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Promoting classroom discussion

Posted 4/26/2023


“Does anybody have any questions?”

[One second of silence]

“Okay, let’s keep going…”

This call-and-nonresponse occurs daily in classrooms around the world. It often results from the presenter’s lack of training or awareness, and the implicit message they send their audience. It can be unnerving as a presenter to truly welcome questions, as it means giving up some control of the environment. But a one-way presentation misses opportunities for student learning, presenter feedback, and the joy of spontaneity for all involved.

In my ideal class, I dance with the audience. I have a plan, though I’m willing to speed up, slow down, and change direction in response to student comments. But it is uncomfortable for students to speak up in many classroom and lecture environments, more-so if they can’t easily contribute and haven’t been shown that their contributions are valued.

With a passive crowd, such as on the first day of a class, the key is to help the audience get comfortable and trust that their voice is welcome. This means that many people need to participate and be rewarded for their effort. I like to warm up using raise-your-hand polls (“who thinks xxx is true?”), and then asking for volunteers from each side to explain their votes. This lets many people participate by simply moving their arm, and also includes some verbal back-and-forth. I also start learning and using student names. Asking students to discuss an idea with a partner is another good way to get broad, low-stakes participation. And everybody who speaks up in class should get an encouraging response—I’m looking for participation rather than racing through my material or fishing for one specific answer, so I want to show that I’m happy about the comment.

With a more warmed-up audience, more discussion options are possible. I will review prior concepts (“who remembers what approach we use in this situation?”). Or I ask about how we might address a specific problem before I proceed to present a general solution framework. I also ask how they would approach a new problem that partially overlaps a situation they’ve seen before, in order to encourage them to apply ideas in a new context. For conceptual questions, I ask about the basis for their answer. This can be as easy as asking “can you explain a bit more why you think that?” if they give an answer without justification. Avoid asking questions that are too far out of scope from the audience’s prior knowledge, as that can create fear that the audience members missed something, or can encourage them to speculate rather than provide reasoned ideas.

Buttress your questions with efforts to create a supportive culture. Your actions speak loudly about your commitment to discussion. Allow at least five seconds for people to respond to your questions. Silence after a question feels like an eternity for a speaker, but the audience needs a few moments to collect their thoughts before speaking publicly about this new question. Moving on quickly after posing a question sends the message that you weren’t interested in hearing from them, or that they don’t know the material well enough if they couldn’t formulate a question in time. Additionally, engage in discussion frequently, so that questions don’t feel like rare and momentous events. Finally, don’t embarrass people who speak up. If a response is off-base, respond positively to the speaker before redirecting the idea (e.g., “Thanks for offering that, and I bet others have similar thoughts. But let’s discuss why there is a limitation to that approach.”).

There are countless formats for you to engage with students. Possibilities include surveying them with phone-based polling software, utilizing peer-teaching formats, and cold-calling to get broad participation. Options vary in how much effort they take to implement and to get the students comfortable with the format. I personally tend towards low-effort strategies for practical reasons, but other options can pay big dividends after you invest in setting them up. No matter your choice, try not to surprise your audience—constantly changing discussion formats can create uncertainty and distraction.

When I first started teaching, I felt uncomfortable waiting a few seconds for responses to questions. Now the speakers who won’t pause make me squirm. Consider what ideas your students can engage with, and provide time and space for them to think and respond. Trust the audience to dance with you, and the initial silence will dissolve into a more rewarding experience for all.


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