Teaching groups

Meaningful learning does not occur spontaneously among a group of students. For that reason, classes need to be well-planned and structured learning experiences. Facilitating engagement among students by questioning is a key to building engagement and productive discussion. Skilled questioning opens up reflection, thinking and discussion among students.

The key to getting the students to do the work is discussion based on good preparation, with a high level of peer interaction. To promote that interaction, tutors need strategies to stimulate discussion, direct it productively, make it inclusive, synthesise key contributions, and close off the period of discussion.

Strategies for promoting discussion and peer interaction

Use the ground rules to emphasise there are no “stupid” questions.

Check that everyone understands the topic/question under discussion.

Start with easy questions, particularly with shy or reluctant students.

Pitch questions at a level appropriate for students’ understanding.

Use anecdotes or personal experiences – sparingly – to make connections with real world experience.

Use open-ended questions as well as closed questions: What? Where? When? How? Who? Why? Tell me about, tell me more.

Respond positively. In the case of correct/useful contributions, praise the thinking, not the individual. If an answer is inadequate or incorrect, you may need to clarify the question or redirect to another student.

Give students thinking time. Note that long “wait” times between question and answer are more acceptable in some cultures than in the Anglo-Irish tradition.

Ask students to write down an answer to a question first, and then share that answer with a colleague.

Encourage student questions. Frame the discussion topic such that it requires questions to further the enquiry. Ask students to prepare their own questions on a topic.

Rephrase and redirect discussion to other students: “Robert argues that …”, “What do you think, Emily?”

Return the discussion to the topic, “How does this relate to …”

Recap and synthesise a discussion when it is time to finish a topic. This can be accomplished by the tutor, or by asking groups of students to offer a summary.

Group discussion and active learning

What makes discussion effective in face-to-face settings? Active learning often involves tasks structured around peer interaction – that is, learner to learner interaction, to complement other types of engagement – such as learner to tutor/lecturer, and learner to content interaction. A tutorial, lab or workshop may be the students’ only opportunity to learn from peers in a structured environment.

As the figures here illustrate, much more discussion is possible in a session if students are allowed to speak with each other than if they are only allowed to speak – one at a time – to the academic or to the entire group as a whole. If students are to learn to develop their own ideas and to express them, they need opportunities to practice doing so.  Lectures rarely provide those opportunities for practice, and almost never in a sustained way, with peers who are working closely together on a regular basis.

Like to learn more?

La Trobe Learning and Teaching (LTLT) provides advice and support to all academic staff seeking to develop their teaching practice. Find out more about LTLT induction activities for teaching staff.

Log onto the La Trobe LMS (with your staff name and password) and search for ‘Learning Futures Programs and Services’ (LTLT-LF-PS) for access to a comprehensive suite of programs and resources to support your teaching.