Teaching Students to Discuss

Discussions can be important learning activities for students, partly because they reflect how controversial topics are often addressed in the real world. Discussions encourage students to listen to others' ideas, articulate their thoughts, and support their opinions. Effective discussions, however, don't happen by accident. They require careful planning and implementation.

Ask students to prepare for discussions.

If students are to bring content knowledge to a discussion, along with their experiences and opinions, they need time to expand their understanding of a topic and form their own questions. Tasks that ask students to explore various aspects of a topic and different points of view help them bring new insights to a discussion.

Teach discussion skills.

A good discussion is a lively dance, made up of giving and taking, leading and following, and speaking and listening. Modeling specific discussion skills for students communicates the criteria for good discussions. Some skills that can be taught are:

  • Active listening
  • Asking good questions
  • Disagreeing agreeably
  • Summarizing, paraphrasing others' comments
  • Elaborating and extending peers' contributions
  • Open-mindedness

Assess discussion skills.

If a discussion is worthy of class time, it is worthy of assessment, both of quality of participation and learning. Many discussion skills can be assessed by teachers and/or peers.

For example, you can designate a few students to observe groups of students during a large- or small-group discussion. Ask the observers to note how often each person in their assigned group speaks. As students develop observation skills, they can also record other observations, such as body language and the type of student contributions. The data can be shared with either individual students or the whole class for reflection and goal-setting.

At the end of a discussion, students can self-assess their participation by responding to prompts:

  • How did I prepare for this discussion?
  • What was my level of participation?
  • What discussion skills do I need to improve?
  • What goals can I set for myself for the next discussion?

Assess content learning from a discussion.

Discussions are not just exercises in student interaction. They should have an impact on students' content learning as they think about new, unfamiliar, or contradictory information.

Journal writing is also an excellent method for students to expand on ideas they encountered during a discussion. Journals can also help students take charge of their learning by asking them to take responsibility for their own learning, with prompts such as:

  • What did I learn from this discussion?
  • What comments of my classmates made me think?
  • What did I do to ensure that I learned something from the discussion?
  • What can I do in the next discussion to improve my learning?

A great discussion is a dynamic learning event as well as a social experience. When students learn the skills necessary for effective participation and approach discussions as learning activities, their learning of content and communication skills is enhanced.

In December 2015, Peggy Grant joined our extended network of alumni.