Discussion Strategies

Whether teaching a foreign language or using most students’ native tongue to discuss texts or other cultural productions, inciting discussion can be a surprisingly difficult task. Successful group discussions require both planning and flexibility to accomplish the goals you set for the class. Just last week, for example, I had a stack of sheets with discussion questions on Nietzsche that I threw right into the recycle bin after the first of my three sections. The questions and the format just weren’t engaging enough.

Here are some ideas on which I’ve fallen back to make our class time more effective, as my plan A (or plan B when things go awry).

First, I set a specific skill or content goal. This goal doesn’t have to be the same for each class period, but it should be focussed on a skill that fits with the overarching goals or themes of the course. Examples of daily goals:
Textual analysis: building skills of close reading that the students will use in their own written work.
Written expression: being able to organize ideas into an argumentative structure, or working on a particular grammatical difficulty.
Oral participation: debating a point or presenting an idea or summary of an argument to the class.
Content: a particular text or argument needs explanation or elaboration.

Second, I try to develop a variety of activities that will lead to the accomplishment of each goal. Examples of these active strategies:
– Write three claims on the board and have students work in partners or groups to find specific textual evidence to support or refute these claims. A variation of this activity is to write three claims on the board, two of which are true and one false. Have the students decide which is false and support this with textual evidence.
– Editing: peer editing, working on an entire (short) essay to see what works (If using real student essays, only use positive examples) or a series of problematic sentences.
– Draw a table on the board and have students informally throw out short phrases or words to complete the table. For example, on Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality I drew a table with two columns: “noble” and “man of ressentiment” and had students look at one particular section to list characteristics of these groups.
Debate: To begin the debate, assign roles to different groups, since students are often uncomfortable disagreeing with their peers. Have the groups formulate their argument using evidence and then give equal time to each side, going back and forth in questioning/refuting/supporting the claims brought up in the debate. Keep a running tab of main points on the board. In addition to helping students with their oral expression, this can be a model for students’ written work, if they are expected to write argumentative papers.
– Bring to class a list of discussion questions submitted by the students themselves, then break into groups to answer them.
– Preparing the Readings: Give your students specific, directed questions in advance of a reading assignment. Ask them to summarize the author’s argument in a sentence or two, for example, or to define a key term (using the definition the author uses, which may not be the everyday use of the word). Directing the students’ reading will better prepare them for confidently discussing the text in section.
– Incorporate examples from popular culture, the visual arts, etc., and ask students to explain how they relate to the themes of the course.
– Have students lead discussions.

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