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Discussions

Compiled by:
Doerte Peters (seecon international gmbh)

Executive Summary

Discussions are an important interactive tool, helping participants to review and more deeply understand the course material, which is often presented by ex-cathedra teaching. Furthermore, course participants can communicate and exchange their ideas and views. As discussions seem to be easy to stimulate but often fail to reach their targets, we will focus here on how to lead a discussion to a positive outcome.

Introduction

(Adapted from COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY n.y.)

 regiosuisse (2008)

Group discussions help to review and understand what was just learned. Source: REGIOSUISSE (2008)

Discussions add a personal dimension to the learning process within training. They stimulate participants to more actively engage with the course material and help developing their reasoning and communication skills. Helping participants to get a deeper understanding of material presented in ex-cathedra teaching (see also lectures), discussions allow them to exchange ideas and views. Furthermore, discussions encourage collaborative thinking and attune participants to a multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives (for special techniques see brainstorming and focus groups). Additional, the instructor can get prompt, continuous feedback on participants’ understanding or misunderstanding of the course material.

But even though it seems easy to “merely” discuss, successful discussions are hard to stimulate: Participants might tend to consider discussion inconsequential, the share speeches of participants might be very different, one person might become dominant within the discussion, etc.Thus, it is essential for the trainer of a course to ensure that the discussion is substantive and even shy people get a word in edgeways, which requires good preparation.

Preparation

(Adapted from TAKAYAMA 2009)

A good discussion needs to be well prepared. For your preparation, make sure you consider the things on the following checklist.

 

Did I…

 

  • Determine learners’ relevant experiences, needs, strengths, and interests?
  • Identify learning goals for the group (or identify learning goals with the group)?
  • Plan activities for the learners to prepare them for the discussion?
  • Read and reflect on the topics planned for the session?
  • Find or create appropriate resources?
  • Attend any relevant lectures or other sessions that the learners attended prior to the discussion (if appropriate)?
  • Identify and work on the understanding and skills I have for leading the session?
  • Develop a well-structured (yet flexible) plan for the session?

 

Initiating Discussions

(Adapted from THE FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY n.y.)

 

  • Develop a strategy for beginning the discussion and for restarting it if it stalls – e.g. sharing experiences about a field trip, reflecting on a lecture that was given etc. Open questions that are not too difficult to answer are good to initiate a discussion.
  • You could also start with a common experience, an open-ended question, a controversy, or a document or product to critique.
  • Offer an example if the problem seems too abstract.
  • Allow sufficient wait time.

 

The Role of Questions

(Adapted from THE FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY n.y.)

Depending on the level of the discussion, ask the following questions:

 

  • Comprehension: Retell
  • Application: How is … an example of…? How is … related to…?
  • Analysis: What are the parts of …? How would you compare/contrast …? What evidence is there for…?
  • Synthesis: What do you predict/infer…? How would you create/design …? What would the result be if you combined…?
  • Evaluation: What are your points of agreement/disagreement and why? What criteria would you use to …?

 

Guiding Discussions

(Adapted from UNSW n.y.; THE FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY n.y.):

 

  • Introduce yourself and state the purpose of the discussion.
  • Ask questions that promote and stimulate discussion.
  • Give and take control.
  • Move around the room.
  • Watch for non-verbal cues.
  • Make sure no one dominates the discussion by inviting and encouraging contributions from all participants.
  • Ensure only one member of the group speaks at a time.
  • Ensure the discussion remains relevant and doesn’t drift off topic.
  • Summarise the discussion (maybe take notes) afterwards and fill in points that have not been said.

 

Motivating Students to Participate

(Adapted from THE FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY n.y.)

 

  • Choose topics that capture attention and arouse curiosity.
  • State incentives to participate in discussions.
  • Be enthusiastic about the topic.
  • Make it relevant.
  • Organise the discussion.
  • Aim at an appropriate level of difficulty.
  • Actively involve students.
  • Plan for variety.
  • Demonstrate student – teacher rapport.
  • Use concrete, appropriate and understandable examples.
  • Consider what we may inadvertently do that destroys student motivation.

 

Common Problems and Solutions

(Adapted from COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY n.y.)

 

Students Direct all Answers to the Instructor:

 

  • Redirect questions to other students.
  • Ask whether everyone agrees.
  • Help students see conflict as a good thing.
  • Announce that you will be note-taker.
  • Break the class into small groups.

 

Non-Participating Students and Excessive Talkers:

 

  • Consider emailing discussion questions to the class ahead of time.
  • Pause before calling on a student.
  • Look for non-verbal signs of readiness to speak.
  • Turn statements into questions: Do you agree with that argument?
  • Ask non-participating students to sum up what's been said.

 

Instructor Dominated Discussions:

 

  • Avoid answering your own questions.
  • Be patient; wait for responses.
  • Be a moderator: summarise, re-direct, and keep the problem in view (see also facilitators role).

 

Recording Discussions

Discussions might lead to important outcomes. To record the outcomes of discussion, it can be advisable to have somebody take minutes. However, even better is to record discussions on coloured cards or -flipcharts . This allows others to follow what has been said, and allows to structure a discussion.

Applicability

When it comes to a group discussion, there is no such thing as "too much planning". The planning that you put into a group discussion will often be a reflection of the results. It is important for you to make sure the group is stimulated. A good moderator is someone who can listen and analyse the ideas that are brought up during the discussion. He should also be good at communicating with the participants.

Advantages

  • Provide for greater interaction between trainer and trainees
  • Trainers can check on what participants are retaining through questions posed
  • Tendency to stay focused on the topic because they might be called on to answer questions
  • More comfortable for participants asking questions during group discussions

Disadvantages

  • Require setting up and enforcing ground rules for participants. If these rules are not enforced then there is a possibility that the discussion could quickly go off-topic
  • Participants who are weak in note-taking skills will have trouble understanding what they should remember from group discussions
  • Some participants may not feel comfortable being put on the spot during a whole group discussion

References Library

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY (Editor) (n.y.): Leading Scintillating, Stimulating, Substantive Class Discussions. New York City: Columbia University - Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Centre. URL [Accessed: 19.04.2011]. PDF

TAKAYAMA, K. (2009): Self-Checklists for Facilitating Effective Group Discussions. Providence: The Harriet W. Sheridan Centre for Teaching and Learning - Brown University. URL [Accessed: 19.04.2011]. PDF

THE FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY (Editor) (n.y.): Leading Discussions Tip Sheet. Tallahassee: The Florida State University – Centre for Teaching and Learning. URL [Accessed: 19.04.2011]. PDF

UNSW (Editor) (n.y.): Discussion Skills for Tutorials and Seminars. Sydney: The University of New South Wales (UNSW). URL [Accessed: 28.03.2011].

Further Readings Library

Reference icon

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY (Editor) (n.y.): Leading Scintillating, Stimulating, Substantive Class Discussions. New York City: Columbia University - Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Centre. URL [Accessed: 19.04.2011]. PDF

This document is helpful when preparing a discussion. It includes many tips to finally succeed in leading a discussion.


Reference icon

PENN, A. (2005): Creative Group Discussions. University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture publications. URL [Accessed: 23.12.2010]. PDF

Giving ideas of steering up group discussions.


Reference icon

TAKAYAMA, K. (2009): Self-Checklists for Facilitating Effective Group Discussions. Providence: The Harriet W. Sheridan Centre for Teaching and Learning - Brown University. URL [Accessed: 19.04.2011]. PDF

This checklist is easy to use and very compact. It includes the most important things to consider when preparing and leading a discussion.


Reference icon

THE FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY (Editor) (n.y.): Leading Discussions Tip Sheet. Tallahassee: The Florida State University – Centre for Teaching and Learning. URL [Accessed: 19.04.2011]. PDF

This sheet concentrates on things to consider when actually leading a discussion. It helps finding adequate question for the best possible discussion outcome.


Reference icon

USERFIT TOOLS (Editor) (n.y.): Group Discussions. Tools and Techniques. New York: Userfit. URL [Accessed: 23.12.2010]. PDF

Provides the detailed description of Group discussions methods in training.


Important Weblinks

http://www.exforsys.com/ [Accessed: 23.12.2010]

Gives ideas on how to prepare for group discussions

http://712educators.about.com/ [Accessed: 23.12.2010]

Deals with training plans and training methods

http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/ [Accessed: 23.12.2010]

Gives ideas on how to prepare for group discussions

http://www.successcds.net/ [Accessed: 23.12.2010]

Gives ideas on how to prepare for group discussions