Samantha Corcoran, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Abstract: Discussion in classrooms makes learning more interactive and helps students develop skills that cannot be taught in a traditional lecture format. Large group discussion is not a perfect teaching strategy and neither is small group discussion, but there are things educators can do to improve the practical usage of discussion in the classroom. When it comes to assessment, there are many options for the educator to choose from. The best choice depends on what would be most beneficial for the students.

Keywords: large group discussion, small group discussion, assessing discussion

The Benefits of Discussion

Increasing how much students actively participate in the classroom increases the students’ enjoyment of the class and their retention of factual knowledge. (Costa et. al, 2007). A study was done on undergraduate medical students. Two groups of students took the same class. They covered the same information and took the same tests but one class was taught following a traditional lecture format while the other consisted of open discussion sessions. The medical students who were in the discussion group enjoyed the style of teaching more than the students in the lecture group and test results show that interactive teaching practices increase knowledge retention. (Costa, et. al, 2007)

Discussions help students develop and strengthen interpersonal communication skills as well as analytical and critical thinking skills. Research shows a positive correlation between the quality of classroom discussion and the how well students understand what they have learned (Murphy et al, 2009). It also suggests that improved discussion in the classroom will help students build better problem solving skills. (Murphy, et. al, 2009)

Discussions help to summarize what students have learned and strengthens conceptual and procedural knowledge. When students have problems understanding something, having a discussion makes it clearer to both the teacher and the student exactly what the student is struggling with and then the teacher can address the problem and fix it (de Garcia, 2013). There are lots of benefits associated with the use of discussion in education, yet it is not something that enough teachers take advantage of.

Problems and Solutions for Facilitating Discussion

A whole class discussion can be a wonderful tool when used correctly, but it is not always the best strategy to use if the goal is to get every student to talk. Large group discussions have certain downfalls when it comes to getting students to talk. Many students are not comfortable speaking in front of the whole class. They are worried that they will make a mistake and embarrass themselves in front of their peers. Students who are shy or less confident may not contribute at all. (Jing, 2010)

These problems can be addressed in several different ways. First, there are things educators can do to make students feel more comfortable. People often feel more comfortable when they know the other people they are talking with. “For rich discussions, the emotional environment of the classroom must be safe” It is when students feel safe that they are willing to share and discussions move past the surface level. (de Garcia, 2013) Group bonding or introductory games might be one way of making students feel more comfortable.

Another thing to get students to talk is to put them in smaller groups. In smaller groups student participation tends to be spread out more equally among group members than it is in a larger group. In a full class discussion only one person can speak at a time but when a class is broken up into smaller groups a student from each group can be speaking at any given time. That way more students get the opportunity to speak in the same amount of time. (Jing, 2010)

Students who are uncomfortable speaking in front of the whole class might find a smaller group less daunting. If they can speak with the smaller group it may help students gain the confidence to speak in front of the whole class. Think-Pair-Share is a discussion strategy that combines both small group and large group discussion. When given a question students think for a moment then break off into pairs or small groups. They discuss in the small group and then share with the class. If a student is nervous about talking in front of the whole classroom, Think-Pair-Share allows them a chance to practice before talking to the whole class.

Create Better Discussion

There are other things the teacher can do to help the discussion go smoothly. If the teacher is leading the discussion it is important to wait. All too often teachers do not give students time to answer before they answer their own questions. The wait time after the question is asked gives students time to process the question and come up with an answer. (de Garcia) Whether a classroom has a chalkboard or a dry erase board, having individual students write their ideas on the board gets the students involved and creates a public document to look back and reference to during the discussion. A teacher could ask a student to lead the discussion or have the students continue the discussion by calling on other students after they speak.

Another thing to improve a discussion is for the teacher to move out of the students’ immediate sight. By sitting in the back of the classroom during the discussion the students are forced to focus on each other. If the conversation still lulls then the teacher steps in by asking follow up questions to get the students talking again. Perhaps guiding the discussion every now and then the teacher can just let the students build their discussion on their own. At the end of the discussion, summarize what was talked about. This provides another reminder of what material was covered as well as makes the students feel like their contribution matters.

Strategies for Assessment

So now the students are talking but what’s the point? All too often students judge the importance of assignments based on the number of points or the grade percentage it is worth. If something is not being graded students might see it as something unimportant. This becomes a problem when it is time to assess group discussion. Another Problem is that group discussion teaches skills that aren’t easily assessable. Some forms of assessment are more commonly seen in the classroom. There are many well-known assessment strategies for problem solving and knowledge acquisition but discussion assessment is not as well known. (Alozie, Mitchell, 2014)

It is much more objective than did a student get the right answer to a math problem. When people are talking about important things they tend to have opinions. When they have opinions emotions can get riled up in a moment. Part of a discussion is learning to keep calm and how to deal with a situation where others are upset. Discussion also teaches students to consider the points of view of other people.

This provides a bit of a dilemma when it comes to assessment. If nothing is assessed students might see the assignment as unimportant, but if too many things are assessed, students might see the things being assessed as meaningless. Traditional assessment is extremely competitive and individual but discussion requires multiple people working together. If students are competing against each other they will not be able to work well as a group. The assessment needs to encourage the quality learning of material while at the same time discouraging undesired learning practices. Assessment should encourage students to think deeper about what they are studying and discourage them from short-term memorization for tests.

In group assessment students are not judged by their own efforts but instead judged by the collective work of the group. This form of assessment takes the pressure off of induvial students but allows for people who do little work and still get a good grade because the rest of the group picked up their slack. Students can become very upset when somebody else is getting credit for what they see as their own work.

Peer assessment is another option. With peer assessment students grade each other. Peers provide a unique form of assessment that can be very useful when used correctly. The problem with peer assessment is that when one student gives another student a bad grade that student knows it was one of his peers who graded him. It can breed distrust among a group that is supposed to be working together. Peer assessment has been shown to be valuable when it is not graded but simply used by an indivual to make their own assessment and improvements.

Finally, negotiated assessment is a form of assessment in which all parties involved in an assignment agree on how the assessment should happen. It involves a discussion of what the intended goal of the assignment is, how the assessment is recorded, and what criteria are being assessed.

These are just a few forms of assessment that have been applied to discussion in the past. Each form of assessment has flaws but they assess different things. Depending on the assignment and the assignment goals one form of assessment might be better suited. There is no perfect assessment method. Sometimes no assessment is the best answer. It all depends on the situation and what would be most beneficial to the students.

Why is This Important?

Discussion is a tool to be used in the classroom. When it is used correctly it increases students’ enjoyment of the class and strengthens students’ understanding of concepts. It is a tool that needs to be used correctly in order for it to help all of the students in a classroom. Educators can vary group sizes and activities before discussion. During the discussion it is an educator’s job to let the students discus and when it comes time for assessment there are different strategies for different situations. Discussion is a tool that should be used in the classroom.


Alozie, N., & Mitchell, C. (2014). Getting Students Talking: Supporting Classroom Discussion Practices in Inquiry-Based Science in Real-Time Teaching. The American Biology Teacher, 76(8), 501-506. Retrieved September, 2015.

Boud, D., Cohen, R., & Sampson, J. (1999). Peer Learning and Assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 24(4), 413-424. Retrieved September, 2015.

Costa, M., Van Rensburg, L., & Rushton, N. (2007). Does Teaching Style Matter? Medical Education, 41(2), 214-217. Retrieved September, 2015.

de Garcia, L. A. (2013). How to Get Students Talking! Generating Math Talk That Supports Math Learning. MathSolutions,, downloaded in May.

Jing, M. (2010). Cooperative Learning Method in the Practice of English Reading and Speaking. Journal Of Language Teaching & Research, 1(5), 701-703.

Murphy, K., Soter, A., Wilkinson, I., Hennessey, M., & Alexander, J. (2009). Determining the Effects of Classroom Discussion on Students’ Comprehension of Text: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(3), 740-764. Retrieved September, 2015.