Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Student-Led Discussions that Really Work

02 Mar 2019 11:06 AM | Anonymous

Carolyn Brown-Kramer (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)  

On the first day of the semester, students in my Advanced Social Psychology course learn that they will be required to facilitate two hour-long group discussions, and to contribute substantially to discussions throughout the semester.  Several panic, most are anxious, and a few drop the course. 

            On the last day of the semester, an hour flies by as students discuss social psychological theories and concepts, empirical articles, real-world applications, and what they have gained from the very process of discussion itself. They pose questions to each other, disagree, draw connections across units, give each other shout-outs for making insightful points, and laugh together as friends.

            What happens in the intervening 15 weeks between the first day and the last day?

Why student-led discussion?

            Discussion helps students use higher-level cognitive processes to analyze problems (Bloom et al., 1956) and to identify connections within and across courses and to life outside the classroom (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014).  In addition, students learn to engage actively in class (Cashin, 2011), identify the limits of their understanding, and use peers’ insights to fill in these gaps (Cashin, 2011).  Student-led discussions further increase these benefits relative to instructor-led discussions (Casteel & Bridges, 2007).  In other words, once students have established a basic knowledge base through lecture, readings, or other content delivery methods, discussions help them learn deeply and extend their learning to new circumstances.

            In my 40-student senior-level Advanced Social Psychology course, students explore a series of controversial issues (e.g., “Is ‘hookup culture’ harmful to young adults?”) from multiple perspectives, each beginning with a day of instructor-led lecture, two assigned articles representing opposing sides of the issue, and an out-of-class written assignment to help them process the articles.  During the next class period, students spend 45 minutes in small-group discussion, in which groups of about 13 students are led by two student co-facilitators assigned to represent the two sides of the issue.  The student co-facilitators are tasked with presenting additional empirical research and working together to engage all group members throughout the discussion.  They help students draw connections to the real world, pose thought-provoking questions to stimulate deep conversation, answer questions about the readings and the research articles they presented, and contrast evidence from multiple sources to help their peers understand the nuances of the issue.  On each discussion day we reserve the last 15 minutes of class to form one large circle to discuss the major arguments, evidence, and themes brought up in the small groups to cross-pollinate ideas throughout the class. 

            These discussions—both small-group and whole-class—are student-led.  I do not talk, except to call for the discussions to begin, transition, and end.  I don’t call on reticent students, and I don’t jump in to save facilitators who are struggling.  And believe it or not, it works, nearly all the time and for nearly all of my students.

Keys to successful student-led discussion

            Over the eight semesters I have taught this class, I have developed a repertoire of helpful techniques for establishing good groups, helping students develop their skill at facilitating discussion, setting clear expectations for discussion participation, and giving students opportunities for improvement.

  • 1.     Create effective discussion groups.  Based on a self-report inventory students complete at the beginning of the semester, I form discussion groups that are heterogeneous in demographics and personality to increase students’ exposure to ideas that differ from their own, and to balance introverted and extraverted students.
  • 2.     Ensure students arrive prepared for discussion.  I use written assignments that require students to read the assigned articles carefully, to respond in ways that tie together lecture and readings, and to generate their own discussion questions that they are encouraged to bring up in their groups (Connor-Greene, 2005; West, 2018).  Students comment that having to discuss the articles with peers motivates them to read more closely: “This class forced me to sit down and decipher each article in order to understand the material.  However, it didn’t end at simply understanding the article but also being able to efficiently communicate what the articles were about.”
  • 3.     Foster community within discussion groups.  Students stay in the same discussion groups throughout the semester to increase camaraderie and accountability, establish group norms, and help students make connections with ideas raised previously.  On most discussion days, I hear at least one remark along the lines of, “Didn’t you say a couple of weeks ago something about…” or “This reminds me of our discussion last week in which….”
  • 4.     Mentor effective discussion facilitation.  I explicitly teach students how to lead effective discussions via assigned readings (i.e., Cashin & McKnight, 1986; Nunn, 1996) and engage in whole-class discussion at the beginning of the course (Brank & Wylie, 2013).  This helps set clear expectations and build discussion facilitators’ comfort and confidence.  Throughout the course, but especially toward the beginning of the semester when groups are still establishing their norms, I remind facilitators that their role includes managing both quieter and more talkative members to engage all participants (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011), and I remain “on call” for any facilitators who struggle with this.
  • 5.     Provide common ground for all students to start from.  Evidence suggests that providing a shared basis for discussion increases participants’ comfort and engagement (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011).  Each week, all students in the class attend the same lecture, read the same assigned articles, respond to the same set of prompts on their written assignment, and generate their own discussion questions.  In addition, I begin each discussion day with a brief multimedia piece introducing a new aspect of the week’s controversial issue (e.g., for the hookup culture week, we listen to the NPR Hidden Brain episode “Just Sex”).  Introverted students typically feel more comfortable drawing upon some aspect of these shared experiences, such as presenting a new interpretation of the material or analyzing how the assigned articles fit together.  Extraverted students, in contrast, seem to enjoy driving the conversation in new directions, often drawing connections to the real world or to other coursework within or outside of psychology.
  • 6.     Establish shared expectations for engagement.  I am transparent in my expectations and grading, providing feed-forward in the form of detailed syllabus statements and grading rubrics for both discussion participation and facilitation.  In addition, students are given feedback based on instructor ratings, TA ratings, peer ratings, and their own self-ratings of discussion participation and facilitation.  I provide both formative and summative feedback to participants and facilitators as soon as possible after discussions to help students identify and correct inappropriate expectations (Burchfield & Sappington, 1999; Krohn et al., 2011).
  • 7.     Build student skills throughout the semester.  Being an effective discussion participant takes practice, as does being an effective discussion facilitator.  Students have the opportunity to participate in 11 discussions throughout the semester and to facilitate discussions twice with different co-facilitators each time.  Following each experience facilitating discussion, students write a metacognitive self-reflection essay indicating what went well and what they want to improve next time.  After making changes during their second experience facilitating discussion, students express tremendous pride at their improvement.  It is incredibly rewarding for me, as well, to see students’ active listening skills, preparation, professionalism, and confidence increase throughout the semester, and to hear their plans for using these skills in the future.  As one student commented, “Sometimes I think it can be more frightening sitting in a group discussion than standing on stage, because in a group discussion people are engaging on the facts that the speaker is presenting. That can put a lot of pressure on that personal speaker. That is something I learned not to be afraid of anymore.”
  • 8.     Facilitate peer-to-peer advice.  Here’s my favorite activity in this course.  On the first day of class, I give my students each a sealed envelope containing a letter written by a student at the end of the previous semester of the course.  As students read and compare letters in small groups, they begin to identify themes in their peers’ advice.  Most commonly students are advised to keep up with the readings, to participate actively in discussion even if they’re nervous, and to seek help when they need it.  By hearing the same advice from multiple sources, and by hearing it from their peers rather than from their professor, they take the advice seriously.  This exercise also increases students’ sense of community right away and models healthy risk-taking—an important step in building trust and increasing their own willingness to “put themselves out there.”  Sixteen weeks later, at the end of the semester, the students write their own letters to future students (Gooblar, 2015; Lang, 2016; Norcross, Slotterback, & Krebs, 2001). 

Effectiveness of student-led discussion

            Daily participation rates. I examined the proportion of students earning full credit, partial credit, or no credit for participation in discussion on a week-by-week basis across four semesters of Advanced Social Psychology.  For example, for a class of 34 students with 13 weeks of discussion, there were a total of 442 opportunities in which students could earn full, partial, or no credit for their discussion participation.  Students earned full credit on 87.5% of discussion days (range: 85.8 to 89.5%), partial credit on 7.8% of discussion days (range: 6.3 to 9.9%), and no credit on 4.7% of discussion days (range: 0.6 to 7.6%).  Put another way, combining across students and across weeks, fewer than five percent of students failed to participate on any given day of discussion, and well over three-quarters of students earned full participation credit on any given day—a far cry from traditional discussions in which only a quarter of students participate (Karp & Yoels, 1976, as cited in Nunn, 1996).

            Student evaluations of teaching (SETs).  On end-of-semester SETs across two semesters (N = 64), 48 students (75%) indicated that they had improved “quite a bit” or “a great deal” at leading small group discussions.  In their open-ended responses, a number of students indicated that this was among their favorite classes (n = 28), that they found discussions to be a helpful way to learn (n = 27), that they welcomed controversy or opposing arguments to enrich group discussions (n = 13), that discussions helped them apply class content to real life (n = 11), and that leading—not just participating in—discussions helped them learn (n = 10). 

            Student-led discussion is by no means perfect.  Even with all of the above techniques and with face-to-face meetings with struggling students, each semester there are still a couple of students who rarely contribute to discussion and a couple of students who tend to dominate the discussion.  Students sometimes make rude, offensive, or off-color comments, and although the groups tend to self-regulate and stop such behavior, occasionally I have to step in.  I haven’t yet found a panacea for these problems entirely, but the above techniques do help. For the vast majority of students, student-led discussion is an enjoyable, rewarding, intellectually stimulating classroom technique.  Just see for yourself in these students’ comments on end-of-semester evaluations:

  • ·        “I feel that especially through group discussions, I have been able to deeply understand the complexity of social psychology concepts, and even apply them to real-world situations, or to other concepts.”
  • ·       “[Discussion] made me learn so much more than just lecture alone. It provided new insight, ideas, and thoughtful consideration.”
  • ·       “I now feel more confident to disagree (even if to just play devil’s advocate) in an academic conversation, as that is one of the easiest ways to encourage people to think beyond their own perception or perspective.”
  • ·       “I feel confident enough now explaining and applying social psychology topics into everyday life, which clearly stem from being able to discuss the topics. Discussing these topics forced me to become comfortable talking about them, and learning how to do so.”


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