How to NOT to Lead a Discussion

In this course each student will have the opportunity to lead several 15-minute (maximum) discussions; the first discussion will be considered "practice," the second and later discussions are "for the record." In actuality, the highest of the scores will be retained for determining the course grade. In every case, discussion leadership will be scored by the instructor and student peers using a discussion scoring rubric.

One of the best helps to learn how to conduct a discussion is to describe how NOT to conduct a discussion. Consider how, recently, a student led a "discussion" of an article in this course.

The student conducted an hour-long "discussion" of an 11-page paper. The "discussion" started off with a monologue. After several minutes of telling the students what the paper was about, the leader launched off on a journey to address nearly every paragraph of the paper. What was this about? What was that about? What did you think about that? How do you feel about his comment? and on and on. At the end of the hour, the students participating in the discussion were no better informed, having gained no better understanding, of what the paper was all about. The students couldn't "see the forest for the trees." The key points and argumentation were lost in a morass of blinding detail relating to statistics, procedures, and so on.

The student leader would have done a much better job by using a limited set of questions such as the following: What was this paper about? What point was the author trying to make? Did he make his point? What evidence did the author cite in favor of his claims? Did the author provide substantive support for his position? What are the implications of this research? How might these findings affect your own classroom teaching? Focusing on just 5 or 6 central questions rather than dozens of questions about details will make discussion much more effective, and help to accomplish significant student learning. Restrict yourself to 5 or 6 key questions, and you and your students won't lose sight of what an article is all about.

If you want to lead a discussion well within a 15-minute time constraint, then consider the following points:

  1. pay close attention to the discussion scoring rubric.
  2. set realistic goals - determine what the goal of the discussion is (to understand the point of the author)
  3. pay attention to thought processes required to achieve goals
  4. outline questions in light of required thought processes
  5. provide for variety of questions (see Bloom's Taxonomy or Rhodes' Typology)
  6. restrict yourself to 5 or 6 key questions that adequately frame the subject matter; of course, you may ask clarifying follow-up questions
  7. questions should be restricted to a student-appropriate level
  8. prepare a novel introduction if possible
  9. follow common-sense rules:
(Last updated February 15, 2012, cjw)