Leading Discussion


Group discussion in the classroom can enhance learning by giving students the opportunity to formulate, express, adapt, and defend their ideas. Students participating in discussion are active participants in the learning of course content and oral communication competencies. A brief overview of techniques for effective discussion follows. For additional resources, you may contact Prof. Claire Deal in the Ferguson Center For Public Speaking.

Guidelines for Facilitating Discussion

1. Arrange your classroom to encourage discussion--arrangements such as semicircles, three sided arrangements, or horseshoe arrangements allow for more eye-contact among students and the instructor and prevent students from "hiding" in the back of the row as sometimes happens in the more traditional classroom arrangement.

2. Start the discussion with a common experience, such as an excerpt from the required reading, a short film clip, a quotation, etc. Before you begin the discussion, you may ask students to write their reactions in a short journal entry. This will allow students to focus on the task at hand as well as provide them with something to add to the discussion.

3. Begin the discussion with an open-ended question that probes for students' reactions or perceptions, not with a question that seeks a "right or wrong" response.

4. Encourage students to talk to one another, not to direct all responses to you. Resist the urge to comment on each student's response. Instead, encourage your students to respond to one another's ideas.

5. Ask questions that require a range of critical thinking. For example, in addition to questions that require students to demonstrate knowledge and comprehension of material, pose questions that require students to apply their knowledge in new situations. Questions that require students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate course content are very effective in stimulating class discussion.

6. Wait. Teachers on average wait less than 1 second between asking a question and then moving on in their presentation. Give students time to think -- a minimum of five seconds.Resist the urge to answer your own question; rephrase the question for the student if needed to encourage a response.

7. Teach students selected roles that discussion participants may take. This tactic gives even unprepared students an opportunity to participate in the discussion -- for example, they may coordinate the ideas of others, or serve as the gatekeeper to keep communication open. Instruct students to summarize the comments of the previous speaker and then to continue the discussion by choosing one of the roles below. This technique may seem forced at first, but students generally pick up on it quickly and it soon becomes natural and spontaneous.

Coordinator: Shows the relationship among group participants' ideas

Elaborator: Expands on the comments of the previous speaker

Energizer: Stimulates the group to engaging in higher quality activity

Evaluator/Critic: Gives a critical analysis of a suggestion or idea

Information Giver: Offers facts or opinions that relate to the discussion

Information Seeker: Asks the group for additional information or clarification

Initiator/Contributor: Proposes tasks, goals, or actions of the group

Orienter/Clarifier: Helps to keep the discussion on track

Encourager: Offers respect of other points of view

Gatekeeper: Encourages all group members to participate

Harmonizer: Reduces tension in the group and invites people to explore differences

Benne, K. and P. Sheats. "Functional roles of group members." Journal of Social Issues 4 (1948)41-49.