Real World Model of Classroom Discussion

Real World Model of Classroom Discussion


Developed by Terry Doyle, Ferris State University, Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning


What if we never made students who did not want to speak do so? Can you imagine letting someone get a college education and never having them speak in class? Should we also not make them take tests or write papers?

Recitation vs. Discussion

Recitation, by far the more common practice, tends to be a controlled series of exchanges in which teachers lead students to a pre-ordained conclusion. 

 Discussion, on the other hand, occurs when information is freely exchanged between three or more participants; it is marked by an absence of teacher “test questions.” Language and Learning in the English Classroom (New York: Teachers College Press), Martin Nystrand


Key Issues Affecting Classroom Discussion

1.      Students need to be educated in how to engage in discussion

2.      Students need to be educated in how discussion creates learning

3.      Students need a classroom safe for sharing and testing  of their ideas

4.      Students need some control of the discussion guidelines

5.      Discussion activities must be graded as a sign of their value—the grade must be a meaningful part of the overall course grade.

6.      Students must see a real world application to discussion—both knowledge and skill



Real World Application of Discussion


Selling the Students on the Importance of Discussion


1. Allowing students the choice to not learn how to express and defend their views orally would be no different then allowing them to choose not to write a paper or take a test. Not knowing how to express your ideas in the work place can be career threatening.



2. Students need to learn that their ideas, suggestions, questions or concerns will not be heard in the world of work if they wait to be called upon.


3. Getting the attention of the leadership at any level will depend on learning to offer your ideas, suggestions etc. voluntarily



4. Learning to orally express one’s ideas or values precisely is a vital skill needed for success in the world of work.



5. Students need to understand that one of the most important aspects of college learning is hearing the different views of their peers—it is a major way they develop and refine their thinking.



6. Learning to defend a point of view, accept and give criticism and adapt or rethink a position are key skills for anyone who will work in real world. Learning how to do this is crucial to being well educated.


Brain Research and Discussion

From the Art of Changing the Brain, James Zull, 2002

There are four areas that concern our brain as it constantly works to survive


    • Cognition
    • Control
    • Pleasure
    • Fear

These all converge in classroom discussion


  • The learner’s brain is always seeking to be in control –the brain will choose to learn what it sees as important to learn—it doesn’t just learn something because we say it is important


  • Learners need to have some control of their learning—some say in what they learn and in the rules-policies and procedures that guide their learning—otherwise their brain may feel it is not safe to participate.


  • Control promotes a sense of safety—dismissing the fears the brain may have about sharing its ideas—this is where community in the classroom comes in as well


  • The pleasure portion of discussion is the action of sharing, defending, arguing, forming new insights, new ideas—these actions are all front brain activities –and this is where many of the pleasure centers of the brain are located( James Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain, 2002)


  • Action—Movement = Pleasure


  • Classroom discussion is one of the key tools teachers can use to have students test their learning—“learning without testing is incomplete”
  • Alfred North Whitehead put it “ you have inert ideas”


  • When students present their ideas they are changing the abstract into the concrete—mental ideas into physical events—they are completing the learning cycle


  • Testing of ideas brings clarity—being precise helps a learner to see the details of her thinking—to see what might be missing



  • Discussion gives students feedback on the validity of their ideas—“theories are just theories until they are tested” ( James Zull)


  • Without testing our ideas we can not say that we have learned—many times learners have been led to believe that the answer is the goal –even if it is reached without knowledge or understanding


  • Only through expression of a learner’s ideas (orally or in other forms) can we see how the learner has understood—how he/she have reached their answer

(Reference—James Zull, the Art of Changing the Brain, 2002)


Experts, it seems may become experts because of the freedom they feel to question and think in creative ways. Happily, teachers can encourage such creative freedom in thinking by presenting what they know as an interim report in an on going inquiry, which is acknowledging the larger uncertainty that surrounds the process of knowing.

(Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness 1989)



Valuing Discussion in the Classroom

Discussion activities must be graded as a sign of their value—the grade must be a meaningful part of the overall course grade.


Oral participation needs to be graded—grading indicates it has value to the learning in the class just like writing papers or other activities that aid in the learning process


Students need to understand that not sharing (not participating) is unacceptable as it diminishes the learning of the group—their ideas are part of the content of the class



Teaching Students How to Participate in Discussions (Linda Nilson, Teaching at Its Best A Research Based Resource for College Instructors. 1998)



Teachers need to make crystal clear the importance and value that they place on students’ participation and discussion—that discussion is where information important to the course is revealed, understood and later put into long term memory


Teachers need to explain the reasons that they place the importance that they do upon oral expression


    • It challenges and changes students’ attitudes
    • It aids significantly in the transference of knowledge
    • It motivates students for further exploration
    • It enriches the ideas and thought processes available to students
    • It is highly superior to lecture in developing problem solving skills
    • Develops critical oral expression skills
    • Enhances the organization of thoughts
    • Increases the accountability for our ideas and views
    • Promotes self-awareness—“who else holds my views’
    • It promotes the taking of risks which can lead to new discoveries and insights


Developing a Set of Ground Rules using Learner-Centered Practice (Maryellen Weimer, Learner Centered Teaching, 2002)

From Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer

“Even more persuasive to me though,” Weimer continued, “has been the change in both the quantity and quality of student participation when the policy that governs that contribution is of their own creation. I really believe that education has the power to transform lives when students participate in the process, and we need to be able to discuss these radical ideas with a little less emotion and a little more reason.” (Maryellen Weimer, Learner Centered Teaching, 2002)

1. Students need to be educated in how to engage in discussion


Students need to have input in to the ground rules and grading of participation and discussion—ownership by students is a key component of effective classroom discussion


Students need to understand that the classroom is where we want them to make and learn from their mistakes—it is the testing and proving ground (Robert Bjork, UCLA Memory and Metamemory)


Teachers need to define the role they will take in discussion—that of a facilitator not a contributor


All discussions must have follow up activities that cause students to reflect upon, use or review the information discussed for it to promote long term learning


Students should begin a semester with a practice discussion using the ground rules and grading system they have helped develop.

Developing Ground Rules for Discussion—Student Input—A Learner Centered Approach (Developed from Mary Ellen Weimer’s book Learner Centered Teaching)


1. Have students meet in groups of three (3) and discuss:


·         What made for some of the best discussions they have been a part of in their past learning

·         What made for the worst discussions


2. Have the students write down their answers


3. Have each group share their answers with the whole—answers being recorded on the board


4. Using the information on the best discussions and the set of questions below have the students again in groups of three (3) develop what they believe would be an effective set of ground rules for conducting class discussions in this course


5. Identify from each group the ground rules they suggest and make a master list of rules—refining and combining similar suggestions from groups


6. Have each suggestion represent a “plank” of the ground rules and have the students vote on each “plank”—unless the planks are counter productive to classroom learning the teacher should not try to change the planks; however the teacher can feel free to add planks


Questions to Help Students Formulate Ground Rules


  • Who gets to participate in the discussion? Do students have to have read the assignment or completed the homework?  If so—how will it be verified?


  • How do people participate in the discussion? Do they raise their hands and are acknowledged by the professor? Just speak out when they have something to ask or add?
  • Since challenge and disagreement are a healthy part of discussion what behaviors should be acceptable when students challenge or disagree with one another so the discussion remains civil and productive?


  • What language will be deemed inappropriate for classroom use based on current cultural norms?


  • How should students be graded on their participation in the discussion?


  • Do all responses count the same—i.e. asking a question, giving a view, challenging an answer, expanding on an answer etc?


  • What are the consequences for those who do not participate?


  • Should their be a privacy rule?—that anything discussed in the classroom stays in the classroom? Or if a person asks that it remain in the classroom that request will be honored?


  • Should their be a time limit that any one person can speak?


  • Who should be responsible for keeping the discussion on track?


  • Any other rules that would make the discussion productive for learning.



Group Discussion Guidelines


Lynn Weber Cannon (1990) argues for informing students explicitly about the goal of shared learning in the classroom. As one of her ground rules for class discussion, she asks that all students “acknowledge that one mechanism of institutionalized racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and the like is that we are all systematically misinformed about our own group and about members of other groups.


This is true for members of privileged and oppressed groups.” She furthermore asks students to: “Agree not to blame ourselves or others for the misinformation we have learned, but to accept responsibility for not repeating misinformation after we have learned otherwise.” (Cannon, 1990, p. 131)

Sample Guidelines for Classroom Discussion

  1. Everyone in class has both a right and an obligation to participate in discussions, and, if called upon, is expected to respond.
  2. Always listen carefully, with an open mind, to the contributions of others.
  3. Ask for clarification when you don’t understand a point someone has made.
  4. If you challenge others’ ideas, do so with factual evidence and appropriate logic.
  5. If others challenge your ideas, be willing to change your mind if they demonstrate errors in your logic or use of the facts.
  6. Don’t introduce irrelevant issues into the discussion.
  7. If others have made a point with which you agree, don’t bother repeating it (unless you have something important to add).
  8. Be efficient in your discourse; make your points and then yield to others.
  9. Above all, avoid ridicule and try to respect the beliefs of others, even if they differ from yours.


From: The Guided Discussion. (1992, February). For Your Consideration, 12, UNC Center for Teaching and Learning.


Students Want to Participate


UNC Center for Teacher and Learning, “Classroom

Communication Analysis Project”), almost 30% of students responding to the questionnaire reported having wanted to speak in class but not doing so because they “felt insecure, inadequate, or uncertain.”


The percentage of female students and African American students responding in this manner was somewhat higher than among other segments of the student population. Clearly, many students want to talk, but need encouragement from their teachers.


When students voice comments that attack or malign a particular group (such as race, religion, or sexual orientation) those comments potentially threaten some students in the classroom. In this situation, do not ignore such remarks, or change the subject. While it is unnecessary to reprimand the student directly, take issue with the statement made and remind the whole class that such statements are hurtful and do not further the pursuit of knowledge. Where relevant, challenge the statement’s validity by pointing to statistics or studies that challenge stereotypes. For example, if a student makes a comment about African American women who take advantage of welfare, it would be instructive to point out that the majority of mothers on public assistance are, in fact, Caucasian.


Formulating the Question to Induce Thinking rather then Personal Opinion


Rather than asking a student, for example,

 “Do you think schools should make contraception available to students?” present the arguments usually made for and against contraception in the schools and ask students to critique or support the arguments. Students will thus be engaged in thinking about where they stand on the issue, but the more impersonal way of presenting the argument leaves the door open to students to decide how much of their personal views they want to divulge. 



Discussion needs to be Graded Article by Joan Middendorf, Director& Alan Kalish, Associate Director Teaching Resources Center, Indiana University, 9/96

Discussion activities must be graded as a sign of their value—the grade must be a meaningful part of the overall course grade.




Teacher assigns grade:

  • Write a note to each student twice a semester telling each one their participation grade and the basis for the grade.
  • Require a written product from student group activities and grade it.
  • When their group presents or develops their written product, the professor puts a grade on their card and returns it. These grades are significant portion of their final grade.
  • Make all group discussion work public. Have students present their findings using an overhead—this allows other groups to challenge their findings
  • Put a tick mark next to student names each time they speak to encourage quantity of responses.
  • Peers assign grade:
  • To get around the complaint that, “Two of us did all the work,” require group members to grade one another.
  • For example, let each student in the group distribute 100 points across the group but they may not be evenly distributed without clear written explanation.
  • Have each student briefly describe in writing, the strengths and weaknesses of each person in their group and then assign a point value to their work
  • Groups can be required to keep a log of their activities; at the end of the project, each student write a paragraph reporting who did what, which is used to raise or lower the grade each individual receives on the project.
  • The Indirect Approach to Grading Discussion Groups:
  • Discussions can be evaluated indirectly through exam questions and written assignments.

. One of the best ways to do this is to make exam questions or written assignments reflect class discussions and activities. I

If you don’t, these become throw-away activities.

Or, ask students to evaluate a class discussion in writing or tell where they stand on the issue.

Grade them on this writing. Again, even if you don’t give an explicit participation grade, you can make participatory activities show up in student grades.

Article by Joan Middendorf, Director& Alan Kalish, Associate Director
Teaching Resources Center, Indiana University, 9/96

Possible Set of Basic Ground Rules

It is important for class participants to treat each other with respect. 

Name calling, accusations, verbal attacks, sarcasm, and other negative exchanges are counter productive to successful teaching and learning about topics.  

The purpose of class discussions is to generate greater understanding about different topics.

The expression of the broadest range of ideas, including dissenting views, accomplishes this goal.

In expressing viewpoints, students should try to raise questions and comments in way that will promote learning, rather than defensiveness and conflict in other students.

Thus, questions and comments should be asked or stated in such a way that will promote greater insight into and awareness of topics as opposed to anger and conflict. 

Example of a question that may put students on the defensive: Why do you insist on calling yourself Hispanic? That’s wrong. It seems to me that Latino is the correct term? Can you explain to me why you insist on using the term Hispanic?

Example of a non-defensive question: I don’t understand. What is the difference between the terms Hispanic and Latino?

  • Learning is both about sharing different views and actively listening to those with different views.  Students in this class are expected to do both.
  •   Learning is maximized when many different viewpoints are expressed in the classroom.
  • Keep the discussion and comments on the topic, not on the individual. 
  •  Don’t personalize the dialogue. Rather than personalizing the dialogue, please direct challenging comments or questions to the instructor or the entire class. 
  • Remember that it is OK to disagree with each other.  Let’s agree to disagree.
  • The purpose of dialogue and discussion is not to reach a consensus, nor to convince each other of different viewpoints.
  • Rather, the purpose of dialogue in the classroom is to reach higher levels of learning by examining different viewpoints and opinions. 
  • Everyone is expected to share.  Keep in mind that the role of the instructor is to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard in class. 


Do you know what kind of questions you ask most frequently? Research on the questions teachers ask shows that about 60 percent require only recall of facts, 20 percent require students to think, and 20 percent are procedural in nature.


  1. This was really helpful!

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