Supporting group discussion
Leading a discussion requires the ability to be deeply in tune with the group and, when necessary, to move the group in a constructive direction.
Supporting an effective group discussion involves knowing your content and knowing your students. Such leadership also requires the skill to be able to think on your feet in order to nudge the discussion in a certain direction. In this way, an instructor who leads an invigorating discussion with their students could be likened to an accomplished dancer. A discussion is a back and forth that often moves at incredible speed. Being alive to the energy of dialogue and being able to respond appropriately are fundamentally important capacities. Leading a discussion requires the ability to be deeply in tune with the group and, when necessary, to move the group in a constructive direction. Crucially, the focus in a discussion is on student learning rather than teacher talking. While keeping the big picture in mind in the heat of a discussion can often be challenging, it serves the objectives you have for the discussion and, ultimately, student learning.
Preparing to lead a discussion
Preparation is key to leading an engaging discussion. Plan ahead.
Consider the following as you prepare:
- What do your students already know about the discussion topic?
- Are there any students with relevant experience or understanding that you could draw from?
- What do you want your students to learn from the discussion? What should they be able to do by the end?
- What questions or issues could be discussed that would support your learning objectives? (begin with questions requiring recall and then move on to questions calling for an application or analysis, or perhaps connecting ideas to larger themes or patterns)
- Send out your questions to students ahead of the discussion and communicate the purpose of the dialogue (you may also want students to provide a written response to the questions in preparation for the discussion)
- Prepare the students for discussion by creating an environment that is supportive and respectful – one that allows students to comfortably speak up without fear of condescending or sarcastic remarks from their peers or the instructor
- Try to learn all of your students’ names – students feel more valued and are more likely to participate when they feel they are known
- At the outset of the course, provide opportunities for students to get know each other
- In whole group discussions, prepare students to respectfully respond to each other’s comments and not just your own
Creating a variety of questions
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of a discussion is the quality and variety of the questions that are asked. The following categories are important to keep in mind with regards to both the questions that are prepared in advance and questions that are created by you during the discussion.
Harvard’s Derek Boy Center for Teaching and Learning has assembled a list of helpful categories of discussion questions, as well as guiding examples, see below:
- Open Ended Questions cast nets out to see what comes in, allowing you to listen for entry and emphasis points. What’s Going On? What do you make of this situation?
- Asking for Information helps students to establish baseline facts and opinions. Where? When? Who? What? How?
- Diagnostic Questions prompt students to interpret or explain what they have observed. How do you interpret and explain “A” and “B’s” impact on the situation? How do you weave these points into some kind of understanding of what else is going on, possibly behind the scenes?
- Challenge Questions ask students to take a position and reflect on their own assumptions. Why do you say that? How would you explain? Where is the evidence for what you say? How can you say a thing like that? Is that all? That’s just the opposite of what Student X said. Can you persuade him/her?
- Extension Questions explore the issues behind or just beyond a student’s initial comment. What else? Can you take us farther down that path or find new tributaries? Keep going? Therefore?
- Combination Questions alert students to moments of possible synthesis with the ideas of their peers. How would you relate your points to those mentioned by Student A or to something else you said? How would you understand X in light of Y?
- Priority Questions bring students back to the big picture. Which issues do you consider most important? Where do you start? How would you rank these?
- Action Questions encourage students to place themselves in the scenario under discussion. What would you do in Person X’s shoes? How?
- Prediction Questions challenge students to take what they have learned in one context and apply it to another, creating an opportunity to surface and to test their mental models. What do you think would happen if we followed Student Z’s action plan? Give us a forecast of your expectations. How will he/she react to your thinking?
Leading the discussion
A conversation between two people can be like a playful polka dance. There is a push and pull in a two-person conversation and, depending on your partner, it can be easy to stay in sync. A discussion among a group of people is more complex, unpredictable, and somewhat unrestricted, similar to freestyling. In freestyling, one person has the floor and offers up a physical interpretation of the rhythm and flow of the music, after which another person builds upon what has just been performed. Accomplished freestylers typically don’t feel the need to outdo the last dancer, but instead try to incorporate and build upon what the previous dancer has performed. Ideally in freestyling, there is a flow and connectedness among the dancers. Unlike freestyling however, a discussion will typically have a leader or facilitator to aid in this connectedness and flow, as well as the direction of the dialogue.
Leading a discussion that has a connectedness, flow, and direction can be challenging. Here are a few suggestions:
- If possible, begin with a provocative question to spark interest in the topic
- Don’t be afraid of silence – if you direct a new question at the group, wait 20 seconds before repeating or rewording your question (this will seem like a long time but it allows the students a chance to process the question)
- Alternatively, have the students begin by responding to a question in writing, share that writing with a partner, and then potentially share it with the entire group (it is not necessary to have every single person share their answers) – in the teaching method literature this activity is known as, ‘think-pair-share’
- If possible, arrange the physical environment in your room to reflect the participatory nature of your discussion; ideally, create a circle configuration with you as part of the circle, rather than behind the lectern – this emphasizes the democratic nature of the discussion and your role as facilitator not lecturer
- In large classroom settings, divide the group into smaller units; circulate from group to group in order to provide support and guidance when necessary; at the end of the session, have the units report the highlights of their discussion to the larger group
- Offer alternative perspectives throughout the discussion in order to challenge your students’ thinking
- As a source of discussion, integrate relevant problems to be solved by students
- During the discussion, encourage students to question and reflect upon their assumptions and perspectives.
Responding to students
The key to responding to students in a group discussion is careful listening followed by an acknowledgement of what has been said. Even if you don’t agree, students feel valued when their remarks are recognized.
Here are some specific strategies:
- If appropriate, commend the student, while trying to offer something specific about their comment: instead of, “Good comment,” try to add in your reasoning for why it was a good comment
- Mirror back what the student has said, either in their words, or the terminology of the field
- Copy the students’ ideas on the board or screen – not word for word, but as briefly as possible in order to capture the main point
- Be honest and constructive with your responses – if a comment appears to be off-topic, ask the student, in a respectful way, how this may connect with the previous comments or the larger topic (you will either be surprised by the link your student makes or you will have helped to get the conversation back on track)
- Don’t let a false statement go unchallenged, but try and do this in a tactful way: “I can understand why you might think this way, however…”
- Ask the student to clarify or repeat anything that you have not understood or ask other students to offer their interpretation
- When met with superficial comments, dig deeper by asking follow-up questions: “Could you say more about that?” “Give us an example that would illustrate this point.” “Could you explain a bit more about what you meant by…?”
- Try showing interest in what has been and look around the room, gesturing for others to respond
- Take this a step further by verbally encouraging other students to respond – ask them open-ended questions: “What do think about that idea?” “What could you add to that comment?” “What comes to your mind when you hear this?”
Adapted from Techniques for Responding (Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, para. 5)
Magna Campus Video and Supplemental Materials Resource
- Log on to UM Learn
- Under My Courses, select All Roles under Role, and All under Term.
- Scroll down to Development Courses and select The Centre – Magna Campus Resources
- Select Magna Campus > Open Menu > Seminar Libraries > 20-Minute Mentors
- In the search box, type in “How can I use discussion to facilitate learning?”
Whether discussions are planned for in class or online, there are some technologies that can help facilitate discussions. The group and discussion tool in UM Learn can be used to break the class into small groups to brainstorm and share ideas on the discussion question prior to class. Students can collaborate on notes taken both during and after the discussion has ended using Office 365. Visual Understanding Environment and Freemind can be used in situations whereby groups are brainstorming their ideas and drawing concepts maps related to the discussion topic.
Bligh, D.A. (2000). What’s the point in discussion? Portland, OR: Intellect Books.
Brookfield, S.D. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Forsyth, D.R. (2003). The professor’s guide to teaching: Psychological principles and practices. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Kustra, E.D.H. & Potter, M.K. (2008). Leading effective discussions. STLHE Green Guide 9. London, Canada: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.
Svinicki, M. & McKeachie, W.J. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco: Jossey-bass.