discussion activities

Most teaching at the graduate level happens within small groups. How can you spark a discussion? How can you keep students engaged? In a previous post, I talked about fill-in-the-blank style activities to review key concepts (e.g., classical conditioning). In this post, I’ll focus on other discussion activities.

It’s very important to note that most of these ideas aren’t my own! They come from others in the UW-Madison undergraduate teaching fellows program. One of the projects within this program involved “small learning communities” (i.e., discussion sections based in dorms) for first-year students. The examples below are from brainstorm sessions with faculty and teaching fellows, and I’ve included some notes about my own experiences in using these activities.

Four Corners: This is excellent for ideas that could be approached in different ways based on personal experiences, philosophies, likes, etc. Post possibilities on sheets of paper on sides/corners of the room. Ask students to go to the side/corner that best represents them, and discuss with others why they traveled to that corner. Following small group discussions, have a member of each group summarize the group’s perspective in a large group discussion. This activity allows students to learn more about diverse perspectives on a given topic. (In my experience, this activity works well for controversial topics that students may be reluctant to discuss. If you pose a question and hear nothing but crickets, I recommend trying this.)

Think – Pair – Share: This strategy is used to introduce a new concept or to draw out ideas from a previous assignment or experience. Students spend 2-3 minutes individually answering a question. Then, students discuss their responses with a partner. Finally, students share their collective responses with the whole group. (In my experience, I’ve found this activity is great for students who need some time to think before sharing with the rest of the class.)

Metaphors: Divide students in pairs or small groups and ask them to develop a metaphor for a given concept. Metaphors may be written verbally, or expressed with a drawing, or both. Have groups share their metaphors with the larger group, using the collective metaphors to generate a broader discussion of the topic.

Gallery: After completing a poster-style activity (e.g., Metaphors, above), have each group put their response on the wall. Divide students into mixed groups in which one member from each of the previous groups is represented. Groups view each piece in the “gallery” for a few minutes, and students to write down their responses to each piece. Students can ask the original author to clarify the metaphor, if needed. At the conclusion, invite the class to discuss commonalities and differences within the gallery pieces.

Other creative activities: Try getting groups to respond to questions through role plays, creative drama, story telling, etc. Question prompts for these activities should try to draw out critical learning objectives. (In my experience, students do enjoy most creative activities, but it’s sometimes hard to keep them focused on why their doing it. I tend to use these towards the end of the class, reserving ~5 minutes for discussion.)

Jigsaw Reading: Break down a short reading into 3-5 parts. Have each group read and discuss one part. Groups then share a summary of their reading with the whole class. You can also ask each group to pose additional questions to the large group to deepen discussion. (In my experience, this activity is excellent for helping students with reading. When my psych students were reading an Oliver Sacks novel, I assigned a few students to be “experts” on each chapter and give summaries to start the discussion. Students all still read each chapter independently, but these “expert” summaries helped them remember lots of material.)

Whip Around: Pose a question. Ask each student to respond as quickly as they can to the question until all students have answered. Students should be given the right to “pass” if they aren’t ready, but the goal is to have everyone participate. Alternately, create a whip around in which each person must build upon the previous person’s idea as they answer. Afterwards, discuss similarities and differences in students’ responses. (In my experience, this activity works well if you want to start with a very broad topic and break into sub-topics for discussion. For example, “Tell me something you know about neurons” can get the ball rolling. It can also be a useful activity for controversial issues. For example, “Tell me the first words that come to mind when you hear: race/ethnicity/gender/etc” can be a way to start discussing social justice issues.)

Q&A: Ask students to submit 3-5 questions they have about the past week’s material. Review each question with the whole class, and ask students to answer the questions posed by their peers. (In my experience, there are a few important things to note here. (1) Some students will slack on this with questions like, “What is [insert vocabulary term]?” but they’ll be outnumbered by genuine questions. (2) This gives some privacy to asking questions, as students don’t know who posed which questions, and it can encourage shy students to participate more. (3) I’ve also tried assigning questions to specific students for answers, but that takes some extra planning. (4) This can be a great final exam review strategy: compile questions and answers into a PowerPoint, and send the slides to students. It’s their work, you just typed it.)

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