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Enhancing Class Discussion

Ever since Socrates interrogated the slave boy, philosophy teachers have been trying to get young people to participate in class discussions. Discussions have strengths and weakness, often opposite to lectures (Cashin).

  • Advantages: discussions support active learning, give instructors feedback on student learning, and can support higher-order thinking.

  • Disadvantages: discussions can be uncomfortable for students, time consuming, and difficult to control or keep on topic.


Students say that they like class discussion, but often it is hard to get them to engage. TΦ101 believes that often times the problem is that students might like to participate but that there are obstacles preventing them from doing so (for example, they are shy, or they haven't read the assignment). Instructors need to analyze those obstacles and overcome them.




































































A Note on Women Students:

Some faculty members have observed that women students seem more reluctant to speak in class than their male counterparts.  (This is true despite the fact that, at least in TΦ101's experience, the women students are often better prepared than the men).   TΦ101 speculates that the reason for this may be that women are more likely to be sensitive to the emotional forces at play for all students in the classroom.  This suggests that the path to encouraging women to participate is to focus on the items above that reduce the emotional risks of class discussion, including giving students more time to think before asking them to respond, and asking open ended questions.  Psychologist Carol Dweck believes that because boys usually have more behavioral problems than girls, often boys have gotten used to criticism and have become less intimidated by the prospect of displeasing others.  Girls, by contrast, more often identify themselves as being "good," and are thus more deterred from taking risks that might make others think less of them.  Dweck explains some of this in an interesting YouTube clip.  This fear of risk-taking could, of course, explain why girls may be more reluctant to express themselves in class.  For more on Dweck's theories, visit our Theory and Reflection page.  Also see our discussion of some of the different issues for male vs. female students.



Getting More out of Classroom Discussion, University of California, Souther California, Teaching Toolbox, 14 January 2009 .

Teaching Strategies: Discussion, University of Michigan, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, 19 January 2008.

Cashin, William E. "Effective Classroom Discussions," IDEA Paper #49.

Johnston, Kevin, Creating Effective Discussions: a Bibliography, Michigan State University Teaching Assistant Programs.  (This list of sources has a variety of useful material, much of it on-line. ) 


Author: John Immerwahr
Update: Nov. 2, 2015 (E. Tarver)






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