Building a better student discussion

MADISON, WI, May 12th, 2010 — Graduate student courses frequently incorporate student-led discussion sessions in order to encourage active participation over passive learning. They can improve communication and analytical skills, and help explore complexities in issues. Despite the popularity of discussion sessions, they often fall flat, and fail to create the stimulating environment they are supposed to. If students do not actively participate in discussions, they won’t gain these benefits.

Proper facilitation of discussion relies on clear guidelines that encourage contributions from all participants, rather than a single student “expert” controlling the burden if the discussion. A new method for realizing more effective discussions use a student facilitator who only directs the discussion, rather than leader who also controls the content.

Patricia A. Sorrano of Michigan State University describes an approach to student lead discussions that removes responsibility of choosing discussion content from the student leader, and instead places it on the group. There are three roles for students; the student-facilitator, the recorder, and the group participants. The group participants provide the ideas and content of the discussion, instead of relying on a student expert to present information and lead the discussion. The approach is described in the 2010 Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, published by the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America.

“Good discussions aren’t just a result of a charismatic leader, or chemistry within the group,” says Soranno. “There are specific skills and strategies that can be learned and applied to create an environment where good discussions are more likely to happen.”

The student facilitator and recorder roles are chosen at random at the beginning of the discussion, which means that each student is responsible for preparing background material and contributing. In a typical student-leader approach, only one or two students will be prepared to discuss the topic in any detail, while the rest of the students may not feel their viewpoints are legitimate. By removing “expert” status, each student is free to discuss the topic on their own terms.

“The approach leads to all students sharing responsibility for a discussion’s success rather than placing most of the responsibility on a single student discussion leader,” says Soranno. “All class members have clear and complementary roles.”

Evaluations tools are another area for improvement in discussions. Students are typically told they will be graded by “participation,” and without clear guidelines, this can easily be interpreted as the more you speak, the better your grade. Instead of progressing towards an improved understanding of the topic, students focus on their quantity of contribution rather than the quality of their comments. The facilitator’s role is to ensure that everyone participates in the discussion and no one or two speakers dominate.

While this research described methods used in graduate level courses, it has applications as students move into their careers. A facilitator-led process helps students develop shared responsibility for collective learning, giving them more investment in the outcome. Students often find themselves working in groups, and effectively managing and working within groups helps contribute to professional development.

The goals of the student facilitator approach were to learn and practice the skills necessary for effective discussions, develop individual student’s ownership in the discussion periods and responsibility learning, and improve their understanding of the course content. After using this approach in five semesters, Sorrano received mostly strong positive feedback from students. Approximately 40% of students said this approach worked better than other discussions they had in the past.

While discussions can be variable and unpredictable in meeting course goals, having a clear approach and organization can increase the potential for active learning. Sorrano developed this framework to increase the likelihood of effective discussions that encourage all participants to play a role.

The full article is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary. View the abstract at http://www.jnrlse.org/issues/. After 30 days it will be available at the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education website, www.jnrlse.org. Go to http://www.jnrlse.org/issues/ (Click on the Year, “View Article List,” and scroll down to article abstract).

Today’s educators are looking to the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, http://www.jnrlse.org, for the latest teaching techniques in the life sciences, natural resources, and agriculture. The journal is continuously updated online during the year and one hard copy is published in December by the American Society of Agronomy.

The American Society of Agronomy (ASA) www.agronomy.org, is a scientific society helping its 8,000+ members advance the disciplines and practices of agronomy by supporting professional growth and science policy initiatives, and by providing quality, research-based publications and a variety of member services.


The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Have a question? Let us know.

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