumentative, then you can pull students back a bit.
Having the students talk to each other more can lead to a more dynamic, exciting discussion. They’ll feel like they can talk more openly if they’re talking to each other instead of just addressing the teacher.
Just make sure to stress that they should do this in a respectful manner and that focuses on the person’s ideas, not the person.
Manage problem students. Unfortunately, just one problem student can ruin an entire discussion. If there’s a person in your class who always talks out of turn, interrupts others constantly, puts down the views of others, or just generally disrespects you and the other students, then you need to work on addressing the problem head-on as quickly as you can so this one student doesn’t keep the others from learning. You can first try to address the problem in class, and if that doesn’t work, you can pull the student aside and talk about his or her behavior privately.
There are many kinds of problem students. For example, if one of your students talks out of turn, stress the importance of raising his hand before he speaks.
If you have a student who talks too much, tell him to wait until at least four other people have spoken before contributing again. Though this may sound harsh, it can help this student focus on listening to what others have to say.
If you have students who are distracted or doing other things during your class, sit them up front and pay extra attention to them.
If you’re having trouble leading a discussion because many students aren’t doing the reading, then you should incentivize them to do their homework by giving reading check quizzes at the beginning of class, making class participation a higher percentage of the course grade, or finding other ways to hold them more accountable for doing their work.
Wrapping it Up
Summarize as you go. One way to make sure that all of the students are on the same page is to summarize the class discussion as you move forward. You can make it feel seamless, and not like an interruption of the conversation. Even repeating the points that you or your students have made with extra care can help your students get a firmer painting of the big picture. Make a point of slowing down and rebooting every 20 minutes or so, especially if you’re teaching a longer class, so that everyone is on track.
You can ask other students to help you with this task. Say something like, “Okay, what have we learned so far?” and have volunteers help you out.
Tie it all together. When the allotted time for the discussion is up, or when things have reached a natural end point, do a full summary of what you covered. Talk about the point you started from, and remind the students of any arguments that were made along the way. Don’t invalidate any arguments and focus on bringing together all of the different ideas you talked about instead of acting like you’re showing students the one and only way something should be done. Make sure you leave some time to do this so your students aren’t distracted and ready to pack up their bags.
This is where leaving notes on the board during the discussion can really come in handy. Having something you can point to can make it easier to wrap up your ideas.
You can even try having another student or two wrap up the class discussion. This can make students feel more accountable and involved.
Leave room for questions. Make sure to leave at least a few minutes for questions at the end of class. You want students to leave the discussion feeling like they learned something, not like they are utterly confused. If you wait until the class is almost over to ask if anyone has questions, then students will be much more reluctant to say anything because they won’t want to hold up or even prolong the class. Leave a suitable amount of time for questions and make sure to encourage students to speak up if they’re confused.
Answering the students’ questions can also help you wrap up the discussion more thoroughly.
Having people ask questions can also give you insight into the strengths and weaknesses of your discussion. If five students seem to be confused about the same thing, then it may be because you didn’t cover it thoroughly enough in your discussion.
Leave ’em hungry. Close with a related question, or a “suggestion for further research.” This will give all involved something to think about for next time. You shouldn’t leave students feeling like you discussed absolutely everything there was to say about the given topic and that you had completely solved the puzzle together. Instead, you should have moved the conversation forward, helped students gain valuable insight, and leave them looking forward to the next discussion.
Leaving your students wanting more can also give you a logical place to pick up during the next class. They’ll come to class feeling ready and excited to continue the conversation, and they may have even gained some insight into the topic in the meantime.
Consider conducting a brief “check out”. Let students talk about where the discussion leaves them or where they will go next. They can do this at the end of class, or even in a written survey they take during the last few minutes of class.
Notice who did or did not participate to improve next time. After the discussion is over, ask yourself who did the most talking, who did the least talking, and who contributed the most meaningfully to the conversation. Keep in mind that talking the most doesn’t actually mean contributing the most, either. The next time you lead a discussion, you can work on encouraging the more quiet students a bit more, and making sure that everyone has a chance to speak and that the students don’t feel dominated by a few more confident speakers.
Remind yourself that no discussion is perfect. As you improve at leading class discussions, you’ll improve at making sure that all students participate in the conversation.
Keep a positive attitude. If discussing becomes difficult, remember anybody who can speak can learn in discussion and enjoy doing it. There are many classical middle schools, and even kindergartens, as well as discussion-based special education programs! Questions are motivating, and conversing is as natural as breathing, so if it gets hard, keep going!
Give yourself at least 1 hour but keep in mind that the best discussions (those that generate new questions and open new vistas of knowledge) take 3 hours or so to develop and mature.
Socrates was the master discussion leader. Learn from those who have gone before you.
Sometimes the most important question is the one that is the hardest to answer. “What is a human being?” Though there is no satisfactory, end-all scientific answer to the question, it is still a relevant question. Let yourself and the group explore issues that captivate your interest, even if you can’t yet articulate the “practical value.” The greatest discussions may not end in agreement or conclusion. They may end in clarity of differences and hence agreement to disagree!
There are roughly two kinds of discussion: Theoretical and Practical. Distinguish between dialogue that leads to discovery of truth, and dialogue that leads to consensus and action, and be clear with everyone about which one this is!
Many people feel that open discussions between willing participants become vague nonsense. If you or the group begins to feel this, a good question to ask yourselves is, “Why does this matter?” Spend some time deciding which projects are worth pursuing, which aren’t, then dive back in.
Give more statements. Try to make a new discussion when another one has already finished.
Many people become emotional when their assumptions are questioned or their beliefs are refuted. You can expect some people to become angry or withdrawn. To minimize this, stick to statements such as “I think _____ because ____” rather than “you’re wrong” unless someone is blatantly wrong.
Allow your discussion to wander from point to point. Tradition, experience, and the latest research tells us that a lecture, which appears to be more organized, is a neither as lasting nor as effective a way to learn. Stay with the process!
Things You’ll Need
2-15 people who are interested in learning by discussion.
A subject matter. Books are perfect, but there are plenty of other possible subjects, such as movies, shared experiences, current events, etc.
1-3 hours of time
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How to Start a Conversation when You Have Nothing to Talk About
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How to Start an Online Discussion Community
How to Write a Speech
How to Brainstorm With a Group of People
How to Win Informal Arguments and Debates
How to Be Politically Correct
How to Avoid Talking About the Same Old Things
How to Develop Good Communication Skills
How to Maintain a Good Weblog
Sources and Citations
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