Developing A Class Discussion

1. Try to select one text that provides some well-reasoned information to ground the discussion and one text that is less objective for critical analysis. Often one text can satisfy both criteria.

2. Read, watch, or listen to your texts very carefully, preferably more than once.

2. Think about what you want to get across to your classmates.

  • What were the most important ideas in each of text? Consider focusing on what you found to be the most insightful.
  • How do the texts relate to each other? Does one reading shed new light on the other? What questions do they raise about each other?
  • Does some aspect of a text flawed or lack objectivity? Consider helping the class to discover the author's implicit agenda, biases, assumptions, inaccurate information, and/or fallacies.
  • Note details of the texts that elicit a strong emotional reaction. These details are likely to touch on some powerful personal biases and/or assumptions in the reader. Consider trying to uncover these.
  • Consider helping the class to identify the implications of the ideas in the texts and/or the implications of criticizing the texts.

3. Carefully consider your objectives for discussion.

  • Do you want students to apply newly learned skills, mull over new subject matter, learn to analyze arguments critically, practice synthesizing conflicting views, or relate material to their own lives? These goals are not mutually exclusive, but they require different types of direction.
  • Use discussion to help students link concepts to their own lives; to encourage students to evaluate material critically; and to address topics that are open-ended, have no clear resolution, and/or can be effectively addressed through multiple approaches.
  • Provide students opportunities to "warm up" through small group mini-discussions, brief (one- to five-minute) in-class writing exercises on the topic, and/or a short homework exercise prior to the session that focuses students on the topic(s) to be covered.
  • Consider using a variety of question types such as exploratory, relational, cause and effect, diagnostic, action, and hypothetical thought experiments.
  • Refer to the Guide to Critical Thinking and—if you are stuck—ask the instructor for advice.

4. Once you have decided what you want to convey, think about how you want to convey it.

  • Think about what method might get your ideas across best. Do you want to divide the class into small groups for discussion? Can you think of a role playing assignment that would get people to think about different perspectives of an issue? Do you want to give a short introduction and then moderate a large-group discussion?
  • Read Dr. Stephen Brookfield's excellent compilation of classroom discussion formats you may wish to try.
  • The Cult of Pedagogy Blog offers some interesting ideas that might get you inspired.
  • Some students have created surveys for the students to answer before or during class. Make sure this will be appropriate and useful before choosing this option. Sometimes surveys add value, other times they don't. You have many free online options for surveys before class, but for surveys during class I recommend Poll Everywhere.

5. Decide how you want the class to prepare.

  • Carefully craft the Key Ideas and Quiz questions to focus students on essential information.
  • Craft critical thinking discussion prompts that get students thinking about your own interests. Your enthusiasm will help carry the discussion.
  • Devise a short homework Activity to help focus student preparation on your goals. Some ideas:
    • Ask students to explore a personal assumption. For example, "What is the purpose of a prison and who is sent there?"
    • Ask students to adopt specific points-of-view. For example, "How would a conservative and liberal politician frame this issue?"
    • Sentence completion is an open-ended tool for critical thinking. For example:
      • "What most struck me about the text we read to prepare for the discussion today is…?" [Uncover assumptions and biases]
      • "The question that I'd most like to ask the author of the text is…" [Evaluate information and/or arguments]
      • "The idea I most take issue with in the text is…" [Challenge personal assumptions or uncover flawed reasoning]

6. Decide how you want to divide up the tasks involved in leading the discussion. Will one person give the introduction, and the other(s) ask questions? Will you each take charge of parts of the class in small groups, then meet as a whole and discuss comparative conclusions the second half of the class time? Do you want to split up the readings each person is responsible for leading discussion about, or do you want to share responsibility jointly for all of them? (In any case, ALL of the leaders should understand ALL of the texts thoroughly.)

7. Prepare selected passages—quotes, statistics, or other examples—from the texts to interject to stimulate discussion since anyone can respond to a passage. It's better to be overprepared and only discuss 25% of what you planned than to have nothing to talk about and awkward silence.

8. On your template, provide the instructor with a succinct and clear explanation of your agenda. Plan for part of this to be your introduction that will start the class session.

9. Using the Template as a starting point, prepare organized notes about what is going to be said/done (by you or someone in the discussion group), and in what order instead of relying on flipping through your highlighted readings looking for the interesting parts. Prepare to be flexible and allow a few moments here and there for the unexpected turns mentioned in the last point.