Using discussions to engage students in learning

I mostly groan when I remember some of the tutorial discussions I was required to attend at university. While some created a thirst for knowledge**, it felt like others were slowly destroying my brain cells.

I recall small rooms filled with tired or overzealous undergraduates, lead on a ‘journey of discovery’ by a tired PhD candidate. Generally there was a journal article or textbook chapter to read for the week. However, blank copies of unread writing lay bare for all to see… if they were even present.

For the poor tutor, extracting conversation out of some students was like a mother asking her despondent child ‘what happened at school today?’ For a few select students, a fountain of new knowledge came out. For most, it was an hour of cruel and unusual punishment they would much rather skipped.

I saw a few consistent problems with these discussions.
1) Many students were not prepared for discussions due to not completing set reading – myself included!
2) There was often no explanation of what makes a ‘good’ tutorial. Rules were rarely established; and because students could clearly opt out of discussions by refusing to contribute, engagement was low.
3) Each student engaged in the tutorial discussion in a different way. Some saw them as an opportunity to practice their debating skills while others mostly observed or simply stated an opinion.

After this experience, I was generally concerned about the ability of my own students to have such a discussion. What would happen? Would it become a heated argument? Would students just sit their in silence?

Well, last week I found out.

After honing some of my facilitation skills in the classroom over the past six months, I decided to trial ‘socratic seminar‘ with my Year 9 and 10 students. I was taught this discussion method by a particularly brilliant Deakin University academic Julie Dyer. It allows classes to discuss a particular question in a tutorial style format, responding to a text.

A topical civics example could be politicians’ entitlements. The teacher would ask students to read some news articles or opinion pieces, then have them participate in a 30 minute discussion on ‘what expenses should taxpayers subsidise for our politicians?’

During a socratic seminar, half the class participates in a discussion facilitated by a fellow classmate. The facilitators job is to ensure everyone contributes and helps to guide the conversation. The other half observe, each partnering with someone in the discussion to mark them on their participation. All students self assess and provide feedback to each other as a group at the end.

For the two classes, students in Year 9 discussed ‘What was the most significant change that occurred during the Industrial Revolution’ and Year 10 looked at the statement ‘Businesses should be allowed to scale pay rates for workers aged 14-20’.

I gave both classes only a short period of time to prepare for the discussion, challenging them to think quickly and engage how they could. This made sure they were all jumping into the deep-end of learning, but allowed them to have stimulus so they could contribute even a small amount.

Students were asked to value all opinions and to see that no answer was necessarily right or wrong within a discussion. I said that my hope was for them to gain a greater insight and learn more through hearing all views, like the Jedi Council…

star wars jedi council

I was astounded at the participation rate. In all three of my classes, every student was engaged. While those observing were clearly not as stimulated, they still sat, listened, took notes and marked their partner on their progress throughout the discussion. For those participating, the early silence turned quickly into a highly engaged discussion.

Putting students into an environment where they were unprepared was also beneficial. At the end of the lesson, the class identified all of the key ingredients to a good discussion and noted that they all wanted more time to prepare. Their conversations were far from perfect, but the learning was there. Many students also agreed that next time they should be doing some reading at home to make sure they were ready.

Watching students share their own ideas, hear others and challenge each other was remarkable. I sat back and never had to speak, only walking around the room encouraging the markers to maintain their focus and keeping note on the whiteboard of how many times each person had participated.

It might not be rocket science, but it certainly felt like it. It is a genuine struggle to create an activity that is engaging for all students, but this did it!

All three classes have asked for us to do more of these in the future and I look forward to seeing them share ideas and challenge each other in a positive way.

I haven’t smiled this much all year.

‘Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.’ – Margaret Mead.

** I should pay tribute to some of the great tutors and lecturers I had while at ANU. Of particular note: Helen Keane, John Warhurst, Alistair Grieg, Adrian Bazbauers and Adel Abdel Ghafar.


One thought on “Using discussions to engage students in learning

  1. Hi Ben

    Great post!

    I’m in countdown mode till we leave and still have you tickets to the Wharf Revue.

    Could we meet for dinner? Say Wed 19 (only possible for me) or Tues 18 Aug (can definitely do it).

    Let me know! Not many chances left!

    Have a great week!




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