Even though discussions are commonly used in the classroom there is surprisingly little published information about the many critical aspects of good discussions - such as the type of material best suited for discussion, how to ask questions and include as much of the class as possible, how to direct the flow of questions and answers, and how to establish an encouraging and safe climate. This essay highlights some of these issues and directs you to more information in the resources section.
It makes sense that students are more likely to ask and address questions with teachers who are open, enthusiastic and encouraging, who select interesting and important material to discuss, and who are clear and organized. Classroom behaviors associated with supportive classroom environments include good rapport, clear speaking, stating objectives and summarizing information. Lowman (1984) lists these behaviors as critical: 1) being sincerely interested in the students, 2) encouraging students to express their feelings about assignments or other aspects of the course, 3) making it clear that student learning is very important to them, and 4) encouraging students to be creative and independent thinkers. As you read this list you will realize more clearly why leading good discussions is so hard!
Faculty can demonstrate their genuine interest in students by learning their names* (and joking about this if it is especially challenging for you); at the beginning of the semester asking them to give you information about prior courses, their major, or whatever is most important to you; reading papers or quizzes quickly and handing them directly to students in smaller classes; asking or even requiring office visits; immediately responding to formative evaluations such as minute papers.
The types of questions you ask are obviously of paramount importance. Ellner and Barnes (1983) videotaped 40 undergraduate faculty in a range of institutions and found that the average time given to student question-asking was about 5% of total class time. In addition, only one in five of these questions required higher-order thinking (e.g. analysis, synthesis, evaluation). Therefore, there was little opportunity for higher-order thinking and little was done. Given these statistics it is perhaps not surprising that undergraduates are not skilled at these more advanced intellectual activities.
Reading through Bloom et al's (1956) cognitive levels will help you design more intellectually stimulating questions: application ("how is __ an example of __?), analysis (compare/contrast __ to __), synthesis (what can you predict from ___), evaluation (what do you think about ___).
Bonwell and Eison (1991) identify three types of productive questions for discussion: 1) "playground" question — "Let's see whether we can make any generalizations about the play as a whole from the opening lines", 2) the 'brainstorm" question — "What kinds of things is Hamlet questioning- not just in his soliloquy but throughout the whole play"?, 3) the "focal" question — "Is Ivan Illych a victim of his society, or did he create his problems by his own choices?".
Bonwell and Eison (1991) also list these quite useful recommendations:
* One way to learn names (this especially works for "visual learners") is to have students write their name in large letters on a piece of file folder paper propped up in front of them (like the U.N.). You will probably need these labels for only a week or two. For medium sized classes, you might even try photographing your students using a digital camera while they hold up their name cards in view - then print out copies for every one to help you and them with names and faces. In huge classes some faculty ask students to hang their name-sheets around their necks with string, and then they use binoculars to read the names when calling on the student!