Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Leading Discussion

The nuts and bolts of leading discussion involve two fundamental activities. First, you must be prepared to ask good questions, whether to get the ball rolling, restart a stalled section, or redirect a discussion that seems to be going off topic or off the rails. Second, you must be able to facilitate the discussion itself, commenting on students’ insights, eliciting thoughts from students who might not be keen to speak, and decorously but firmly preventing those with a lot to say from dominating a class. These two tasks run in parallel during every class section.

Asking Questions

Asking questions is one of the most important things a section leader does. This might seem like an absurdly simple task, but it is extremely difficult to formulate a good question. It requires knowledge of the subject matter as well as a thorough understanding of the various ways in which a student might approach the subject.

Thus, you should consider what each question you ask in your section is meant to accomplish. Good discussion questions tend to require some higher-order thinking, above and beyond the factual. Such questions can be difficult to produce off-the-cuff, so if you’re a new teacher or new to the subject, spend some of your section preparation time devising them. It’s okay— encouraged, even—to have a list handy.

It may be true that there’s no such thing as a dumb question (though you will soon find this proposition specious at best), but there are definitely bad questions when it comes to initiating discussion. There’s nothing inherently wrong with asking a yes/no or factual question once in a while: if you suspect, for example, that there is some misunderstanding among the students about a basic issue. If you never bust out some more sophisticated queries, however, you will almost certainly bore your class.

Types of Questions that Tend Not to Provoke Discussion

Types of Questions that Are Likely to Provoke Discussion

Yes/No: “Are the words ‘charity’ and ‘clarity’ etymologically related?”

Analytic: “How do you account for the popularity of reality TV shows?”

Factual: “What is the only state with a unicameral legislature?”

Evaluative: “Explain the statement ‘Van Halen was far superior with David Lee Roth as lead singer.’”

Multiple: “What are some of the songs theBeatles wrote, and who wrote each one?”

Compare/Contrast: “How are ale and lager different?”

Elliptical: “So how about those Red Sox?”

Causal: “What connection, if any, is there between smoking and lung cancer?

Leading: “I thinkUlysses is overrated, don’t you?”

Descriptive: “How would you describe a penguin?”

Tugging: “Who can give me one more word to describe Tijuana?”

Personalized: “What would you say to someone who thinks that, if there is no God, then all is permitted?”

Guessing: “Why do you think Ayn Rand was such a weirdo?”


Fostering Participation

As with any group of people, the dynamic of your section is apt to vary radically from class to class and week to week, so there’s really no easy way to prepare for the facilitatory legerdemain required by any given session. Nevertheless, there are some common issues and fears surrounding discussion sections; these issues and fears are addressed below with admirable competence and puckish good humor.

Section Compared with a Dinner Party

Many teachers, particularly first-time teachers, view a class session as a “success” if fifty minutes elapse without any silence. There’s definitely something appealing about this view: when there’s no silence then people have been talking, and when people are talking then people are learning, right?

That’s true some of the time. But a classroom discussion is not a dinner party. A bit of silence is not necessarily bad. Having one person—even if that person is you—do all of the talking, regaling everyone present with wit and wisdom, is rarely beneficial.

Yet you do need to act like a dinner party host, figuring out ways to get everyone to participate but preventing one boorish lout from dominating the discussion. So before you host that first party, think carefully about what will constitute “participation” in your section. Which leads us to…

Defining Participation

TFs define “participation” in different ways. For some it means just that everyone comes to section; others think that everyone should say something too. Some TFs require weekly response papers but allow shy students not to speak during section; others like to meet each of their students individually during office hours. Whatever your idea of participation, the way in which you carry yourself will make a big difference in your class dynamic in general and the participation level specifically.

Participation often increases when students feel comfortable and confident enough around their colleagues and you to speak openly without fear of censure. To this end, be open about your own thinking and opinions; it can help to tell your students how you first encountered the ideas of texts at hand, some of the problems you had with certain authors, and so on.

Regardless of how comfortable you make the classroom, it’s entirely possible that you’ll occasionally need to coax students into participating. Likewise, some students may be too open to speaking, monopolizing the discussion and preventing others from sharing their views. In the worst cases, a heated discussion turns into a clash of wills, leaving you to defuse the tension. For more on these topics, see “The Usual Fears, the Usual Suspects” below and “Managing Controversy”.

Communicate Expectations

It should come as no surprise that the best way to deal with issues of participation is to tell your students from the get-go what you expect of them. Tell them if attendance is part of their grade, if they’re expected to say something meaningful every section (beware of requiring this, though, as you will likely end up with a string of “meaningful” comments that amount to little more than “I agree with what she said”), or whatever it is you want out of them.

Acknowledge Student Comments

Every student comment deserves some sort of acknowledgement, even if it’s merely a restatement of what was said, (“So, Lisa, you seem to be suggesting that Kirk was a better politician, Picard a better strategist. Is that a fair summary?”) or even some lighthearted nay saying on your part (“I’m not sure I agree— after all, the Yankees are overpaid poseurs, while the Red Sox have real heart”). The acknowledgement doesn’t have to come from you personally; it can come from another student as well. The key is to make it clear that someone is listening.

Give Students Time to Answer

Don’t intervene too quickly during those moments when no one speaks at all. Doing so takes away the opportunity for reflection. Remember that you already know the answer to the question; what you hear as the silence of ignorance could very well be the silence that accompanies thought. A good rule of thumb is to wait five seconds before answering the question yourself or rephrasing it. These five seconds will seem like forever. Smile pleasantly, groom your cuticles, take a drink of water, whatever. Just give the class time to think.

Incorporate Different Teaching Techniques into Section

Not all students respond well to traditional discussion or lecture-discussion formats. Consider breaking the class into groups, staging a debate, assigning larger collaborative projects, or using some other form of active learning (see Chapter 4 for some ideas). Remember, too, that “participation” does not occur only in section: TFs often make use of email as a means of “discussion,” both on a one-on-one basis and as a group. You can create a discussion forum on Classes*v2, use Google docs or wikis through which students can post their views on the subject matter (see Chapter 4 for this as well).

The Usual Fears, The Usual Suspects

Perhaps the most common fear among teachers young and old is that their students will sit in class as silent as monks in a library. What if you threw a section and no one talked? Oh, the humanity! Equally common is the fear that one student will dominate, giving no one else a chance to get their two cents’ worth in. Both situations do occur, but probably not as often as you might think. Nevertheless, it’s good to be prepared.

It’s Quiet…Too Quiet: When the Class Won’t Talk

Why is the class silent? There are several reasons you might be faced with such deafening nothingness:

  • All your students are mimes.

There’s not much you can do about this.

  • You’re not allowing time to think and respond.

This is a common problem with first-time teachers. If you’re trying to get through a large amount of material, you’ll be apt to rush your questions. Remember that you know this material much better than your students do, so what might seem to you a perfectly obvious question might actually require some reflection on the part of the students. Wait five seconds after you ask a question before either rephrasing it or answering it yourself.

  • You’ve just asked a question so obvious that no one wants to be the one to answer it.

On the other end of the spectrum, don’t ask a question like “So, who is the author of this text?” None but the most sycophantic of students will offer up an answer to that and, even then, it will be preceded by a profound sigh.

  • They just didn’t do the reading.

Hey, sometimes that happens. When students are studying for midterm exams, for example, they are especially likely to be less prepared for section than normal. While it’s probably not a good idea to reduce demonstrably the amount of reading or work for section during the midterm period, it is a good idea to be aware of the potential for under-prepared sections. Other times of the year are also likely to draw students’ attention away from your brilliant section to other things: Family Weekend and The Game (Yale-Harvard) in the fall and Tap Night in April are some biggies. If you suspect that no one has done the work, ask the section. They’ll likely be honest with you.

  • The material is particularlydifcult.

Again, as a semi-specialist in whatever you’re teaching, you may not always be aware when something is especially challenging. This will likely become apparent shortly after section starts, as even your most basic questions are answered with more silence. You’ll probably have to revise your game plan for section and focus on making sure everyone has the basic concepts down.

  • The students who normally dominate discussion are absent.

Often, despite your best efforts to the contrary, there will be one or two students who always have something to say (or nothing to say, but speak incessantly anyway). If these students contract dysentery and are absent, the remaining students might have no idea what to do once faced with the opportunity to speak their minds. This will usually resolve itself after a few minutes and the students will enjoy their newfound freedom; with skill, you can establish a new dynamic that will carry over to the next section.

Clearly, the way to deal with a silent classroom varies with the particular problem. But you’ll be in good shape if you prepare for section with that possibility in mind. Have back-up questions or plans ready if it becomes clear that no one has done the reading or if everyone has done the reading but no one understands it. It might help to keep lists (either physically or just conceptually) of basic information, slightly more complex issues, and advanced ideas for the topic(s) on hand. If no one has done the work, you can resort to the basics; if everyone has done it and engaged with it, you can unleash the big guns.

“Problem” Students: Talking Too Much, Talking Too Little

It’s common to have a few students in every section who simply never talk. There will also be a few students who so try to monopolize every discussion that you can’t believe they don’t notice. In both cases, a good first line of attack is to approach them outside of class. Be as non-threatening as possible. Speak to them immediately after section, invite them to office hours, or email them. In the case of the Silent Sams, ask if there’s a specific reason they’re not speaking. Are they bored? Shy? Coy? Would they speak more if you asked them questions directly, or would that make them more nervous?

In the case of the chatterboxes, tell them that you appreciate their enthusiasm and interest, but that you’d like other students to have a chance to speak and that their not interrupting people constantly would really help in that endeavor. In class, you can always try the “Let’s hear from somebody else” routine. Add glaring as necessary.