Managing a Class Discussion- Part I

A host of engaging teaching techniques, many of them encouraged in this blog, involve class discussion or small group discussions. By actively engaging students in the classroom, by having them talk with each other about the course material, our students learn better, retain more and find stronger connections between the course material and their lives. But, not all discussions are equally beneficial.

The success of the learning experience really depends on how the students interact and the quality of their discussion. So, how can we as instructors, manage these interpersonal interactions to foster high quality learning for all? This post and the next deal with a couple of extremes on the spectrum of discussion management. I do not have all the answers–perhaps collectively, if we think about these issues a bit and then brainstorm some ideas, we might improve how we manage class discussions.

Here’s a scenario I have encountered in my own classroom discussions.

Most classes have students with a range of comfort levels when it comes to speaking in public. Some students are shy or reserved and would rather not say anything out loud in class. Some will speak if their grades depend on it, crafting one sentence or question each class period. Some are very comfortable speaking and tend to be the ones we can rely on to participate in a discussion.

What can you do if one student dominates discussions in a way that actually sabotages your attempts at a supportive learning environment?

Discussionimage from:

You know this kind of student I’m sure. If you are asking questions of the students during an interactive lecture, this student answers immediately, often not even raising his hand. During full class discussions, this student offers opinions and strongly worded statements, perhaps even interrupting other students. This student seems to be very uncomfortable with even the shortest of silences, making it difficult for others to get a word in edgewise. When this student begins to speak, the oration often takes several minutes, causing the more reticent students to just not speak up at all. Eventually, the class is completely dominated by this one voice and, if you don’t do something, the rest of the class members will begin to rely on this student to do all the talking. What can you do?

1. Try speaking to this student outside of class and enlist her support in trying to elicit comments from other students. For example, you could ask the student to lead off with a summary of the main points of a reading. Be sure to praise the student for being prepared and for contributing, but point out that everyone in class needs to have a chance to participate.

2. Assign roles for some class discussions. For example, one kind of small group discussion strategy is to have a number of specific roles: note taker, presenter, evidence researcher. Assign students other than your dominant one to be the presenter.

3. Structure full-class discussions such that everyone gets a chance to offer up one or no more than two comments. Once the comments have been made, the discussion moves to other students.

4. Encourage your dominant student to visit you during office hours to continue discussions and gently point out that in class everyone needs a chance to speak.

5. Consider developing a participation grading rubric. This is a good idea to do anyway! The rubric should indicate characteristics of good discussion contributions and should also point out negative attributes to avoid, like dominating discussion unduly. This url has a great short article about participation grading rubrics:

6. Other ideas?