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Often we want students to interact with each other and the concept or practice they are learning about, and we expect that this will take place during class discussions. The ideal is that students will ask and attempt to answer questions, raise issues, and even debate one another, with the instructor in the role as facilitator and guide. But we know in many cases, this isn’t what happens. Questions meant to provoke discussion are met with blank stares and averted eyes. How do we get the discussion really going in the classroom with our students?
Be sure that you are clear with the students at the beginning of the semester that there will be a discussion component, and that they will be expected to participate. It takes time for students to develop a level of comfort with the instructor and each other in order for them to more willingly participate in a discussion, so be consistent and be persistent in your practice. Also, discuss early on what consists a good discussion and ask the students what they need in order to be able to feel comfortable participating and voicing their concerns. Be prepared to mediate difficult or awkward moments in those discussions and work to make sure the classroom is an inclusive space.
Think of ways to ease the students into larger conversations using such techniques as the “Think-Pair-Share”, where students first respond in writing to a prompt, share their views with a smaller group, and then share it with the entire class. You might have students do the thinking/writing part before coming to class, in an online forum or setting, so that you can read their thoughts ahead of time and use their own words to prompt discussions. But be sure to listen to your students, limit your own interjections and observations, to allow the students the space to speak.
Too often, we can’t stand silences, or we are too used to lecturing, to allow for the discussion to take place organically. In the book Tools for Teaching, available through the CELT library, there is an excellent section on encouraging class discussions. The book Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms is also available and provides a much more in-depth look at fostering in-class discussions. As well, we have the book Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging in Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education for instructors to consult.
A series of advise posts on leading discussions: http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/tag/discussion-leading/
A roundup of blog posts from ProfHacker on in-class discussions: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/from-the-archives-on-classroom-discussion/26716
On creating a more inclusive classroom, including class discussions: http://www.crlt.umich.edu/gsis/p3_1