Professors – Using Instructor-Directed Learning Methods – Handling Whole Group Discussion Challenges


Even the best discussion leaders occasionally experience challenges in achieving a free-flowing, highly engaged dialogue. Four of the most common problems are (1) lack of general participation, (2) over participation by a small number of students, (3) diversions into areas inappropriate for your course, and (4) highly personal or emotional reactions by students. These problems are likely to occur, especially during the early stages of your teaching, but anticipating them can help you reduce their frequency and severity. Some tips for dealing with each of these challenges are presented in the following paragraphs.

  1. Even after you have achieved a positive environment for classroom discussion, you sometimes will sense passivity from the majority or a significant portion of the class. This is especially common as the course winds down and students are overwhelmed with assignments due at the end of the term. Avoid the tendency to slip into your judgmental parent ego state and punishing students for their non-participation. Instead, build common ground by saying something like “You look a little reserved” and giving students a chance to vent some emotion. If the discussion still lags, you might shift the order of your lesson plan slightly and provide more instructor-directed activities. Later in the class meeting you might elicit discussion most effectively by initially employing the small-group strategy, which you used early in the term, and a debriefing that is more humorous and engaging than normal. Also, providing increased positive feedback to individual students, as well as comments to the whole class, such as “I’m really pleased about the way this class has…” will likely pay big dividends. Of course, only make such comments if they are true!
  2. Discussions that are dominated by only a few students cause noncontributing students to become disengaged, take the focus off your learning objectives, and risk establishing a pattern in the class. In the interest of building a positive classroom atmosphere, many new instructors are reluctant to silence those who over participate but then spend the remainder of the term feeling a loss of control. To avoid this, speak in private with those who tend to dominate, first thanking them for their involvement in class discussion but then going on to ask their help in encouraging the less involved by allowing you to seek their participation. I’ve even used poker chips (I do live in Nevada, by the way) where students had a certain number of chips to use when they spoke up in class. The over-contributors used theirs up quickly and then I could wait patiently while the more recalcitrant students spoke up…since they were the only ones who had chips remaining.
  3. Occasionally, permitting a degree of wandering can make the discussion more lively and engaging. At the same time, you must be willing to step in early to refocus on your goals. Do so by first acknowledging the collective experiences of the speakers and then asking a transitional question that returns the discussion to its proper focus. If such measures prove ineffective, be proactive and remember the Pareto rule, which warns you that 80 percent of your challenges will come from 20 percent of your students. For the student who repeatedly makes unrelated comments, you might say something akin to “That’s an excellent point, and one that we will explore further when we get to Chapter 14.” The key is to intensify the students’ focus on the learning goals. As with most problems, the best solution is prevention. Clarify the parameters of the discussion at the outset, and reinforce them through use of a whiteboard, overhead projector, Power Point display, or other visual aid. If the discussion starts to wander, a simple reminder of the parameters is usually effective and nonthreatening.
  4. Perhaps affected by sensationalized news coverage and confrontational interview programs on television, today’s students sometimes contribute highly emotional or personal reactions during classroom discussions. Some of these reactions lead to arguments that divide the class along gender, racial, political, or religious lines. Furthermore, students may directly challenge your authority. The keys in such situations are anticipating potential outbursts, knowing your personal comfort level with such situations and knowing your students’ limits. If discussions become heated, stay appropriately involved with your most adult tone of voice, asking questions designed to return the focus to objective points made in the textbook, lecture, or discussion. Using a visual aid to list points or summarize facts can de-escalate the emotion, minimize repetition and engender objectivity.

Like so many other activities in teaching, orchestrating effective classroom discussions is a balancing act. Bear in mind that discussions are most effective when they are carefully planned all-the-while keeping your learning objectives clearly in mind.


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