Leading a discussion is not easy. It requires patience and perseverance. You want to encourage open and spontaneous discussions, but you need to ensure that the discussion remains relevant to the class material. Following these guides cannot guarantee every discussion will be a success, but these guidelines can offer some proven methods of keeping classroom conversations constructive.
A well-orchestrated discussion always takes a substantial amount of preparation. Start your preparation even before the semester begins.
SPEAK WITH THE INSTRUCTOR
If you are teaching a recitation, the course instructor will be your first and most important resource for planning your class. While many instructors give their students tremendous leeway in organizing recitations, other instructors have a set lesson plan that they will expect you to follow. Talk to the course instructor about his or her goals for the recitation as soon as possible. Ask about how recitations will be graded and how responsibilities will be divided among teaching assistants.
The number of students affects the classroom experience. For example, if the discussion recitation is large, you may want to plan small-group activities so that everyone can participate.
Next, consider the composition of your class. Are the students mostly freshmen from outside the discipline you are teaching? If so, keep in mind that you are not only going to have to help the students with core concepts, but you will also have to teach them how to write, argue and think in your discipline. In contrast, more experienced students may be comfortable holding free-flowing discussions although they may require a strong moderator to keep them from drifting off the topic.
Finally, the type of discussions you have will be influenced by the room you are assigned. If the desks are bolted to the floor in a simple row, it is going to be more difficult to break into small groups. Checking out the room helps to identify basic restrictions on what you will be able to do. You also want to check to see if the room has audio-visual and computer resources that you may want to use later in the semester. If the room is inappropriate for your class, you probably should request a room change.
Every instructor has goals that guide his or her approach to teaching. What material do you plan to cover? Are you preparing your students to take exams or to write papers? Is your objective to teach facts or to get students to think critically about the material? (For more on setting goals, see Chapter 10.)
The goals you set will help to determine how the discussions are organized. To a degree, these goals will define the type of discussions you hold, and will serve as a means of evaluating your teaching.
In many recitations, developing ideas raised in the lectures is part of the teaching assistants’ role. If this is the case, you must regularly attend the lectures and complete the readings.
Even when attending lectures is optional, you should consider going. Students often view teaching assistants as resources to turn to for help when they have difficulty with course material. If you do not plan to attend lectures, avoid confusion by making it clear to your students at the start of the semester.
Often the faculty member responsible for the course establishes general guidelines for recitation discussions and will meet weekly with teaching assistants to plan strategies. However, every teaching assistant is ultimately responsible for picking and choosing the exact material that is covered in his or her class. Although not the most glamorous aspect of teaching, selecting the right material is perhaps the most important part of your job. Here are some simple questions (outlined by graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania) that may help you to think about what material needs to be included in a recitation discussion.
PLAN TO DO BUSINESS
Teaching a class requires a considerable amount of organization as well as a good teaching style. Each week you should prepare announcements for the class reminding your students of important deadlines (not only course deadlines, but also University deadlines [add-drop, withdraw, etc.]), explaining assignments or reviewing other material that your students should know. Write important information on the board. Keeping your students well informed will ultimately make your job easier. You might also use this time to answer questions held over from last week or to take attendance.
Occasionally, a discussion recitation will begin with a lecture. If you are planning on having your students role-play, if you are examining a case study, or if the material the students will be discussing is difficult or involves new ideas or concepts, a brief introduction may help to make the discussion more productive. Keep in mind, however, that discussion recitations are seldom more than fifty minutes long and the time you spend introducing the material will decrease the time your students can spend discussing it.
Even if you are not lecturing, you will need to prepare discussion questions. Vague questions such as "Did anyone read the book?" or "What did you think of this week’s reading?" seldom lead to academically stimulating discussions. (See "Establish Your Goals" above.) Prepare a series of questions that lead the class to the broader themes that the course is developing.
Come prepared for contingencies. If the class seems to be struggling on a particularly difficult concept, you may want to extend that discussion and ask additional questions. In contrast, if they move quickly through the most important points, you need to be prepared to expand the discussion with additional questions on new topics.
Finally, prepare in advance any supporting material you will need. If you plan to put a diagram on the board, work it out in your notes first, be sure to bookmark passages in the reading that you may want to refer to in class, and prepare or record key dates and names if you find it difficult to remember them.
Many instructors start the first day of class with activities designed to break the ice and get students to speak in front of the group. In a small class, you might ask students to share their names, home towns, academic majors and other information that might help you to get to know your students and for them to get to know each other. In larger courses, you might want to have students answer questions with a show of hands: How many of you are from Western Pennsylvania? How many are from Philly? For the best results, begin by sharing your own background.
The first class should also be an introduction to the recitation session. Keep in mind that new students may not even know what a recitation is. Outline your goals for the class, explain the role of class discussions, review the assignments, and discuss your grading policy. If you have prepared a recitation syllabus, distribute it and explain your expectations for the class.
If you plan to hold discussions during every class period, hold one on the first day. This gives students a sample of what class will be like. Covering a little of the course’s content in the first class demonstrates your enthusiasm for the course and your commitment to academic work.
To encourage classroom discussion, there is not just ONE way of doing things. In my discipline, I believe games and debates are the best and, of course, it is important to set a natural and comfortable class atmosphere from the beginning.New teaching assistants are usually concerned about having enough material to fill a fifty-minute class and then are amazed to find they had too much material. Once a discussion gets going, the real challenge is to keep it productive and organized.
There is more than one approach to leading a discussion. Teaching experts at Ohio State University, for example, suggest that discussions be viewed along a continuum form targeted discussions, where the instructor controls the topics of discussion and asks questions requiring specific responses, to open-ended discussions, where the instructor allows the students to formulate the questions and control the course of the conversation.
The two ends of this spectrum are described in the following chart:
|Targeted Discussions||Open-ended Discussions|
|Definition||Instructor asks specific questions that have specific answers.||Students develop their own questions and develop their own lines of argument.|
|Instructor’s Role||Asks questions and maintains a tight control of the discussion.||Facilitates and encourages full participation.|
|Objective||To test students’ comprehension of the course material and to review or summarize content.||To promote critical thinking, curiosity about the topic, or tolerance for opposing viewpoints.|
|Examples of Questions||What is the definition of an adjective? What are the stages of cell division?||What are some approaches to solving the energy crisis that the British government might consider? Given the medical data before you, how would you go about diagnosing this patient’s problem?|
In a targeted discussion, the instructor keeps a fairly tight rein on the direction and outcome of the discussion. In contrast, the instructor in an open-ended discussion uses broader questions and allows ample time for students to respond. Ohio State's handbook, Teaching at The Ohio State University, notes that there are "findings to to indicate that questions that are middle-range in their openness elicit the highest quality of frequency of response."
John Andrews writes, "Perhaps the most important quality to grasp is a subtle blend of structure and freedom which gives a discussion momentum and yet does not let it wander indiscriminately" (1980, p. 147). In a study of questioning behaviors, he found that when instructors used what he called "playground" questions, questions that designate the intellectual sphere for discussion and then give students latitude for answering, they got better results than when they asked very open-ended "brainstorming" questions, convergent "quiz show" questions, or highly unfocused "general invitation" questions, such as "So what do you think about Plato?" The staff at the Center for Instructional Development and Research at the University of Washington recommends a slightly different approach. They suggest that teaching assistants begin with simple questions and "gradually build up to more abstract and controversial questions." For example, suppose you are discussing Plato's Republic. You might begin by asking, "What are the basic components of Plato's ideal state?" or "What are the characteristics of a good ruler?" After establishing that students understand the material, you can begin to explore relationships with questions such as "How does the allegory of the cave fit into the rest of the work?" and "What are Plato's criticisms of Athenian society?" Finally, you can ask students to apply the material to their own lives or to larger themes within the course with a question such as this: "How would Plato criticize a contemporary American university?" 
Ultimately, we cannot tell you how your discussions should be led; you need to determine what it is that you hope to communicate to your students and then select the best approach. However, we can offer some strategies for sparking class discussions.
Start with a Shared Experience. A demonstration, film, mini-lecture or role-playing exercise can provide a concrete experience for students to discuss. 
Start with a Question Prepared by a Student. Ask students to submit questions before class?either on paper or by e-mail. Questions prepared by your students will often illustrate their concerns. Your job will be to weave together questions so that larger themes are addressed.
Start with a Summary. Have each student briefly summarize the main thesis of the assigned readings and submit it via e-mail or at the start of class. Read each one anonymously and then have the students respond to each other’s understanding of the readings.
Start your Discussion on Email. Sometimes shy students, or students who like to think for a long time before responding, fail to contribute in class. Therefore, consider starting (or finishing) a discussion via email. Ask each student to take a stand on an issue and come prepared to support it in class.
Case Studies. The course instructor discussed social class in Colonial America during her lecture, but you suspect your students left a bit puzzled. Perhaps a case study can help. You might start class with a quick description of the Boston Massacre and then have your students discuss how class conflict helped to produce the American Revolution. A case study can help to illustrate confusing points or to highlight ideas that your students might have otherwise missed.
Writing Exercises. You know that your students have read Jane Austin but last week no one talked. It may be that your students are a bit unsure of themselves. Taking five to ten minutes to have your students write out answers to your questions before you open the question up to discussion may help reticent students feel more comfortable and confident. Or try this variation on the approach. At the start of class, have students summarize the main points of the week’s readings. Then anonymously read the responses aloud and have your students respond to each other’s ideas.
Passes. You want your students to participate during a discussion of the Second Amendment, so you call on students. Your students, however, seem to resent this and it seldom leads to a free-flowing discussion. Try offering students "passes." You agree in advance that any student you call upon can "pass" without penalty. Although it may take time, most students will want to avoid "passing" and will come to class prepared to volunteer answers. 
Chalkboard. Last week you tried to discuss the "proper" role for women in modern society. No sooner did one student raise a point, however, than another student raised a completely different point. This made it seem that the discussion wandered and was not productive. Try writing each point on the chalkboard and asking students to address the pros and cons of each specific point before moving to the next observation. Charts, graphs and arrows on the board can help to focus an unruly discussion.
Role-playing. It takes a bit of preparation, but role-playing exercises can be fun and encourage students to view controversial or contentious issues in new ways. You are teaching a class on the American Civil War and want to have a discussion about slavery. In the past, your students have been unanimous in denouncing slavery and have had a difficult time seeing how the American South ever embraced the "peculiar institution." A role-playing exercise might help. Divide the class into three; have one third prepare a case for slavery, one third argue against slavery, and have the final third prepare questions to ask groups one and two. Give the first two groups a chance to present their views and to answer questions and then have the third group vote? not on the merits of slavery? but on which group proved its case more effectively. Role-playing can offer students a means of seeing all sides of a controversial question.
Mistake #2. "What do you think of the scientific method as it applies to this experiment?" Avoid phrasing a question at a level of abstraction inappropriate for the class. Don’t show off. Keep your questions simple and clear.
Mistake #3. "What are some of the factors that contributed to the growth of modern economic theory? Hmm, no idea? Well, I’d argue . . . ." Make sure you wait long enough for students to think. The issue of "WAIT-TIME" is an often-ignored component of questioning technique. If you are too eager to share your views, students will get the message that you're not really interested in their opinions. Teachers tend to get anxious when the class is silent and often answer (or repeat) their own questions before they have given the class time to answer them. Try counting to ten s-l-o-w-l-y after asking a provocative question to which you are just dying to respond yourself. Students don't like a silent classroom either. Once they have confidence that you will give them time to think their responses through, they will participate more freely.
IF ONE OR TWO STUDENTS CONSISTENTLY MONOPOLIZE THE FLOOR, consider gently redirecting the discussion. Either use the talkative students’ comments to spark further discussion ("Thanks Sal. Would others like to comment on Sal’s point?") or acknowledge the point but suggest an in-depth discussion may have to wait for a more appropriate time ("Those ideas deserve a lot more time. Maybe we can discuss them after class?").
IF THERE IS A LULL IN THE DISCUSSION, relax. This doesn't mean anything has gone wrong. Every conversation needs a chance to catch its breath. It may mean that your topic is exhausted or it may be a pause for people to digest what they've heard. (If the lull comes too frequently however, you may need to give more attention to how you manage the class. Are the questions broad enough to invite extended discussions? Are you interrupting or dominating the discussion rather than facilitating?)
IF STUDENTS ARE TALKING TO YOU INSTEAD OF TO EACH OTHER, you may be focusing your attention too intently on the speaker. You can help students talk to each other by leading with your eyes or looking occasionally at others in the room. This will encourage the speaker to do likewise. (Similarly, if you have been standing during the discussion, sit down, and if you have been commenting on each student’s remarks, stop. Give your students a chance to talk to each other.)
IF THERE ARE STUDENTS WHO SELDOM OR NEVER TALK, see if you can't find out whether they are shy, confused, or bored. Watch for clues that indicate they might want to speak up and encourage them with a smile or a verbal comment. ("Jane, you seem disturbed by Dan's idea. What do you think?") However, be careful that you don't embarrass students into participating. Students who feel they have been "put on the spot" usually become even more reluctant to talk.
IF THE DISCUSSION DIGRESSES, try using the chalkboard to organize the discussion. It may also be useful to occasionally ask a student to summarize the discussion. Both techniques help students to discover the broad goals the discussion is intended to explore.
IF A FIGHT BREAKS OUT OVER AN ISSUE, then you've got a hot topic on your hands! Facilitate! Your major task here is to keep the discussion polite and focused. Don't let it become personal under any circumstances. If the discussion does become heated, stepping in to remind students to respect each other’s opinions, to correct misunderstood facts, or redirect the discussion may be appropriate.
IF THE YOUR STUDENTS ARE CONSISTENTLY UNPREPARED, you need to ask why. Are the assignments unreasonably long or too difficult? Have students become discouraged? Do they feel that they are inadequately rewarded when they do complete the work? Do they find the assignments irrelevant? If the students are frustrated, you might consider modifying the assignments (or relaying the complaints to the course instructor). Alternatively, you might want to employ quizzes to encourage greater participation.
Keep notes on how various questions and strategies worked so that you can work on the failures and repeat the successes.
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