What Do Students Learn Through Discussion?
By: Maryellen Weimer, Ph
It’s a good question and on days when getting them to discuss feels a lot like prodding reluctant mules, it’s easy to be cynical about learning outcomes. But most faculty believe in discussion and try hard to make it work. Would we make the effort if we didn’t think the learning potential was there?
The question of what students learn in discussion was put to a group of second-year undergraduates studying social work in a course where group discussions were a key part of the learning experience. Students engaged in face-to-face discussion in large and small groups during class sessions and online after class. Their online posts constituted 13% of their overall course grade. Researchers surveyed and interviewed students asking them to respond to several discussion-related queries.
Using a qualitative design, researchers identified four different ways students reported they were using discussion to promote learning.
1. To challenge ideas – both their own and others with the goal of arriving at a more complete understanding
2. To develop ideas – using the ideas of others to improve their own thinking
3. To acquire ideas – using discussion as a way of collecting ideas
4. To check ideas – making sure that their ideas were the right ones; that they were learning the right things
The researchers identify the first two approaches as deep learning methods and the last two as more typical of surface learning approaches.
The researchers also point out that students don’t always see the potential for learning through discussion—it’s just another one of those things some teachers have them do. You think the reason for having discussions is obvious to students? I’d encourage you to test that assumption. Next time you’ve had a discussion, ask students why you had them discuss the topic rather than simply lecturing on it or have them read about it in the text. If I had to guess, I’d say that question will first be met with silence, followed by some glib answers, “You didn’t have time to prepare a lecture,” followed by other answers, none still very insightful, “It’s a way to keep us awake.”
If that’s at all close to what transpires, it might be worthwhile spending a bit of time exploring why discussing ideas makes them easier to learn. Maybe start by listing the reasons listed in the bullets above and ask students if they can think examples from the discussion that has just occurred? There are many ways a teacher can reinforce the learning that has occurred in a discussion. After it’s over, give students a couple of minutes and encourage them to make some notes about important ideas that emerged during the discussion. Maybe have a few students share what they’ve written at the beginning of the next class. Or, you might make a note of something insightful, provocative, interesting that a student said and then mention it in class the next day, or post it on the course website.
It doesn’t hurt us to revisit the reasons why we’re using discussion. What goals are you hoping these exchanges accomplish? How often do they accomplish these intended outcomes? What role do you take during the discussion? Often I talk too much, but I have a solution for that. When students are discussing, I take notes—I use the board but you could use the computer. I love this strategy. It keep me quiet and forces me to listen much more intently to student comments.
C. Roland Christensen, the great discussion teacher, writes that finding time to reflect on discussion as it unfolds is “like trying to meditate on a speeding fire engine.” Truly, too much is happening too fast. After the fact reflection need not be a terribly time consuming activity. You’ve read the blog, now be still for two more minutes and revisit discussion, as it transpires in your class and as you aspire to use it.
Reference: Ellis, R. A., Goodyear, P., Prosser, M., and O’Hara, A. (2006). How and what university students learn through online and face-to-face discussion: Conceptions, intentions and approaches. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 22, 244-256.