As enrollment and class size increase, professors face more challenges in keeping students engaged. According to a study from the University of Sussex, students in large lectures become passive recipients of information because the fast-paced environment doesn’t give them an opportunity to actively engage with course content. Whether classes are in-person or online, professors are challenged with finding ways to empower students to take ownership over their own learning and relate course material to their lives.
After teaching psychology at the University of North Carolina Charlotte for 12 years, Dr. Kathleen West found that students who weren’t able to see how the material related to their other studies were the most disengaged students in the class. These students, who are often preoccupied with electronic devices and don’t utilize time outside of class to study or prepare for the course, can be challenging to reach.
One way Dr. West pulled her students away from their devices and into the classroom was by incorporating peer discussion. This interaction challenged students to explore the course content and formulate their own viewpoints. Dr. West used discussions to tie in relevant course information and help students make connections between their learnings, current events and their lives. Dr. West found that by opening up discussions and giving students an outlet to participate at their own pace, students engaged more in class and showed more of an interest to learn.
Benefits of Discussion
Improves critical thinking skills. Discussions encourage students to learn from one another and to articulate course content in their own words. The interactive dynamic of discussion challenges students to think critically about their questions, analyze responses from peers and can motivate them to take ownership of their learning. In order to lead meaningful discussions, professors should take the time to explain the value of discussion. Let students know why discussions are important and set clear expectations, so they don’t view the discussion as just another box to check. Dr. West emphasizes the importance of discussion every semester by sharing the similarity between a great question and the first three steps of the scientific method through making an observation, asking a question and forming a hypothesis.
Builds community. When students are encouraged to interact with their classmates, they’re more likely to build relationships and feel comfortable, especially in large classes where students aren’t able to interact as much with their peers. This helps students get to know their peers, and makes them more likely to speak up in front of the class by asking questions and joining the discussion. Encouraging a back-and-forth dialogue exposes the whole class to new insights, perspectives, points of views and personal stories from other students.
Creates new connections. When students interact with their peers, they build familiarity and become curious about their peers’ point of view. This curiosity helps students understand and connect material in new ways, driving interest in the subject matter. Their interest can grow outside of the core discussions and improve participation in other class activities and assignments.
Challenges to Discussions
Although discussions have many benefits, they can be a logistical nightmare. They are also dependent on students who often don’t feel like contributing, are unprepared or fail to respect or acknowledge differing viewpoints from their peers. These challenges become more apparent in larger courses where students may be uncomfortable speaking in front of large crowds and therefore resist participating in or preparing for the discussion.
Some of these challenges can be used as learning moments for students and different methods of discussion can help prevent some of the common problems such as administrative burden, quality of discussion and student participation. Taking the time to understand different discussion methods and how when they can be used will help transform these common challenges into learning moments and lead to impactful academic discussions in the classroom.
Tools and Methods for Implementing Discussion
Online Discussion Boards: A common concern for professors in large classes is that it seems impossible to facilitate discussions between hundreds of students and to encourage students to participate. Also, many students aren’t comfortable sharing opinions in front of the entire class. Online conversations give students a sense of anonymity and allow students time to prepare their thoughts, which results in more thought-provoking questions and responses. Some online discussions boards, such as Packback, even use artificial intelligence to help professors moderate posts and provide scalable feedback to students. This scales online discussion in any sized class and saves professors from spending endless hours reading and responding to individual questions.
Small Group Discussions: One way to bring in-class discussions to larger courses is with small groups. Break the class into manageable groups and assign each a topic or discussion prompt to help students get the conversation started. Have the students discuss and debate their ideas with one another. Then have one member of the group record and report learnings to the entire class so the students can hear a variety of opinions and thoughts. While students are discussing, professors can walk around the classroom to clarify any misunderstandings or answer any questions. This technique is great if the same group of students generally speak up in class and encourages shy students in large classes to participate.
Role Playing: In smaller classes, role playing is a great way to grab students’ attention. To facilitate a role play, a professor creates a scenario and assigns roles for students to portray. This technique helps students look at concepts from varying viewpoints and develop new insights into the subject. This activity works best for small courses where the entire class can watch each group act out a scenario.
Debates: Debates can work in any sized classroom, especially when discussing controversial topics. The class, either as a whole or in smaller groups, splits into opposing sides and works to construct reasoned arguments that address the subject and also consider points from the other side. If time allows, encourage students to debate opposing sides. This will help students understand opposing viewpoints and will strengthen their ability to build solid arguments.
Discussions can be easily implemented into a course without completely restructuring how the class is run. Encouraging students to have conversations about class material helps them make connections, improves critical thinking and builds community. Interested in learning how various discussion platforms compare? Check out University of Georgia professor Dr. Matt Goren’s case study comparing how three discussion methods affect student learning outcomes.
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