Four strategies that rethink whole-group discussions

A guide to organising class discussions in different formats so that all students feel able to participate, based on insight from Harvard educators


College of the Holy Cross,Harvard University
23 Aug 2023
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A group of students in discussion

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By promoting sustained engagement between learners, discussions allow students to co-construct knowledge. They give students hands-on practice developing their oral communication skills. They can also acclimatise students to uncertainty. After all, probing multiple “right answers”, sitting with the fact that complex problems seldom present single, straightforward solutions, is crucial in most intellectual and professional endeavours.

Nevertheless, not all discussions allow all students to flourish. The whole-group discussion format specifically demands rethinking. This kind of discussion, in which the instructor facilitates a single conversation among 20, 30, 40 students or more, remains the dialogic default in most postsecondary classrooms. This is understandable: compared with more elaborate structures, whole-group discussions require less coordination and grant instructors wide latitude in discussion trajectories. But whole-group discussions tend to privilege the loudest voices in the room and, many times, can lead a minority of students to assume control of the airwaves. Moreover, they don’t always allow instructors or students to capitalise on the wealth of perspectives that make up a classroom.

In this resource, we draw on discussion practices of Harvard instructors whom we observed and interviewed for our new book, Instructional Moves for Powerful Teaching in Higher Education. These instructors offer powerful alternatives to the whole-group discussion. Here are four of those alternatives.

Peer instruction. In Dan Levy’s Advanced Quantitative Methods course at the Harvard Kennedy School, opportunities for peer instruction are sprinkled throughout class sessions. It works like this: Levy shares a poll question with students and has them respond to it individually. Next, students pair up and compare their responses. If answers differ, students must convince one another why the other is correct. Levy then projects poll results for all the class to see. If a high number of student responses are wrong, this spurs further classroom debate.

Variations of peer instruction abound and the format can be easily leveraged across disciplines. Inviting students to pair up and discuss can inject interactivity into a lecture. It offers students space to process and apply what they are learning with a peer. And though this strategy requires minimal preparation from instructors, it can instantaneously transform a teacher-centred lesson into a lively, student-centred one.

Partner roleplays. Partner roleplays take Levy’s practice a step further. Todd Rakoff, a Harvard Law School professor, uses this strategy constantly in his Legislation and Regulation classroom. The strategy invites students to step into the shoes of different players (for instance, a defence attorney, prosecutor, Supreme Court justice) and have a conversation about the facts of the case at hand from those perspectives. In turn, students deepen their understanding of cases and key concepts. They become more carefully attuned to a particular position’s objectives, arguments and constraints.

Partner roleplays make for more focused dialogues and help to avoid the common trap of students veering from the facts to simply sharing their own opinions. “It helps them criticise the arguments rather than go ad hominem, which is an important skill for lawyers to have,” explains Jeannie Suk Gersen, another professor at Harvard Law School whose classroom benefits from the strategy.

Small-group discussions. Research suggests that small-group discussions in large courses specifically are a powerful way to boost engagement and deepen student learning. For students who might find the large-enrolment course alienating and unwelcoming, small groups can generate more equitable exchanges and give students a sense of belonging. Opening up the floor this way, Rakoff explains, generates a “tremendous amount of education” in a single classroom while making space for less-extroverted students to flourish.

Having students meet in the same small discussion groups for several classes can allow students to get comfortable grappling with the course content together. But there are also benefits to having students meet a range of peers throughout the semester. After all, discussion patterns can take shape remarkably early in classrooms, and how students socially configure themselves can ultimately determine what they learn. Keeping this in mind, Gretchen Brion-Meisels, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, mixes up small discussion groups constantly in her classrooms. By continually changing groups, sometimes within a single class session, students gain exposure to a wide range of perspectives. As a result, they are repeatedly forced out of their comfort zones and have their assumptions challenged.

Student ‘provocations’. The discussion strategies outlined above encourage stepping away from the whole-group discussion arrangement altogether, but whole-group discussions themselves can also be rethought to uplift more student voices. For example, in Timothy Patrick McCarthy’s Harvard College seminar on slave narratives, student-led, whole-group discussions are the norm. Each week, two students are tasked with framing and guiding the whole-group dialogue around the table. McCarthy calls these “provocations”. Provocations take many forms. Some provokers stage a debate. Others break their peers into smaller groups to discuss different passages from the assigned readings. But no matter how students choose to engage their peers, provocations must provide what McCarthy calls a “launching point” for a robust discussion about the assigned texts. They must, he explains, “provoke the class into conversation”, “get the juices flowing” and get “students thinking about something urgently at the start of class”.

In curating a learning experience for their peers, student provokers develop a deeper understanding of their assigned material. The activity pushes students to hold themselves and their peers accountable. And by positioning students’ voices at the core of discussion, provocations afford students greater ownership of the learning process.

By offering a range of discussion formats, we can better honour and make use of the diversity of perspectives, experiences and knowledge that make up our classrooms.

Jeremy T. Murphy is assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross; Meira Levinson is the Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson professor of education and society at Harvard University.

This advice is drawn from their book Instructional Moves for Powerful Teaching in Higher Education, published in March 2023 by Harvard Education Press.

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