Many teachers at Cornell University
have greatly benefited from reading "FACILITATING DISCUSSION:
A BRIEF GUIDE" by Katherine K. Gottschalk, Director of Freshman
Writing Seminars, John S. Knight Writing Program, Cornell University.
This pamphlet is reproduced in its entirety, below, by permission
from the author.
WHAT IS A GOOD DISCUSSION?
Beginning the class
Closing the class
Techniques specifically aimed
at eliciting full participation
The excessive talker
GETTING STUDENTS TO TALK TO- AND ARGUE WITH-
USING SMALL GROUPS
Forming the small groups
Topics for small groups
OTHER IDEAS FOR INVIGORATING YOUR CLASS
Use visualization, drama
FINALLY- ARE YOU DOING AS WELL AS YOU THINK YOU ARE?
"SUGGESTED GUIDELINES FOR CLASSROOM
DISCUSSION" by Cynthia Nieb
I'd guess that many of us long to lead better discussions simply
because sitting in a class with silentor uninterested students
is so disheartening. We don't mean to lecture, but it's hard
to get students to talk, or at least to talk "well,"
and it's really easy to keep talking ourselves. Or perhaps in
our efforts to cover material and keep our courses tightly structured,
a good discussion rarely gets underway. We're unhappy; and our
students are bored.
A good discussion, of course, serves more than our own self-satisfaction.
When students consider themselves to be participants, they learn
more (even if coverage is less), and they take pride in what
they learn. Discussion, because it helps students to become personally
involved in their education, helps them toward important goals.
Through discussion they may become not just ready receptacles
for our wisdom but active participants in learning how, for instance,
to evaluate a theory or synthesize approaches. They can develop
new interests, figure out what they believe, or don't believe,
and, in general, gain confidence in their intellectual abilities.
Far too often students do little questioning in our classes,
and less tough thinking. Discussion can help them learn how to
WHAT IS A "GOOD" DISCUSSION?
When worrying over our leadership abilities, it may be helpful
to recognize that we probably don't want to elicit just one kind
of "good" discussion. Not every class will necessarily
consist only of students engaged in animated self directed conversation.
How frequently do we have intense, intellectual hour-long conversations
with our best friends? We shouldn't be surprised if such conversations
are harder to achieve with a class of seventeen students, or
that when we do achieve them, the topics sometimes drift just
as aimlessly as our own conversations may, and drift in ways
that don't best serve educational goals.
The needs of students and of the subject are often better
served by varying the kind of discussion and the kinds of participation
in class activities. On any one day, especially in a seventy-five
minute class, we may well plan on varying the pace and nature
of activities, with a range that may include student-led discussion,
dialogue with the teacher, and small group work. Sometimes, or
even often, we may deliberately absent ourselves from a conversation,
encouraging students to take over. For some purposes we as teachers
may take a very central role: if I want students independently
to analyze the style of each other's essays, I first help them
study style, using investigations and presentations in which
I'm centrally involved. But I can help everyone to participate
freely and happily in this process. What follows in this essay
are ideas for encouraging full and fruitful participation the
suggestions vary in their usefulness depending on 1) the kind
of situation you are encountering in your class and wish to work
on (e.g., a too talkative student), 2) the kind of discussion
you're interested in cultivating, and 3) your educational goals.
And remember that not every suggestion is a cure-all for daily
use (I wish even one were): some, for instance, act as spot remedies,
others may serve as one-time catalysts for change.
Good discussions of any kind generally depend on a class's
developing a comfortable esprit de corps. Here are some suggestions
,or getting an appropriate ambiance established.
Students need to know each other's names (it goes without saying
that you need to learn them, too).
For the first few meetings students can put name cards in
front of their places: you can provide these inexpensively on
8 x 11 paper folded in three with the first names written in
bold felt-tip pen. If you're bad with names, this strategy is
I generally do a few "getting to know each other"
routines: on the first day students meet in groups of three and
then introduce each other. On that day and for a week or two
thereafter, the students and I see who can name every person
in class. During the semester, to get a class warmed up you can
have three or four students write their names on the board and
then say something about their names. Set the model by speaking
about your own name first.
Because I distribute handouts at almost every class, I get
to know students by putting each individual's name on a handout.
As I distribute them, I'm forced into learning who's who.
Make sure students can see each other; don't let anyone sit on
the fringes-pull loners in and insist on everyone's adjusting
chairs to accommodate all members of the class. If "bad"
combinations of students develop, re-arrange seating (for example,
have students count off to four or five for small group work:
all l's work together, all 2's, etc. Then keep the seating arrangement).
I often take the trouble to get to class early and make sure
that there are enough chairs, suitably arranged in a small circle
Think about where you sit: Do you sit apart from the class,
distancing yourself, or do you join the group? It's a good idea
to vary where you place yourself: rapport can develop most with
those students to whom you are physically closest--or you may
overlook the person immediately to your right. Sometimes you
can also control disruptive students more easily by sitting right
next to or near them; you can also sit between two students
who whisper or create other disturbances-generally a first-semester
hangover from high school. Students also develop rapport by shifting
their seats rather than clinging to one dependable friend.
Beginning the class
The first few minutes of a class can be the most awkward, especially
at the beginning of the semester. So plan some good first moves:
*Hand back papers and give the students time to ask you questions.
*Have students discuss comments they've made on each other's
papers since the last class.
*Check in with each other: this technique is especially valuable
for Tuesday/Thursday classes, for which there's quite a big gap
over the weekend. Have people say a few words about what's been
going on in their lives. You can include everyone, or just let
those people speak who feel like it.
*The "discuss-your-name" game described above is a
surprisingly engaging warm-up activity.
* Some teachers recommend gentler, quieter ways to get the attention
and include everyone, or just let those people speak who feel
*The "discuss-your-name" game described above is a
surprisingly engaging warm-up activity.
*Some teachers recommend gentler, quieter ways to get the attention
and, ambiance of the class established in those first minutes:
to greet students when they come in, put up a picture related
to your topic for the day; play a piece of music; write a quotation
or question on the board that students will read and then discuss
or write about.
Closing the class
Like a fine essay, a fine discussion should come to a fine ending.
Don't let students end your class for you by starting to load
up their backpacks. Keep track of the time and bring the session
to a fitting close. One good way to conclude is with a final
bit of writing: give students five minutes to enter an observation
about the class into their notes, or to write you a brief note
asking a question or commenting on the day's activities. Collect
these as they leave. In general, if students observe that you
structure classes carefully and capably bring each class to an
appropriate conclusion, they will remain attentive participants
In the course of time every teacher experiences the class
in which only two or three students willingly talk; or you have
a semester in which one student dominates the conversation; or
another student will not participate. Occasionally your class
may consist of seventeen students of whom only one is a man,
or a woman, or an African-American, or
Asian-American. What to do?
Techniques specifically aimed
at eliciting full participation
Despite what your instincts may tell you, most students much
prefer that teachers insist on participation rather than letting
one or two students dominate while the rest drowse, and most
do not mind your calling on students. They do mind being bored,
and being silent. (I get my evidence from having read stacks
and stacks of evaluations. I have yet to read a complaint about
a class in which the teacher insisted on active participation.)
To prepare students for general discussion, I've finally learned
that it's wise in the first few weeks of a semester to have students
actually discuss the nature of a good discussion. Is it helpful
to be the only person talking? How ran a person who talks easily
encourage others to talk? What role do listening and asking questions
play in a conversation? Can a good discussion occur if students
only praise each other for fear of hurting feelings? What kinds
of responses make people feel bad? If you want to disagree with
someone, can you acknowledge and explore his or her point of
view before trying to demolish it? To whom should students address
themselves? (Remind students that they should often address the
class, not just you, that they should ask each other questions,
and in general should follow-up each other's comments, rather
than leaving that job to you.)
*It's easy to plan questions that automatically include everyone.
At the beginning of a discussion, I often deliberately ask questions
that every student can and will have to answer, either with an
oral yes or no or with a show of hands.
* I also include in my plans questions or projects which will
systematically allow for brief contributions from all participants.
A simple and effective review exercise is to have every student
describe one thing he or she has learned from the day's/week's
/ semester's work. When I'm teaching a very short essay, I may
have every student read a paragraph aloud. (Surprisingly, this
routine is not boring; it also ensures that every student has
the text freshly in mind.) Every student can be asked to pinpoint
an important image or word or scene in a text being studied.
You'll think of round-robin tasks that make sense for the job
Some students may just be too shy to talk; others can't gear
up their nerves enough to utter that first word; others simply
have quiet conversational habits-in a room populated with students
used to barging in on or overlapping another person's last sentence,
these students don't stand a chance. Still other students may
think that everyone else in the room is better prepared or smarter
than they are and so they are afraid to speak up. (And some students
may indeed have weaker preparation, so this is a genuine problem.)
A few techniques, in addition to those described above, may help
to include these would-be reluctant participants. (A number of
these suggestions are designed with the teacher-directed discussion
*Wait. It's not wise to get in the habit of calling on the easy
talkers first. Keep looking around the room; call on someone
who is making non-verbal signals of readiness.
*When a student has talked, don't automatically be the first
respondent. Count to ten and see who else may speak up. Remind
students that they can ask someone else in the room, other than
you, to respond to their comments.
* Once a discussion gets going, try changing a speaker's opinion
into a question, which you then ask of the students who have
not been talking. Or ask these non-participants if they know
of evidence which supports opinions being offered.
*A truly shy student can usually read aloud just fine; remember
this person when you need to have a paragraph or handout read.
* If you have had all students write an in (or out of) class
response to a text or problem, take this occasion to pick non-participants
to read aloud what they have written. The words are already formulated.
Students who find the class difficult can also more easily be
drawn into participation on these occasions.
*Quiet students may sometimes be the best observers and note-takers.
Choose one to act as class recorder of a discussion; he or she
can read aloud the notes later. If you ask for a summary of the
previous class at the beginning of a session, or for a summary
of the day's discussion, again try calling on the student who
usually doesn't participate; he or she will certainly have material
*If you get an entire class of quiet students, discuss the
situation with them and have them come up with their own ideas
for increasing participation. Then systematically use their ideas.
*Of course, sometimes it's helpful to talk with individual
shy students outside of the class about methods for his or her
inclusion. Discuss whether the student feels comfortable talking;
would he or she like to be called on? Emphasize that this is
the student's class too, and you'd like to make sure he or she
is getting the most out of the experience that he or she can.
The excessive talker
Many of the above methods control the excessive talker by dint
of including other students. But here are further ideas:
*Talk to the student outside of class. Make it clear that,
like most people, you value the student who listens well, who
asks good questions of other students, or who is sensitive to
the needs of others in the class.
*Silence the excessive talker by putting him or her into the
role of discussion recorder: he or she must simply observe and
record; he or she cannot talk until handing in (or giving) the
*The bouncing ball (but try some other odd object, such as
a candy bar): The person talking holds the ball When done, she
throws it to the next person she wishes to speak. No one can
speak unless holding the ball (including the teacher). This same
procedure can be accomplished without the ball: each speaker
must call on the next speaker. This rather silly sounding technique
actually works quite well in some classes; it has the added advantage
of getting quieter students to participate. Used as a surprise
maneuver, it may get the discussion ball rolling (sorry; blame
Jonathan Monroe for this pun).
* Another silly-sounding but effective game to try on an unresponsive
or shy class (know yourself, know your class-and be brave): give
everyone six to ten rubber bands, pretzels, paper clips, or chocolate
chips (i.e., any cheap small object). Each time a person speaks,
he must throw a rubber band into the center of the table. When
students have used up their pretzels (or eaten them), they can't
talk anymore, until everyone is done. You can then issue a fresh
supply if the talk needs to go on. Again, the technique encourages
quiet students while you controlling overly talkative ones. And
again, it's not something you'd do every day!
*Have the class discuss who is talking, who isn't, what changes
they would like, and how they might achieve them.
* If the one or three students who dominate a discussion are
not elbowing others into silence and are making valuable contributions,
and if you're finding other activities to help the rest of the
students participate each day in some way, relax. You're doing
what you can; so are your students.
Minorities / women
Sometimes we and our students inadvertently trip into what would
appear to be rather obvious traps. A few "do's and don't":
*Don't make the one woman/man/African-American/Asian in your
class responsible for reporting on "the woman's/man's/African-American's
etc., point of view." The ignorance of the rest of the class
is not that person's responsibility. Nor is it the job of that
person to report on "the" view (should there be such
a thing) of a group to which she or he happens to belong. It's
more than dismaying to hear stories such as that of a student-the
only woman in the group-who was routinely asked, in the last
ten minutes of class, for the feminist position on the subject
discussed. This after having been ignored during the rest of
* Don't stereotype your students and therefore your expectations
of them. The color of a person's skin does not determine his
talents, his personality traits, or how he will participate in
class. Don't inadvertently pre-tailor your own responses.
*Don't presume to know your students' backgrounds because of
their names, skin colors, or college affiliations (to name a
few possibilities). Don't assume they want everything about their
backgrounds known and that you are free to inquire; on the other
hand, don't assume they don't want to share their culture. And
don't assume everyone shares your cultural heritage: not all
students, for instance, are as intimately acquainted with the
Adam and Exe creation story as you perhaps are.
* Do think about how you respond to students in your class and
how they respond to each other. Sometimes it's a good idea to
have an up-front discussion of factors that can influence the
workings of a classroom conversation. How can you and your students
respect different styles and approaches rather than silencing
them? It's common, for instance, for a group to value the contributions
of men but not of women-a woman makes a comment and gets no response;
ten minutes later a man makes the same comment and everyone applauds.
(As a teacher, you may want to be aware that studies reveal a
tendency for teachers to praise women for a response and let
it go at that, but to challenge men and make them produce more.)
Men also tend to be more confrontational in conversation, while
women tend to take a more cooperative approach. Men also may
dominate a discussion: if this starts to happen, the class will
probably need to discuss the situation and decide on ways to
resolve it. A relatively minor but interesting point: in some
parts of the U.S., it's common to enter a conversation by overlapping
the last speaker's words; students accustomed to waiting for
a pause can be effectively excluded.
Students benefit from advice about how to conduct themselves
when they are discussing sensitive matters. Cynthia Nieb, an
experienced teacher of Freshman Writing Seminars, many of which
have concerned controversial topics, developed the appended 'Suggested
Guidelines for Classroom Discussion." These or similar "Guidelines"
might be useful as a handout in your class. They should be accompanied
by (frequent) discussion and review.
*Do consider how you will respond if a student makes a racist/sexist/
homophobic,or other discriminatory commentor uses an expression
or behaviour you abhor. While these situations are never easy,
this is not a time to reveal the temperature change under your
if only because anger is rarely an effective teacher, and you
especially want to be an effective teacher at this juncture.
Will you be happy ignoring such an episode? If not, a simple
response may be an effective first step: "I believe that
to be a mistaken way to speak/think about ....
It may be effective first to distance the student from the
comment, which you can then address. For instance, you might
recast a sexist comment by beginning "It's common for people
to say that... People often say that... I've heard other people
say that." Then you can address the comment, having put
it into a new context. Another possible response to an offensive
joke or comment is to 'put the joker on the spot by pretending
not to understand, and asking the person to repeat or explain
the joke, which probably won't sound funny the second time."'
If you're comfortable with the kind of conversation that may
ensue, you can ask the class to respond to the comment: "How
do you see J.J.'s opinion?" "Do you agree with M.M.'s
argument?" You also want to make your own position clear
(the power of the example you set is not to be underestimated),
while at the same time indicating respect for the student's right
to express opinions of even a discriminatory sort.
If follow-through on a situation seems desirable and you can't
think of an immediate strategy, give yourself time to consult
other teachers and figure out a good teaching plan. There's always
the next class, and in any case learning with further activities
on the subject, just to be sure I do understand the situation.
Some teachers carry with them expectations about the "level"
of a student or class that shapes their treatment of it; or they
may prefer to ask safe
"right or wrong" questions which will elicit "right
or wrong' responses and then be upset by the student who doesn't
fit into this mold. Are you squelching a student because she
gives answers that differ from those you hoped to elicit? Are
her answers actually "bad'?
Good discussion sessions are usually the result of good preparation-
yours and the students'.
If you've chosen readings that set out a debate, you and your
students will start with the advantage of having an issue to
consider. But if your readings seem purely informative, or if
they present only one side of an issue, your students and you-may
have trouble finding good discussion material. Good preparation
can start, then, with your presenting genuine puzzles to the
class. Look for a crux, a dilemma, a problem, a paradox, a contradiction
between two thinkers on a subject. You know the issues in your
own field that warrant discussion. Have you given your students
suitable material for genuine discussion? Make sure students
are aware of the issue you're focusing on, the problem; make
sure that inquiry occurs.
As students become more sophisticated in your field, they
can increasingly search for its puzzles themselves. Get students
to provide the questions that ought to be discussed on a topic
and then discuss which questions are most valuable and in which
order they ought to be taken up. It's important to have students
learn how to ask questions, and which questions to ask. Questions
lie at the heart of a discipline.
Clearly, it helps to define your goals and the kinds of discussion
that will achieve them: do you want argument? Do you want students
to present information; compare concepts; criticize? In-class
preparation may include defining needed concepts and terms. Preliminary
brainstorming sessions on a topic can be valuable; they can be
student led. Use the blackboard and/or a student recorder.
Preparation for a good discussion may also well include starting
with material from students' own experiences and interests. This
immediate connection can make the rest of the study more accessible
as well as more valuable. For example, before conducting a discussion
of Lear, students can do some informal writing about their sibling
relationships (a really torrid topic for many freshmen) and/or
relationships with their fathers (it's important to offer options
so that students without fathers or siblings are not put into
awkward situations). Or students might write about and discuss
the role and treatment of old people in the U.S.-the topic should,
obviously, depend on the intended approach to the play.
Here are some matters to consider:
Kinds of questions to ask
It's much easier, and much more automatic, to ask information-seeking
or "yes/no" questions than to formulate questions that
help students to think and that provoke a conversation. Unfortunately,
a series of information-seeking questions is highly unlikely
to stimulate either good thinking or good discussion.
So work out your goals before entering the classroom: do you
wish to encourage students to synthesize ideas from different
readings? to encourage comparison? to stir up criticism? to have
students apply ideas to experiences drawn from outside the texts?
What questions will lead to these ends? Some questions may better
be provocative and open-ended: questions with no right answer,
they're designed to set loose a free-for-all. Perhaps you in
fact wish to elicit information or to test how well your students
are reading. Then you will indeed need questions that elicit
information and that have yes and no answers.
It's not easy, especially during the first years of teaching,
to ask questions that will achieve your goals; it's critical
to prepare your questions in advance of class-and to be clear
about your goals.
*If you use a specialized vocabulary, don't assume your students
understand you. Run checks to discover which terms are specialized
as far as your students are concerned.
*What do you do if students look blank when you have just asked
a question? You can try rephrasing it, to clarify your meaning
or to explain your vocabulary. Be wary: your rephrasing may just
throw further confusion on the original question; and you may
end up asking so many questions the students don't know where
to begin or what you want. Wait, therefore, before rephrasing
to see if you really need to do so.
* Keep the topic of your question focused. An essay assignment
four or five (seemingly) equally weighted questions usually elicits
poor essays: a barrage of questions in the classroom usually
elicits silence, as students wonder where to begin or "what
Appropriate behaviors for the teacher
If you want students to answer questions, and to talk with each
other, it's a good idea to keep an eye on your own behavior.
* Avoid habitually answering your own questions. Students will
get in the habit of letting you do so.
* Wait for responses. Allow at least ten seconds after you or
a student has asked a question. Give students time to reflect.
*When students do respond, listen to what they say; don't focus
only on your own goals and on the (perhaps tiny) part of the
student's response that applies to that goal.
*Act as mediator/facilitator: summarize, organize, re-direct;
keep the question or problem in view; keep order. Keep a written
record of students' contributions and questions on the board.
*Welcome disagreement. Handle disagreements creatively to lead
to learning-disagreement is a normal and even desirable academic
behavior. Your positive handling of disagreement can help students
learn how to disagree agreeably and without fear or anger.
*Challenge students to perform well, but don't put one student
interminably on the spot; encourage other students to leap in
when they can help someone out.
Ways to follow-up on what students say
*Ask the student why she has made a certain response
* Ask the student to provide evidence, or can the student provide
*If necessary, ask the student to clarify his response.
* Or when in doubt about what the student has said, paraphrase,
or get another student to do so.
*Try referring to your own experience to help draw out students
and make them comfortable.
·*Teach other students to provide the above kinds of follow-up.
*A student presents an opinion that you consider anathema. How
do you respond without discouraging the student from full and
free participation, but also without seeming to agree with what
the student has said? Sometimes in our efforts to acknowledge
a student's position, we lead other students to conclude that
we agreed with it. In a small discussion class, you can encourage
the rest of the class to take up the topic: often other students
will do the work of critical analysis for you. If you remain
on the spot as respondent, keep in mind that giving air-time
to a position repugnant to you on one day doesn't mean that you
can't come back to it on the next. Then you can compliment the
student by virtue of reopening the matter, but you can present
your own position. Students quite reasonably expect to learn
not just about the opinions of their peers but about the results
of their teachers' carefully considered thinking. Obviously,
if you take students with you through your thinking process,
so much the better.
Ways not to respond to students
*Never respond with ridicule, sarcasm, or with a heated, emotional
*Don't interrupt; let students finish Give them time to complete
*"Good point, but . . . . " This response resembles,
"This is an interesting essay, but . . . . " Try to
respond positively to each student's comments, if only to rephrase.
Then pose your criticism. Or redirect the response to another
student: other students often do the job of criticism quite well.
* Avoid responding routinely with evaluation, with judgment:
"Good." "That's right." Avoid developing
a formulaic response. (This is really hard!) You'll stay fresh
if you try to pick up on the interesting part of a student's
comment. Provide positive re-enforcement for the student as a
ideas, not just as someone who provides right and wrong answers.
(If you ask only "right and wrong" questions, you'll
have trouble with this aspect of humanizing your responses to
students. Answers to information questions do indeed merit strong
evaluative feedback: Exactly!)
Responding to questions students ask
* Never put down a student's question or suggest in any subtle
way that the student was stupid or out of place to ask it. If
questions bother you, figure out why: are you afraid you'll lose
control of the class? That you won't know the answers? That you
won't complete your class plan?
If the questioner is routinely a trouble-maker, talk to him or
her out of class. In class, you can put off the question: the
other students also know a trouble-maker when they see one, and
they won't appreciate your spending a lot of time on a question
that shouldn't have been asked.
* Respond positively to questions. If you re-direct a question,
make sure that it gets answered, and that the student won't feel
you ignored her.
* Feel free to admit your ignorance if you get a question you
can't answer or that you need time to answer-model what you hope
students will do when they, too, are stymied. Unless you downright
grovel, students won't take your admissions of ignorance as a
sign of incompetence; usually, they won't even believe your admission.
* If questions move the discussion into new areas, say so, and
then decide whether or not to go there. Use your role as facilitator
GETTING STUDENTS TO TALK TO-AND ARGUE
WITH - EACH OTHER
More often than not students talk mostly to the teacher, because
the teacher wants to do most of the talking. It takes an effort
to change this pattern,
but there are ways to do so.
*Try looking at other students while one student speaks-to
encourage the speaker not to look just at you. Ask students to
look at each other. When a
student has finished speaking, don't respond immediately. Wait
for other students to speak; look around as if you expect them
to do so.
* Re-direct questions students ask you to other students.
*Have students provide the evidence for a student's opinion.
* Have students ask each other questions in response to what
has been said. Have students learn what kinds of questions they
can ask of each other.
*Be personal. Make a point of referring back to points made by
individual students in the class. "Judy suggested that";
"But Walter argues . . . ."
*Find out if everyone actually agrees. This is best done in writing:
students who don't agree haven't chosen to speak up. But they
may be thinking up. I recently heard one student explain that
she never speaks up in class because her ideas are so different
from everyone else's. It didn't occur to her that hers are probably
the very ideas the teacher is hoping for. It's our job to stir
such students into speech.
*Help students to see conflict as a good thing and learn ways
to disagree without being harmful. They can learn to first acknowledge
and analyze what the person with whom they disagree means before
beginning their own critical analysis. Also help students learn
to address not personalities but the issues: "That idea
suggests that. . .", rather than "you are. . . ."
Bring conflict into the open and work on it. What are the issues?
What can be argued, and how? Be direct in taking on conflict
and helping students learn to make the most of it: "Let's
figure this out." "How can we resolve this?" "Let's
work this through carefully and clearly." If several students
appear to be stuck in an argument or present conflicting opinions,
ask other students to help resolve the seemingly irreconcilable
positions (it's tempting to take on this task yourself).
*Rotate the leadership of discussion to individual members of
the class. Be sure they receive their assignments well in advance
and that they've also received some advice from you about how
to do a good job. A preliminary conference may even be in order.
(Having students make presentations, by the way, encourages individual
participation but it doesn't necessarily encourage students to
talk with each other.)
* Act as facilitator-perhaps at the blackboard. Provide summaries,
and so on. Students will get used to you in this role, as someone
on the sidelines providing guidance, not as the major source
of energy. Having your back to the class while you take notes
at the blackboard can increase the volubility of students and
their willingness to talk directly with each other.
*If you are trying to be a complete non-participant, announce
that you will be the note taker; everyone else is to talk while
you listen and take notes for the class; you'll provide a summary
and comments when the discussion is over. Turn the discussion
over to the class, making dear that you won't be speaking for
ten or so minutes (or perhaps until you're invited to do so by
the class) . This is an excellent procedure to follow with fair
regularity. It's a good idea in the first weeks of the semester
to precede these "students only" discussions with a
review of discussion "rules' (that one person not dominate;
that they speak to each other, not to you; that they listen to
and ask each other questions, and so on). The class should also
have a clear understanding of the topic and purpose of the discussion,
and of course it must be adequately prepared in terms of subject
USING SMALL GROUPS
The use of small groups can be especially valuable: they're
resource for a shy teacher who doesn't desire the steady beam
of the limelight,
and they provide an excellent means to help students develop
a working rapport. All students (including the shyer ones) get
a chance to participate in desirable ways. Often excellent large-group
discussion follows preparation in the small groups. Some suggestions:
Be very clear in your own mind about what goals the small groups
are to achieve. Provide the groups with explicit, simple instructions
about the work they are to do and why they are to do it. Write
the instructions on the board or provide hard copies. Don't rely
on oral instructions. Follow-up on the work the small groups
have done, in a way which makes it clear how the work matters.
As the semester progresses and as students become accustomed
to certain kinds of small group work, you won't always need the
Forming the small groups
You can plan in advance who should work together; you can let
randomly form their own groups; later in the semester you can
ask students to
work with people they haven't worked with before; you can rely
and so on. Groups can range in size from two on up. Again, knowing
your own goals will help you to make these decisions. Sometimes
(especially at the beginning of the semester) assign roles to
individuals in each group (recorder, reporter, and so on).
Topics for small groups
Topics are limited only by your imagination and the demands of
your discipline. Some possibilities:
* Small groups may look for solutions to a problem; try to reach
on an issue; define a term; provide data or evidence for a position,
and so on. The groups then compare and evaluate their results;
conflicting "facts" will be of special interest. The
debate continues. You can record and moderate the discussion.
*Students may examine a text for various purposes: to examine
style, analyze imagery, compare what two writers say on a given
subject, and so on. Be explicit-have them make lists, prepare
written statements, and so on. Then use this material for discussion
with the entire class.
* Have students select significant quotations from the text being
studied; students can lead discussion of their own passages.
The class can examine which passages were selected, how they
fit together, and so on. (Most teachers of writing know that
most students need practice in learning how to find and use quotations.)
*Students may work together on improving sentences from student
*They may brainstorm together on the development of essay topics;
this is especially effective if you place students with similar
or identical topics together.
*Small groups provide an excellent situation in which to have
students read aloud their essays and receive comments on their
work. Students in small groups can also give each other suggestions
on drafts of essays; students take this work seriously,
and they value advice received at this early stage. At first
be sure to provide guidelines, in writing, for the work
to be done.
And so on and so on.
But remember: don't assume students already
know what they have come to class to
learn. If they've never commented on papers before, for
instance, make sure they learn with you what to do: how does
one analyze style? What is "voice"? what kinds of questions
does one ask about diction? argument? thesis? organization? evidence?
and so on. Explicit preparation and directions make the big difference
in the success with which small groups function.
OTHER IDEAS FOR INVIGORATING YOUR CLASS
AND FINALLY-ARE YOU DOING AS WELL
AS YOU THINK YOU ARE?
Don't forget to find out what students are really thinking-is
there hidden hostility about the way discussion works? Have students
check in with
you occasionally, in writing, for privacy. Mid-term evaluations
work well to find out what students think about the way the discussion
is going. Their impressions may differ from yours; and they may
have good advice.
You can also get other faculty to visit one or more of your
classes; each of us has accumulated expertise that we can (and
should) share with each other. It's
exciting, after all, to find new ways to interact with our students.
One of the great pleasures of teaching comes from the class
in which students have participated vigorously and usefully.
It's not always easy to help
this happen, but it's worth trying for, even with that class
of seventeen admittedly shy and retiring students. They'll appreciate
your help. If nothing else,
your efforts will show students that you care about them as thinking
That can be the most effective educational assistance of all.
SUGGESTED GUIDELINES FOR CLASSROOM
by Cynthia Nieb, History Department, Cornell University
Classroom discussions can elicit defensive, hurt feelings,
or they can help everyone to question and think through problematic
matters. Here are a few suggestions on how one can maintain a
discussion that is relatively 'hurt free."
1. When someone is speaking, that person has the floor. That
means the speaker has the right to "dominate" the conversation
until he or she yields that right and turns it over to somebody
2. Avoid discussing subjects about which you don't have adequate
information. You may bring up a controversial topic, but make
it clear from the beginning that you will be discussing attitudes
and FEELINGS (your own), not facts. The alternative is to do
some research on many sides of the issue, photocopy articles,
and share them with the class at a later time.
1. Try to refrain from giggling and making faces while someone
is talking. Most of the time, nervous laughter is a response
associated with the inability to confront difficult issues. What
it feels like to the person who 'has the floor" is another
matter. Whatever the source, laughing at a speaker is a sign
of disrespect and dismissal and should be avoided at all costs.
(The exception to this is when someone is telling a funny story.)
Scribbling notes to your other classmates while someone is speaking
sends the same message.
2. If you have something to say, wait your turn. Write your points
down on a piece of paper and bring them up later.
3.When thinking of responses, do not attack the speaker on personal
grounds. In fact, attacks of any kind are out of the question.
Poised argument is associated with clear thinking, not with insults.
For example, it is poor form to begin a sentence, "What
I think that you are trying to say is. . . ." The speaker
isn't "trying" to say anything: the speaker "said"
it. In addition, derogatory comments on the speaker's level of
intelligence, morals, dress, or looks are out of order. This
does not mean that you cannot ask open-ended questions.
4. If you are bored with someone's ideas or comments, you can
remark on them privately to your teacher in a letter or conference.
Don't announce in class that you've heard enough. Everybody thinks
that what they have to say is important, or they should. If you
want people to respect your time to speak, respect theirs.
1. When you begin to speak, be sure to let your listeners know
the context of your comments. Are your joking about this topic?
Is it something close to your heart? Have you had professional/volunteer
experience working on this subject? In other words, what is the
basis for your comments, and are you being a devil's advocate
(arguing the point for the sake of argument) or do you feel strongly
about your ideas?
2. Think about your sources. Are your comments stemming from
one personal experience? A political belief? Daily reading of
the New York Times? (Take into consideration the
political slant of the NYT.) An irrational prejudice?
Be honest with yourself and the class. If you do not do this
preliminary work, you should be prepared to be questioned by
colleagues on the validity of your argument.
3. At Cornell University, it is stressed that we should have
strong ideas. This can, however, contribute to hyperbole, blowing
things out of proportion to make a point. When ideas are not
identified as feelings or vague notions, and generalizations
are made as fact, you invite strong retorts, and you exhibit
poor judgment. For instance, what if I say, "All lesbians
really need to do is to become romantically-linked with a man,
and their problems will be solved"? Do I have the expertise
to be making such a statement? Did I do any reading on the topic?
Have I gathered any studies? Perhaps what is more irritating,
however, is the implied disgust associated with the comment.
What sorts of "problems" are lesbians supposed to be
and to have? Whose problems are they in actuality? If lesbians
don't desire "to change," isn't the problem the speaker's
inability to accept the lesbian? My point is that it might have
been better to say, "I'm confused. It seems to me that after
reading Nestle and Faderman, society (i.e., a great deal of heterosexual
society) sees lesbians as a problem. I don't see why lesbians
don't just give up and pair with a man. Why wouldn't this happen?
It seems to me that it might be. .. ."
The point of this handout is to reinforce the idea of discussion
as communication, not as an exercise in winning or shaming. It
is wonderful to think critically about belief systems and to
ask philosophical questions. What is not wonderful is when we
lose our dignity and respect for the person with whom we are
talking and instead talk AT them.
My thanks to Lauren Kiefen (TA, English) and Anne Mallory
(TA, English) for discussing this manuscript with me at an early
stage and providing fine ideas, through discussion and their
own example. I am also grateful to Jennifer Mohlenhoff (TA, Comparative
Literature) who read the manuscript, providing new ideas and
helpful advice, as did Mary Katzenstein (Professor, Government),
Jonathan Monroe (Professor, Comparative Literature), Lois Brown
(Professor, English), and Debra Castillo (Professor, Romance
Studies). I am indebted for inspiration and ideas (many of which
appear in this essay) to Jane Marie Law (Professor, Department
of Asian Studies), Keith Hjortshoj (John S. Knight Director of
Writing in the Majors), and Richard McNeill (Professor, Natural
Resources): the latter's demonstrations of effective discussion
methods made me re-enter the classroom, and this writing project,
with renewed vigor.
One text which acted as a useful resource and reminder of
important issues and methods was Classroom Communication:
Collected Readings for Effective Discussion
and Questioning, edited by Rose Ann Nee and Maryellen
Weimer (Madison, Wisconsin: Magna Publications, 1989).
And finally, my thanks to all those whose names don't appear
here but whose ideas have remained with me, unlabeled though
Last updated September 26, 2001
Comments, questions or new links? Contact Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org