Classroom Discussions

Are we having a discussion?

Since Core is designed around classroom discussions, it is important to understand fully what one is and to be able to participate in it. Much of what passes for classroom discussion is really “recitation.” During recitation, the professor asks you questions and you recite the “right” answer. You aren’t supposed to raise your hand if you don’t have the whole, correct answer ready. (Pity the poor students whose professor calls on them to recite, whether they volunteer or not!)

True discussions are not that cut-and-dried. They move back and forth among students as well as between professor and students. Not everything that is said is an “answer.” Some of what is said may not be complete, or even “right.” There are various ways of participating in a discussion, and you can pick your opportunities. During a discussion, the group as a whole is considering an issue, looking at it in different ways, trying it out, pushing it, pulling it, wondering about it, testing it, stretching it. You can change your mind partway through. You can say things you aren’t sure about.

A discussion is not the same as a debate or an argument either. In a debate, there are only two sides (or maybe three) to an issue. You have to pick one and advocate it; eventually, one side “wins.” Having an argument suggests quarreling or contention. It is true that sometimes during a discussion, a debate or argument may occur, but discussion need not include disagreement.

Listed below are some ways that you can add something to a class discussion. These are not the only possible types of participation, but they are probably enough to get you started.

Some Ways to Help Move a Classroom Discussion Along

  1. Simply share what’s on your mind. “You know what I’m thinking? I’m wondering if...”
  2. Throw out a possibility. Suggest a way of looking at something or interpreting something. Propose that something might be true (a hypothesis). You don’t have to be absolutely sold yourself to do this. You can start your comment with “Could it be that...?”
  3. Give evidence to support, or to counter, or suggest limits to a hypothesis. “I think that’s right because...” Or, “If that’s true, how do you explain...?” Or, “I don’t think that’s altogether true because it doesn’t make room for...”
  4. Connect what we are talking about to:
    1. an earlier point in our discussion
    2. something we read (or that you read even if the rest of us didn’t
    3. a real-life personal example
    4. a current issue in the news
    5. a theory or piece of information or story from another discipline
    6. a good joke or anecdote or folk saying
  5. Point out a cause of something, or note the result of something. “Sure! That occurred because...” Or, “And look what happened as a result!”
  6. Suggest an ethical dimension: “I don’t think she should do that because...” Or, “Isn’t that the most honest thing to do in that situation?”
  7. Summarize the discussion to this point. “It seems as if we’re divided into two groups on this...” Or, “Then are we all agreed that...?”
  8. Move us on to a new topic. “If we have settled that point, what do we think about...” Or, “We seem to have talked enough about this; let’s move on.”
  9. Say what you accept, and what you don’t. “I agree with you on that point because...” Or, “I can accept the first part of what you said, but not the last part.” Or, “I don’t see it that way at all.”
  10. Corroborate someone else’s statement of experience. “Yes, that happened to me, too.” Or, I had an experience that was almost like that...”
  11. Ask someone to restate for clarity. “What do you mean?” Or, “I don’t understand; can you explain it another way?”
  12. Try to restate someone else’s position. “Then you are saying...”
  13. Try to predict a logical step for someone. “Then would you also say...?”
  14. Call our attention to agreement/disagreement among us. “The two of you are really saying the same thing.” Or, “Then you really don’t agree!”
  15. Remind us of an unanswered question. “That’s the same issue that stopped us last week!” Or, “But we haven’t decided that yet, have we?” Or, “That may be true, but we still haven’t said anything about...”
  16. Point out an unspoken assumption. “You can only say that if you assume...” Or, “We aren’t getting anywhere because we are all assuming...”
  17. Suggest another way of looking at something. “Yes, but if you consider...”