Facilitating Discussion in Humanities and Social Sciences Classes

Anyone who has led discussions understands their unpredictable nature. Preparing for discussion does not limit this unpredictability but ensures that the conversation is as open-ended and self-critical as possible. Think of the following as a set of strategies to help foster dialogue in both seminars and precepts and further discussion's many aims: to improve students' active listening, analytical thinking, and public speaking skills; to encourage intellectual collaboration and mutual critique, and to highlight the complexity of course themes and issues.

Setting the Scene

  • Be enthusiastic from the start. Introduce yourself and explain your interests in the course material and methodology. Ask students to do the same.

  • Allow class members to learn something about one another. Students who feel a sense of community also feel a greater responsibility to the work of the class.

  • Rearrange the classroom seating. Ask students to sit in a semicircle; seat yourself on the side of a seminar table rather than at its head. Try changing your position during the semester to shake up established speaking patterns.

  • Recognize the tension between sharing authority in the classroom and establishing a presence in it. Speaking clearly, making eye contact, and smiling and nodding your head can help define your role as an engaged, responsive facilitator.

Getting--and Keeping--Things Going

  • Generate a repertoire of carefully phrased questions. Avoid using ambiguous or "closed" questions (yes/no questions, questions with only one answer, leading questions); instead, pose questions that require students to draw conclusions from the readings, find evidence for their claims, consider the implications of an argument, synthesize seemingly disparate material, and make critical judgments. Make sure to provide enough time (between 10-30 seconds) for students to respond. You may want to refine or refocus your query after the initial response to deepen and enrich that response.

  • Invite students to generate discussion themes and topics. Ask students to post thought questions about the week's reading to an electronic bulletin board, and to use them to initiate discussion.

  • Resist the urge to respond to every student comment. Instead, redirect comments and questions back to the group, encouraging students to elaborate on one another's ideas. Make an effort to learn and use their names, and personalize the ideas and analysis offered in the discussion ("Jaime's made a terrific point. What do others think?").

  • Assign in-class writing. Asking students to write for a few minutes on a question or problem can generate more considered responses and stimulate more thoughtful discussions.

  • Experiment with dividing students into pairs or small groups. Make sure to direct them to a specific issue to grapple with and report on. Students are often more comfortable speaking to a few classmates than to the entire class; after working in  groups, they may find it easier to participate in general discussions.

  • Treat sensitive subjects--representations of race or ethnicity, for example, or sexually graphic language--directly and openly. Likewise, don't ignore a student's controversial or offensive comment, but ask her to clarify it. You can use (or diffuse) a conflict in the classroom by making it the starting point for textual inquiry or further research.

Finishing Up, Reflecting Back

  • Summarize, or ask one or two students to summarize, the most important points of the discussion at the end of class. Alternately, ask students to articulate unanswered questions that the discussion has raised, stressing that intellectual inquiry is ongoing.

  • Solicit feedback about the success of the discussion methods and pedagogical techniques you use. Try using mid-semester evaluations, available at the McGraw Center's website.

References and Resources:

Brookfield, Stephen D. The Skillful Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001. 

Lorsch, Nancy and Shirley Ronkowski. "Effective Questioning Enhances Student Learning."  Santa Barbara: Office of Instructional Consultation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1992.  McKeachie, Wilbert J. Teaching Tips. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

The Office of the Dean of the College. Inspired Conversations: The Preceptor Pamphlet. In preparation. 

Princeton Writing Program"Lightening Strikes: Quick, Effective Teaching Interventions That Can Make a Big Difference in Student Writing." Princeton: Princeton University, 2003. 

Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Oxford, UK: 2003.