- Joseph Joubert
When students discuss their questions, ideas, and insights, they both learn from each other and clarify their own thinking. In participating in a class discussion or debate, they are challenged to organize their ideas and convey them in a way that adds value to the class. Whether in whole class or small group settings, structured or more free form, discussions and debate can be powerful learning opportunities for students.
Key features of the strategy
Discussions and debates can serve as helpful learning activities for students to apply and grapple with new ideas they’ve encountered through readings, lectures, or other activities. In the process of exchanging ideas with their peers, they deepen their knowledge and learn from each other. For these activities to be effective, however, the instructor should carefully identify the particular goals for the exchange, pick the structure or format that would most likely help students develop their knowledge, employ strategies to encourage as broad participation as possible, and then assess the efficacy of the activity, and possibly individual student participation. The following examples illustrate some of the options for faculty to consider.
Examples and Variations
Barbara Gross Davis (2009) offers a number of helpful strategies and approaches in Tools for Teaching. She begins by encouraging faculty to clearly articulate the ground rules for discussion, expectations, and tips to help student successfully contribute to discussion activities. She lays out a number of activities to build rapport and community in the class to facilitate the free exchange of ideas including, encouraging students to learn each other’s names and interests, engaging in icebreaker activities, and assigning students roles within the groups to guide their participation.
In Teaching Naked, Bowen (2012) argues that “Discussion is an outstanding way to make the most of face time with students and to promote higher-order learning, but leading a good discussion that results in learning outcomes you want can be much harder than delivering a competent lecture” (p. 196). He suggests creating a system that assesses students’ individual contributions in a way that encourages quality over quantity. One way to do this is to capture and post the comments or questions that were most useful in leading to new insights and understanding, and offering extra credit to the contributors. He also suggests having students monitor the progress and analyze the quality of the discussion. In a similar activity, students sit in two concentric circles. The inner circle actively participates in the discussion while those in the outer circle observe. After a period of time, the students in the outer circle analyze the quality of discussion within the inner circle. The groups then switch as the discussion continues. These strategies can work in both face-to-face and online discussion formats.
Perhaps even more than some of the structured discussion strategies noted above, engaging students in debate activities in the classroom demand active learning and a high degree of engagement. Kennedy (2007) outlines a number of different options to structure in-class debates, including role-playing debates in which students are assigned particular points of view on an issue and have to argue from that perspective. In the fish bowl format, the class is divided into three groups. Two of the groups each take different sides of an issue, while the third group serves as an audience and asks questions. In a problem-solving format, two teams of four students debate an issue wherein each student plays a particular role. One student from each team presents the historical and philosophical background on the issue from their perspective; a second pair argues why changes should or should not be made relative to the issue; the third pair each suggest a plan; and the final pair summarizes the position of each team.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
Discussions and debates can be powerful strategies to encourage both knowledge construction and collaboration. As noted above, when students prepare for and engage in discussion and debate, they engage actively with the course content, perhaps leading to more “durable” learning. In addition, if students work together in groups, particularly if they have structured and interdependent roles, they have authentic opportunities to build their skills in collaboration.
Technologies can enhance discussion and debate in a few ways. First, for face-to-face classes, discussions and debates can be required (either audio or video) for further analysis, archiving, or just to make them available to students unable to attend class. For online courses, threaded discussion boards, audio or video conference utilities, and even group chats can encourage rich discussion at a distance. Many services in learning management systems also enable users to record the session or export a transcript of a chat to explore further. Finally, for either face-to-face or online discussions, students can use Web-based resources to prepare for and pull up data during the debate to provide further evidence for their position. This can be a challenge, though, as students may be more attuned to their computers or devices than on the content of the discussion. To mitigate this challenge, instructors may assign a single student (or a student from each team) to fulfill this role for the whole group.
What strategies have you used to help make discussions and debates effective in your classes?
Please post your comments below.
Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I’ll receive an “affiliate commission.” I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”