Speak Up! Improving Classroom Discussions

We’ve all experienced the classroom dynamic in which the same few students respond to the instructor’s questions, a pattern that can last the entire semester—and one that frustrates the instructor while indicating that the majority of students have abdicated their responsibility to come to class prepared.

However, much can be done to increase students’ participation and thereby enhance their learning. Below are some tips to help improve class discussions.

Prime students early in the semester. As early as the first day of class, put students on notice that they will be expected to participate. Do this by having a discussion about Ask students about their past experiences with class discussions and why participation is important. Then explain how research shows that students learn better when they participate.

Pose questions designed to generate responses.Take a hint from journalists who ask questions for a living. They break questions into two types: open-ended and closed-ended. Open-ended questions allow the responder to include more information and opinions, while closed-ended questions elicit a specific response. For example, an open-ended question would be “What do you like and dislike in your position as a financial consultant?” while a closed-ended question on the same topic might be “Do you like your job?” Open-ended questions can lead to more dynamic discussions.

In the business communication classroom, teachers can generate better responses by wording questions designed to elicit multiple responses with open-ended questions.In, say, a discussion about the direct and indirect organizational strategies, ask students about the benefits of using either strategy for delivering bad news. This open-ended question allows students to apply their own ideas to their responses. Also prod students to apply the rationale behind choosing the direct or indirect method of organizing a piece of writing. This step integrates the rhetorical reasoning that goes into the choice, thus deepening learning.

Asking students to provide their own examplesis another way to engage them and encourage them to speak. In the above situation, students might be urged to offer their insights about various contexts for using the direct and indirect strategy. 

Place students into groups for discussions. This strategy works well for larger classes and for reticent students who may feel more comfortable talking among peers in a smaller platform. Prepare questions ahead of time for the groups to work on. Then bring the class together to hear what the groups have come up with. (This approach works particularly well when discussing ethical issues in business. See the many situations with accompanying discussion questions under the BizComBuzz tab News You Can Use.)

Assign questions for next class session as homework. Have students write their responses to a question (or questions) that will be discussed in a subsequent class. This tactic has the benefit of encouraging students to find the answers in their assigned reading and then allowing them to read their responses in class instead of having to extemporize. When assigning questions to answer, devise them to be relevant to students’ experiences, analytical in nature, and indicative of important concepts.

If you have ideas about how to improve classroom discussions, please share them with us!

Adapted from How to Hold a Better Class Discussion, The Chronicle of Higher Education

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