TEACHING NOTES: Walking the talk

This article continues a series on Strategies for keeping students engaged in class. So far we have explored Starting semester right, Active learning and Inclusive teaching. This month we delve into effective discussions.

As the second half of semester is well under way, you probably (ideally!) already have all your teaching strategies organised and implemented. Many of these strategies rely on students engaging in discussions with you and their peers (and sometimes people outside of the University community). By now, you’ll know how well your classes are getting involved in discussions. Chances are there is a fair bit of difference between them – it’s not unusual for one class to be quite talkative and another where making students talk is like inducing blood from a stone!

Still, it’s never too late to persuade students to participate. Remember that two of our graduate qualities (Flinders University, 2008) involve the ability to discuss effectively. These include graduates who:

  • communicate effectively
  • are collaborative

To communicate effectively, we expect our graduates to ‘convey clearly and fluently their knowledge, understanding, reasoning and decisions. We expect them to be able to do this in written and spoken form, as appropriate to the particular audience and setting. We also expect them to listen well and to respond constructively’ (Flinders University, 2008) (my italics).

For our graduates to be collaborative, we expect them to ’interact effectively and properly with others in a variety of settings. This includes, where appropriate, working cooperatively and productively within a group or team towards a common outcome. It also includes showing respect to others and to their ideas and perspectives, and learning to negotiate and resolve conflict or difficulties constructively’ (Flinders University, 2008) (my italics).

We base much of our teaching on students talking, but how much time do we spend actually teaching them to do so?

Social learning theories, such as social constructivism (Vygotsky 1978) posits that people learn in social contexts, through their interactions and communications with others. Vygotsky (1978) also suggested that the social environment is crucial and that educators need to create a learning environment to maximise students’ interacting with each other through discussion, collaboration and feedback. Language is the primary means to promote thinking, develop reasoning and support writing, and underpins many of the instructional activities we practice in teaching. Discussions are also a very accessible form of active learning as long as you approach them right. So here are some strategies to help you focus those discussions to a needle-sharp point or save those that are drowning…

Discussion-based strategies:

  • Clarify expectations – you will have done this at the beginning of semester. Do it again… and again… and again if you have to. It’s vital that students understand the role that discussion plays in the curriculum and their responsibility to participate in it… all of them. Explain the purpose of the discussions – usually to test and explore ideas rather than ‘battling it out’. This can help quieter students feel more comfortable about engaging.
    Discussions are for:

    • understanding a topic more deeply
    • exchanging ideas and knowledge
    • improving speaking confidence and language skills
    • helping groups reach a conclusion
    • improving critical thinking skills
    • and so on…
  • Remind them how it works – if there is a consistency to how you facilitate discussions, then remind them. If not, remember you need to explain the process each time so students understand what is expected of them. If there is preparation, then note this as well, and be specific about what and why rather than assigning a large amount of reading with no framework to guide thinking. For example, you may ask them to bring along a short position piece on the reading or questions they would like to discuss. You might even ask them to undertake a fact-finding quest to hunt out texts that support, clarify or oppose the issue under discussion.
  • Provide participation ideas – even understanding the why and how, some students still won’t have any practical sense of how to properly contribute, so give them some ideas. These might include:
    • practise listening by paraphrasing the previous speaker in their own words (mentally  or out loud) before adding a viewpoint
    •  identify the main ideas under discussion
    • listen for what they think are the best answers rather than feeling the need to be the winner
    • give encouragement and approval to others
    • let the current topic finish before adding any new issues
    • ask themselves questions whilst listening and take notes about issues they can respond to
    • prepare (by doing the pre-reading, attending lectures)
    • practise outside of class with another student.
  • Make sure the students understand the question – are you using jargon? Consider rephrasing the question to be less challenging. Instead of ‘Discuss X’, how about ‘What is it about X that stands out for you?’
  • Ask students to discuss amongst themselves initially (eg Think, Pair, Share as discussed in a previous article) and then share more broadly.
  • Brainstorm as an opener – anyone can contribute to a brainstorm. Write each contribution on screen. Use responses to identify a range of issues, causes, solutions, consequences etc., and then when the group has run out of ideas, begin to evaluate them.

Remember to keep the discussion focused, and keep returning to the key issues. Acknowledge each student’s contribution in some way (eg ‘thank you’ or ‘that’s a great suggestion’), listen to what they are saying, and refer back to it when relevant so students’ contributions are validated. When closing the discussion, don’t leave students hanging (unless it’s intentional to keep them motivated for the next phase of the discussion). Close with two or three main points to bring the ideas together and relate back to the learning outcomes.

Reflect on the discussion and take some notes about what worked well, what needs some thought, and who might need some additional support to contribute in future. This kind of evaluation is invaluable in your own reflective practice, and will assist student learning.

So if your student discussions aren’t yet going to plan – don’t give up! It’s never too late to make changes.


Cross, BG 2009, Tools for teaching, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, California.

Flinders University 2008, Graduate qualities, viewed 8 April 2018

Vygotsky, LS 1978, Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Written by Cassandra Hood
Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

Posted in
Teaching Notes

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