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Effective Ways to Structure Discussion

The use of online discussion in both blended and fully online courses has made clear that those exchanges are more productive if they are structured, if there’s a protocol that guides the interaction. This kind of structure is more important in the online environment because those discussions are usually asynchronous and minus all the nonverbal cues that facilitate face-to-face exchanges. But I’m wondering if more structure might benefit our in-class discussions as well.

Students struggle with academic discourse. They have conversations (or is it chats?) with each other, but not discussions like those we aspire to have in our courses. And although students understand there’s a difference between the two, they don’t always know exactly how they’re supposed to talk about academic content when discussing it with teachers and classmates. Would providing more structure provide that clarity and make the value of discussions more obvious to students?

Starter and Wrapper

Besides their uncertainty of how to discuss, students are also confused about what they should take from a discussion. Do they take notes? If so, what do they write down? Something as simple as a discussion “starter” and “wrapper” (descriptors I’ve seen in several online discussion articles) can provide a concrete beginning and end to these exchanges. Why not assign students the “starter” and “wrapper” roles? Say the assignment involves a reading that will be discussed for the first 10 minutes of class or a 24-hour period online. The “starter” launches the exchange with a question, a quotation, a comment about an example in the text, or by suggesting possible links between text material and previously discussed content. The “wrapper” identifies themes, pulls out key ideas, or lists the questions that next need exploration. Maybe two or three students put “wrappers” around the discussion.

Save the Last Word for Me

Instead of requiring a specified number of comments and responses, as is so common in many discussion board assignments, what about using Save the Last Word for Me? With this discussion strategy, half the students find a quotation from the reading, say one they don’t think they really understand or would like to understand more fully. They post that quotation and then the other half of the students offer their ideas, interpretations, and understandings of the quote. Every quote must have at least two responses from two different students. After a designated amount of time, the student who posted the quote explains what he or she learned from the “discussion” of their quote. Then the students switch roles.
You could structure an in-class discussion along these lines. Before class, students post quotations from the reading. The instructor brings these to class, and each quotation is discussed, with students offering the explanations and the instructor facilitating the discussion. Then perhaps everyone picks one of the quotations the class has been discussing and writes briefly about their understanding of it now.

Time for reflection

Sometimes discussions are too structured. Often that happens unintentionally when the instructor slides into a dominating role—talking too often, making comments that are too long, or presenting ideas in ways that sound like right answers. The line between lecture and discussion is easily crossed when experts exchange with novices. Finding a good a balance between leading and guiding without controlling and directing discussion requires ongoing calibration.

I wonder if students might feel more settled about discussions if we encouraged them to reflect on the discussions. Usually, a discussion ends when class does. or the online time window expires. When class starts again, it’s a whole new discussion. But what if we concluded our discussions with silence? Even just a couple of minutes in class (longer online) during which students think about key ideas, new insights, thoughts they like to explore further, or questions promoted by the exchange. Maybe one or two of those thoughts are voiced or shared electronically and used to launch the next discussion. In other words, discussions can also be structured with prompts that tie them together. “Here’s a question we discussed last time and here’s how some of you answered it. Given this new reading or the content talked about yesterday, would you change your answer? How?”

Discussions shouldn’t be islands in a course. They should be regions within a country with borders that touch or overlap – where students can navigate from familiar to unfamiliar content areas, and back again.

For more on this topic, see Structuring Discussions: Online and Face-to-Face. [1] This post from September 2013 features a list of discussion activities you might want to try in your courses.