4 Out of the Box Ideas to Stimulate Student Discussions

Aug 1, 2019 by

Among the most dreaded phenomena teachers experience in the classroom—regardless of class level, subject matter, years of experience, etc.—is asking students to contribute to a discussion only to be met with silence. It’s awkward. Time seems to stretch endlessly ahead. And the most troubling part is that it’s difficult to tell if students are holding back because they lack confidence in the material or if they’re just hesitant to speak up in front of the group.

Among the most dreaded phenomena teachers experience in the classroom—regardless of class level, subject matter, years of experience, etc.—is asking students to contribute to a discussion only to be met with silence. It’s awkward. Time seems to stretch endlessly ahead. And the most troubling part is that it’s difficult to tell if students are holding back because they lack confidence in the material or if they’re just hesitant to speak up in front of the group.

Here are four out-of-the-box ideas to stimulate student discussions, helping everyone get value from these collaborative sessions.

Use Trivia to Stimulate Discussion

Asking students something like “Any comments or questions?” or “Who wants to kick off our discussion about X topic?” is vague; it does little to shape the discussion or provide a jumping-off point for students. Educators will see better results if they start by soliciting responses to specific prompts, or if they structure the discussion to include something that’ll give students a place to start.

One way to make discussions fun and focused is to use trivia questions to guide students. Answering a multiple-choice question is less intimidating than speaking off the cuff, so it allows students to think about concepts in a manageable way before getting even more critical in their analyses. Teachers can then follow up simpler questions with more probing inquiries: “The correct answer is B; but can anyone expand on why?”

Incorporate Live Polling

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a small number of students—usually between five and eight—will contribute 75 to 95 percent of the comments made during a classroom discussion. To counteract this divide between contributors and spectators, teachers need to devise ways to get everyone involved.

Live polling can help here because it allows everyone to contribute by answering multiple choice questions or sending in free-form responses as needed. And today’s audience-response technology like Poll Everywhere lets students use mobile devices or classroom computers as clicker alternatives, making discussions more streamlined and cost-effective for all involved.

Give Students the Time They Need

A little lead time can make all the difference. After all, it’s challenging for even the most engaged student to hear a question, formulate an instant answer and volunteer to share it with the class on the spot.

There are a few ways to remedy this hurried approach to discussions. First of all, passing out some of the questions ahead of time gives students a chance to ruminate—and perhaps even jot down some notes to guide them through the conversation.

It can alleviate some of the pressure students feel to come up with responses right now if your classroom has a “get back to me” policy. This allows students to say a certain phrase if they honestly need more time to think or digest rather than forcing them to speak extemporaneously before they’re ready. Never underestimate the power that creating a respectful and welcoming discussion environment has over encouraging participation from all.

Break Out into Small Groups

Certain discussions fare better in small groups than they do in a large one, depending on the level of nuance and comfortability needed to make it work. Many students are going to be hesitant to speak up in front of 10, 20 or 100 other students. And, logistically, large discussions aren’t always the ideal way to promote active learning and sharing.

It’s really a case-by-case basis. Some discussions fare better when instructors call for students to break out into groups of two to five people, then discuss. You can always ask breakout groups to report back to the larger group with their best ideas, too.

Student discussions often need some creative strategizing and assistance to get going, but once they do, everyone reaps the benefits of learning and sharing.

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