Degree In Sight

Wind-up toy teeth

Keeping a discussion interesting and productive among just a handful of students can be harder than lecturing before a large crowd. For one, it's tough to prepare for every possible direction the discussion might take. It can also be challenging to get talkative students to let others have a say and to encourage reticent students to speak up.

gradPSYCH asked teachers and professors for their advice on fostering great debates within small groups. Here's what they advise:

  • Establish a rapport. On the first day of the seminar, try an icebreaker to lessen students' anxiety, something as simple as asking everyone to give their names and say why they're taking the course.

  • Prime the pump. Pick a specific topic to address and ask each student to read up on the relevant literature in advance and to submit at least one question they'd like to discuss. Or post a question you've prepared on the course Web site and ask students to come to class with a one- or two-page answer they can reference during the discussion. That way, an instructor can draw out shyer students by working a round-robin approach and asking students for their thoughts in a set pattern, says Dana Dunn, PhD, of Moravian College.

  • Overprepare. As the discussion leader, develop a familiarity with a topic so you can argue all sides. "If the students all go in the same direction, play devil's advocate and be able to articulate the other side," says Jared Keeley, a sixth-year clinical psychology doctoral student and teaching assistant at Auburn University.

  • Find a hook. Relate a news story or something happening on campus to an idea you are introducing, Keeley says. To spark discussion in his statistics course, for example, he shows an episode of the TV show "Mythbusters" that tested the notion that if a piece of toast falls on the floor, there's a greater chance it will land butter side down.

  • Allow for some silence. Once a question is introduced, allow students 15 to 20 seconds to think about the question before you ask one to open the discussion. Giving students time to formulate their thoughts works better than trying to prompt them before they're ready, says Drew Christopher, PhD, an associate psychology professor at Albion College. "I've had some discussions get off to a slow start, and I found that the more I tried to jump-start them, the worse it got," Christopher says.

  • Set expectations. Let students know how much they should prepare for and participate in class discussions as well as how participation may affect their grades. Explain your role as the leader of the discussion—that you'll be picking a topic to discuss and starting off the discussion, but that once it starts, you need them to run with the topic.

  • Offer feedback. Midway through the seminar, tell students how you think they're doing and how you'd grade the quality of their participation so far.

  • Keep know-it-alls in check. Some students tend to dominate discussions. If that happens, set an informal limit on how many times students can comment, says Dunn. Or ask the student to moderate a portion of the discussion and sum up the responses. "If you put dominant students in the role of moderator, they're charged with the task of seeing that everyone else gets a chance to speak, and then they recognize that there are more people out there," says Ruth Ault, PhD, who chairs the Davidson College psychology department.

  • Observe students' interaction and nonverbal cues. Monitoring students' nonverbal cues helps instructors know if they need to try a new approach, says Ault. She strives for that moment when students almost forget she's there.

"I think it's a great sign when [they] stop addressing their comments to me and they start talking to each other," Ault says.

By Christopher Munsey
gradPSYCH Staff