Class discussions certainly create a setting that inspires deeper learning and fosters students’ ability to think more critically and strategically. But how can you work to ensure that this actually happens? Step one: encourage students to build and use the skills that help them understand how they can learn from the discussions that take place in your course.

In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Fourteenth Edition, Marilla Svinicki and Wilbert J. McKeachie present seven skills that students can adopt to get the most from class discussions and, in the process, become more critical thinkers. We’ve summarized their points below.

1. Knowing how and why discussion helps them learn. The process of sharing their thoughts and ideas, listening to others’, and formulating responses, supports their ability to use and retain the information they’ve learned from lecture, readings, and other sources.

2. Being willing to discuss and listen. When students talk about their own ideas and thoughtfully respond to others’, students can check their own understanding of the concepts at hand. To further build students’ listening skills, you could ask them to paraphrase the previous speaker’s points before responding with their own.

3. Planning for follow-up or further study. By taking the time at the end of a discussion to write down key issues addressed during their conversations and note which they want to explore or study in greater depth, students can more readily continue the learning process that begins in class.

4. Viewing discussion as collaborative and cooperative, rather than competitive. Approaching discussion from the perspective that one’s thoughts can build upon others’ ideas creates a setting in which all students can listen, learn, and feel more confident about expressing their thoughts.

5. Evaluating individual thoughts—as well as the discussion itself. If students know how to evaluate a discussion on its merits, they’ll be better prepared to participate in a productive manner. To strengthen students’ ability to identify the traits of a good discussion, the authors suggest saving some time at the end of a class session to address which aspects of the discussion were effective and which were less so.

6. Responding with sensitivity and respect towards others. Students who behave disrespectfully and dismiss others’ ideas cause their fellow students to feel discouraged, frustrated, and less likely to participate in the future. On the other hand, if each student listens to the others and values what they have to say, the class as a whole can feel inspired, enlightened, and bettered by the discussion. The authors’ suggestion for building students’ skills in this direction: train them on how to lead discussions, then allow them to facilitate a session. By paying attention to the discussion as a leader, they can learn to gauge their own sensitivity as participants.

7. Taking effective notes during the discussion. Trying to take notes in a linear manner (as you might during a lecture) can prove difficult during a discussion, which often takes a non-linear shape. You might suggest that students make a concept map: jot down ideas, then draw arrows to illustrate connections among the various ideas. The authors also suggest that you might appoint one or two students to serve as the “recorders,” who take notes on the discussion and distribute them to the class afterward. (Svinicki and McKeachie, 52-54)

Additional tips for effective discussions that promote critical thinking:

  • Pause every so often to ensure the discussion remains focused on relevant topics. Check to ensure that you’re reaching any class goals you may have established for that class session.
  • Give students time to write down their own reflections on the discussion.
  • Close the discussion with a summary. You may work on this as a class; alternately, you can take the last few minutes of the session to encourage students to summarize their observations and conclusions, then share them with the rest of the class. (Svinicki and McKeachie, 54)

Reference: Svinicki, Marilla, and Wilbert J. McKeachie. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

How do you use your class discussion time to inspire deeper thinking? Any suggested techniques for the online classroom? Share your ideas in the comments section below.