Many educators will tell you that there are few activities as enriching yet as difficult to lead as a class discussion. Students can reap so many benefits from them, but it’s a challenge to make sure class discussion time is both engaging and sufficiently structured so they get the most out of it.
We’ve put together this set of principles and guidelines that will ensure your next class discussion goes without a hitch. Whether you’re holding a discussion on Kialo Edu or having an old-fashioned Socratic seminar, take a look at these universal tips for successful class discussions!
Why even have class discussions?
With so many specific learning targets and objectives to meet in a given school year, it can be hard to find the time for open-ended student discussions. However, when done right, students benefit greatly from the space to explore their own perspectives on the things they’re learning in class. Here are some key reasons to make the time for classroom discussions, and some crucial tips for getting the most out of that time.
1. To increase student engagement
Here’s an unsurprising fact: Students love to talk to each other. Sometimes this can be an issue, but in a class discussion, you can leverage students’ love of conversation to increase student engagement. By assigning an activity that many students find genuinely enjoyable and relevant, you can boost students’ engagement with the material along with their motivation to master it.
Students do need to have some buy-in: their interest needs to be high enough to overcome any anxiety from exchanging opinions, which can be a vulnerable space for many students. Accordingly, make sure to pick an engaging class debate topic and spark some interest at the start. You could also use Kialo Edu’s Anonymous Discussions to reduce their anxiety!
2. To provide students a civil space for different perspectives
The presence of multiple perspectives within a class discussion also helps students practice important interpersonal skills. Respecting others’ opinions and expressing civil disagreement are crucial for navigating through life, especially in democratic societies. Students can practice handling others’ opinions in a class discussion before embarking on the higher-stakes debates that they will encounter later in life.
While differing opinions are an indispensable ingredient of effective class discussions, angry dialogues are rarely fruitful ones. Thus, a classroom climate of mutual respect and civility is crucial to uphold.
3. To foster student autonomy
Instead of relying on constant teacher feedback, conversations with peers can nudge students to self-reflect on their abilities. And when the teacher steps back, students must monitor their own performance. All this can help students to feel responsible for their own learning, which often boosts motivation to adopt better learning behaviors.
Class discussion can also help students to feel a sense of ownership over material. As ideas are generated and refined by the class, students can be proud of the conclusions they reach – and more likely to retain associated knowledge.
How to successfully conduct a class discussion
Now that you’re familiar with why it’s great to have class discussions, here are some practical strategies for actually carrying one out — on Kialo Edu or otherwise.
1. Set some ground rules and read the room
Whether it’s the first week of school or a field trip, every educator knows that it’s essential to set ground rules from the get-go. Class discussions are no exception. So beforehand, establish some expectations for how students will respectfully respond to one another’s ideas.
Class discussions can get a little contentious sometimes, and this is usually a good thing. Disagreement among students shows that they’ve engaged with the material enough to have genuine opinions that they care enough to defend.
However, it goes without saying that some levels of disagreement can be problematic. Keep a close eye on the temperature of the discussion, looking out for any upset or upsetting behaviors. Furthermore, you can de-escalate tensions before they derail the discussion. Some strategies include redirecting the conversation, reminding students of the ground rules, and/or pointing out some common ground among students’ ideas.
On Kialo Edu, you can use our Teacher Feedback and Discussion Chat features to direct and monitor student activity in a discussion. This is great for providing any real-time insight and lets you keep an eye on the overall progress of the debate.
2. Spark student interest and activate knowledge
One way to set yourself up for success for high student engagement is to spark students’ interest before the discussion even begins. To that end, try asking some thought-provoking questions, sharing media, or showing art that will draw students into the topic at hand.
It’s great if this opening activity can also activate students’ prior knowledge, either through reminding them of previously learned material or by presenting new information to spark ideas.
You know your students best, so use that expertise to find something that can bridge their interests and topic knowledge! On Kialo Edu, an easy way to share these materials is by linking them in the background info, where students can easily access these sources before they start a discussion.
3. Prepare some prompts
When running a class discussion, there are few things more dreadful than silence. So even after you’ve come up with some stellar discussion questions, think of some additional prompts that will help students approach each question.
Good prompts can be bite-sized, leading questions that can ease students into the larger discussion. Or, prompts can be simple clues to jump-start students’ trains of thought. In a Kialo Edu discussion, we recommend forming top-level, umbrella-like claims to get your students going, so they have a jumping-off point to dive right in!
4. Let students take the lead
One of the surest marks of a successful class discussion is when the students are able to keep the conversation flowing between themselves. If you’ve sparked their interest through a compelling prompt, students are often happy to take it from there! Don’t get too caught up in your plans, and let students feel free to explore whatever ideas come up (within reason).
On Kialo Edu, students can use the Discussion Chat and Comment features to work with each other in real time, planning and coordinating the structure of the discussion as well as making suggestions to improve their arguments.
Meanwhile, you can simply facilitate floor-holding, or throw in another prompt whenever you feel the conversation fizzling. Everyone should come away with a sense of accomplishment at the ideas they inspired and built as a community.
Whether you’re circling the desks or pulling out the devices, these strategies are reliable guideposts for fostering a successful class discussion. In fact, we’ve built many of these strategies into the very bones of Kialo Edu, helping you and your students to have excellent class discussions every time.
With our platform’s ability to represent multiple lines of reasoning around a given question, students can comprehensively map out and examine multiple perspectives on an issue. If you’re interested in enhancing your class discussions with Kialo Edu, you can sign up here!