Group of students having a meeting

Discussion Generation

It can be difficult to get a good discussion going, especially in large classes. Use these strategies to help students ask good questions, examine their own opinions, and discuss with their peers, both in break-out groups and in the class as a whole.

 

Think-pair-share

Online adaptation: Possible in Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Pose a question (orally, in writing on a board, or projected onto a screen).
  2. Ask students to think about the question on their own (1-2 min.).
  3. Ask students to pair up with someone sitting near them and discuss their responses/thoughts (2-3 min.).
  4. Regroup as a whole class and call for volunteers or randomly choose a few pairs to share their responses.

Examples:

  • In an epidemiology course, students offer potential diagnoses and treatments based on photographs of medical conditions and patient case histories.
  • In an education course that addresses classroom management, students describe how they would respond to an off-task student’s interruptive behavior. Students come up with a solution individually, then justify it in pairs, and then come to a consensus on an appropriate approach to the scenario.

Variations:

  • Intentionally choose different pairs to give summaries of their ideas each time this activity is carried out.
  • Have students work together to create a synthesis of ideas or come to a consensus.
  • After the pairs have discussed their responses, have two pairs discuss together (in groups of four students), in lieu of randomly choosing pairs to report out to the entire class.
  • Use visual stimuli (e.g., photographs, diagrams) as prompts for discussion.

Polar opposites

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Present the class with two versions of a theory (or corollary or law of nature), of which one is incorrect. For instance, one could be the opposite of the other. 
  2. Have students examine the problem carefully to determine which version is correct. 

Example:

In a physics course: Heavier objects always fall faster than lighter ones; heavier objects do not always fall faster than lighter ones.

Yee, K. (n.d.). Interactive techniques. Retrieved from http://www.usf.edu/atle/teaching/handout-interactive-techniques.pdf. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Picture prompt

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Show students a picture—related to course content—with no explanation.
  2. Ask them to
    1. identify/explain it and justify their answers or
    2. write about it using terms from your lecture or
    3. name the processes and concepts shown or
    4. synthesize the class content by connecting it to the picture (drawn from instructor responses to McGill’s March 2021 Remote Teaching Survey).
  3. Do not give “answers” until students have explored all options.

Variations:

  • Have students work in small groups.
  • Begin the class by displaying a picture or cartoon meant to provoke an emotional reaction or discussion.

Yee, K. (n.d.). Interactive techniques. Retrieved from http://www.usf.edu/atle/teaching/handout-interactive-techniques.pdf. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Town meeting discussion

Online adaptation: Possible in Zoom

  1. Introduce a topic or case problem.
  2. As objectively as possible, provide background information and a summary of opposing viewpoints. Use documents and visuals if necessary.
  3. Solicit students’ viewpoints using a “call on the next speaker” approach: the student who finishes speaking calls on the next student speaker (from among students with raised hands).

Suggest students speak briefly so that many students can participate. Establish a time limit if appropriate.

Example:

In a political science course: Gerrymandering is the process of intentionally changing voting districts’ geographical boundaries. While some people claim that gerrymandering is an unjust manipulation of power by elected officials, other people insist that it is a justified approach to district reallocation that allows elected officials to create a legacy for their political party and constituents. State your point of view and discuss.

Variation:

In lieu of the instructor presenting opposing viewpoints, have students present them.

Silberman, M. (1996). Active learning: 101 strategies to teach any subject. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, p. 86.

Brainstorming

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Set a time limit.
  2. State the issue.
  3. Have students generate ideas regarding the issue.
  4. Have students categorize, combine, condense and refine ideas.
  5. Do a whole class debrief.

Example:

In a human resources course, students suggest strategies to ensure that a hiring process (from posting a position announcement through the interview process and the job offer) is run equitably. Given a specific context (employment sector, position requirements, workplace environment), students brainstorm what strategies can be used in terms of communications, outreach, interview set-up and interview questions, and discuss potential challenges they might expect.

Variations:

  1. Students articulate the relationships among the ideas.
  2. Complement brainstorming with a mind mapping activity.

Brainstorming can be combined with other strategies: see links for wisdom of another, truth statements, questions from readings, buzz groups, focused listing, roundtable writing, mind mapping, 4 corners (write around the room), directed questioning, and lecture reaction.

Wisdom of another

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. After any individual brainstorming or creative activity, pair students up to share their results.
  2. Call for volunteers who found their partner’s work to be interesting or exemplary to share that work with the whole class. Students are sometimes more willing to share in plenary the work of fellow students than their own work.

Yee, K. (n.d.). Interactive techniques. Retrieved from http://www.usf.edu/atle/teaching/handout-interactive-techniques.pdf. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Truth statements

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Either to introduce a topic or check comprehension, ask students to list “It is true that ...” statements on the topic being discussed.
  2. Engage the class in discussion where questionable statements have been made.

Examples:

In a sociology course:

  • The once-feared Thalidomide has always been recognized as a cancer fighting drug.
  • Vaccines have always been erroneously linked to autism.

(These two statements are excerpted from: Beloit College. (2016). Mindset List for the Class of 2020. Retrieved from https://www.beloit.edu/mindset/2020/).

Yee, K. (n.d.). Interactive techniques. Retrieved from http://www.usf.edu/atle/teaching/handout-interactive-techniques.pdf. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Questions from readings

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions

Instructions:

  1. Ask students to create questions on assigned readings focusing on main ideas.
  2. Instruct students to post questions before class to a myCourses discussion forum. These questions can inform your lesson planning and be used as the basis for in-class discussions.

Variations:

  • Students address questions in the myCourses discussion forum prior to class.
  • Questions are assigned to small groups for in-class discussions. 

Buzz groups

Online adaptation: Possible in Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Divide the class into small groups.
  2. Assign students a specific problem to solve or a question to address. Allot a set amount of time for students to engage in the task; enforce the time limit.
  3. Ask students to briefly present their findings to the whole class so that you can respond to comments and encourage discussion.

Example:

In a communications class for engineers, students receive a technical manual and are asked to re-write different sections to make them accessible to a non-expert audience.

Variation:

When students present their findings, challenge groups to contribute only ideas that haven’t yet been mentioned. 

Focused listing

Online adaptation: Possible in Zoom

Note: Focused listing need not take more than a few minutes. It can be used before or after instruction.

Instructions:

  1. Ask students to take out a sheet of paper and generate a list based on a specific topic. Let students know how much time they have to create their list.
  2. Have students share their lists in small groups and identify the two or three most important points.
  3. Have students share the most important points with the whole class.

Examples:

  • In an educational psychology course, students provide examples of defining characteristics of Piaget’s stages of cognitive development.
  • In a political science course, students identify the pros and cons of a government’s proposed course of action currently in the news.

Variations:

  • Students make a focused list prior to the discussion and then add to the list—correcting any prior misconceptions—at the end of the class period.
  • Students brainstorm in small groups and type their lists.
  • You can combine Focused Listing with 4 Corners (also known as Write around the Room).
  • The list takes different forms depending on the topic (e.g., a table to compare and contrast ideas, a Venn diagram to identify related and distinct elements).

(The last variation is drawn from instructor responses to McGill’s March 2021 Remote Teaching Survey)

Roundtable writing

Online adaptation: Possible in OneDrive and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Divide students into groups of four.
  2. Communicate a time limit for this activity that will allow all group members an opportunity to participate.
  3. Display a discussion prompt on the screen or board.
  4. Ask students to pass around a sheet of paper clockwise on which they write—in short phrases or sentences—their respective responses to the prompt.
  5. Have students read their responses aloud in their groups so that peers can reflect upon them while the paper moves around the group.
  6. Conclude with a whole-class discussion of students’ responses.

Example:

In a course on scientific principles, this prompt is shown to the class: “Identify important scientific discoveries of the 20th Century in the field of medicine.”

Barkley, E. F., Major, C. H., & Cross, K. P. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 299.

Variations:

  • Use fairly simple, straightforward prompts that keep the paper moving around the group.
  • Encourage student to respond or build on) the comments of those who have already written on the sheet.
  • Use in conjunction with the “muddiest point” strategy: students write down their muddiest point, check those muddiest points that have already been written by others and expand as appropriate. Follow up by facilitating a discussion of the muddiest points.
  • One student can assume the role of Scribe. The Scribe writes down each student’s responses on a computer, creating a file that can be saved and emailed to the group participants or the whole class.

Mind/concept mapping

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions, and OneDrive and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Ask students to identify key concepts about a topic.
  2. Provide students with examples of various mind map (visual representation) formats that can be used to express relationships among concepts. The examples should illustrate the use of basic elements, such as boxes, arrows (uni- or multi-directional), simple hierarchical relationships or “webs” coming from one central point.
  3. Have students create a mind map of the relationship among the key concepts.
  4. Ask students to compare and contrast their mind maps in pairs, working towards a single map that incorporates all agreed-upon elements.

Examples:

  • In an international relations course, students create a visual representation of the purposes, scope, impact and reach of the United Nations.
  • In a pharmacology course, students create a critical distinctions chart to compare and demonstrate the differences among similar drugs.
  • In a biology course, students draw the phases of mitosis, including a labelled diagram of the cell at each phase.

Variation:

Use software to develop maps in small groups on computers; have students share their maps with other students either in class or in online in myCourses.

4 corners (write around the room)

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions, and OneDrive and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Post large sheets of paper in each corner of the classroom. Each sheet of paper should have a different question written on it that relates to a topic being discussed in that class.
  2. Form groups.
  3. Provide each group with markers.
  4. Have each group move to a corner and brainstorm a list in response to the question posed. Set and keep a time limit for this activity to ensure that students have sufficient time at each of the corners.
  5. Have groups move clockwise to the next corner and add to the previous group’s responses. There should be no repetitions in responses. Only new responses should be added.
  6. Bring the class together for a whole-group discussion of the contents of each list.

Example:

In an English literature course: What are recurring features of Lord Byron’s poetry? How do these stylistic elements hint at his intended audience? What are the key traits of the Byronic hero?

Variations:

  • Students can put a check mark next to previously listed responses that are consistent with their lists.
  • Once students have completed this activity, they might organize the results using concept mapping so as to further solidify their understanding of the concepts’ relation to one another.

Directed questioning

Instructions:

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions and Zoom

  1. Pose engaging and challenging questions.
  2. Ask students to work in groups to respond to the questions.
  3. Have students report their responses.

Example:

In a case law course, give student groups a question such as “What are two decisions that support your position? Explain your reasoning.”

Lecture reaction

Online adaptation: Possible in Zoom

Instructions:

  1. After a lecture, divide the class into four groups:
    1. Questioners, who ask two questions related to the material
    2. Example givers, who provide applications
    3. Divergent thinkers, who must disagree with some points of the lecture
    4. Agreers, who explain which points they agreed with or found helpful
  2. Allow students time to prepare their thoughts.
  3. Engage the whole class in a discussion where students contribute their questions and perspectives.

Variation:

Students have a discussion in groups of four, where each member has one of the four roles.

Yee, K. (n.d.). Interactive techniques. Retrieved from http://www.usf.edu/atle/teaching/handout-interactive-techniques.pdf. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Learning starts with a question

Online adaptation: Possible in OneDrive and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Distribute an instructional handout, such as a chart, diagram, image or text that will stimulate students’ curiosity.
  2. Ask students to study the handout with a partner.
  3. Ask pairs to write questions next to content they don’t understand.
  4. Call the class together and respond to students’ questions.

Silberman, M. (1996). Active learning: 101 strategies to teach any subject. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, p. 94.

Student questions - group decided

Online adaptation: Possible in Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Stop the class.
  2. Group students into fours.
  3. Ask students to take five minutes to decide on the one question they think is crucial for you to answer right now.

Yee, K. (n.d.). Interactive techniques. Retrieved from http://www.usf.edu/atle/teaching/handout-interactive-techniques.pdf. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Student-generated questions

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions

Instructions:

  1. At the start of the semester, pass out index cards.
  2. Ask students to individually write questions about the class and their expectations.
  3. Ask students to rotate the cards through the room, with each student adding a check-mark if they agree this question is important for them.
  4. Collect the cards and use them throughout the course to address students’ most frequent questions.

Variation:

On a day when you will address an especially challenging topic in class, ask students to write a question about the topic based on the associated readings for that day.

Yee, K. (n.d.). Interactive techniques. Retrieved from http://www.usf.edu/atle/teaching/handout-interactive-techniques.pdf. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Student-generated questions based on peers' presentations

Online adaptation: Possible in Zoom and myCourses

Instructions:

  1. Divide the class into small groups in which each student will give a brief, prepared oral presentation on a topic that builds on course readings and class discussions.
  2. Explain that students listening to the presentations should write 1 or 2 questions that address the presentation content in relation to course content.
  3. Ask students to submit their questions to you. These questions can subsequently be used for in-class or online discussion, for preparing students for an upcoming exam, or as prompts for subsequent assignments.

Variations:

  • In small classes, presentations can be given to the whole class rather than to small groups.
  • In large classes, questions can be submitted by pairs or groups.

Small group reading discussions

Online implementation: Possible in Zoom

Instructions:

  1. At the beginning of a class, pose questions or prompts related to the assigned readings for that class.  

  2. Students address these questions or prompts in small groups.  

  3. Students take note of the ideas arising from their small group discussion. 

  4. Students share main ideas with the whole class to galvanize a larger class discussion.

Variation:

  • Students take note of the main ideas arising from their small group discussion using a collaborative OneDrive document that can be uploaded to myCourses after the class.  

  • Students videorecord their small group discussion and share it with the instructor for feedback. 

(Strategy drawn from instructor responses to McGill’s March 2021 Remote Teaching Survey)

 

 


McGill University is on land which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. We acknowledge and thank the diverse Indigenous people whose footsteps have marked this territory on which peoples of the world now gather.


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