This page is originally authored by Gale Rhodes (© Jan 2000).
The page has been modified with permission by Claude Aflalo (© Jan 2000).

Student-Led Discussion - User's Manual

Student-Led Discussion - User's Manual - RULES - HOW TO - REWARDS


Most students have never led a discussion. It is normal to be somewhat fearful about your first try. Most of us (including teachers) are afraid we'll be embarrassed by saying something wrong, being contradicted, or running out of things to say. Here are some suggestions to help you overcome your fears, prepare, get the discussion started, and sustain it. These suggestions apply specifically to the kinds of discussions we wish to have in this course, but you may find them useful any time you are faced with leading a discussion group.


    To lead a discussion, you must be familiar with the assigned material. "Familiar with" is, we believe, just the right phrase. You need not have mastered the material; after all, a goal of discussion is to move everyone towards mastery, that is, to improve everyone's (even the leader's) understanding. To prepare for discussion (leadership or participation),

    1. first read and study the assignment, underlining the more important or interesting points, and making notes in the margins.
    2. Then think about and write down some of the main issues that the author raises and a few questions pertinent to the issues.
    3. Examples:
      • The author is trying to show how indirect our knowledge is. How does the author support this contention?
      • The author is explaining how evolution produces new traits. How do new traits appear? Explain the specific examples she uses.
      • This is a novel about the breakdown of a marriage. What factors contribute to its failure?

    If you can come up with a handful of questions, you're in good shape. Remember, everyone else in the class is formulating such questions: you can take advantage of their work to make your job easier. (More on this later.)

    But what if you are not asked to lead? Is this work wasted? Certainly not; you are now very well prepared to participate as someone else leads. With everyone prepared to lead, everyone is also prepared to discuss, and lively discussions will almost always ensue.


    Class has started and your name has been drawn from the hat. How do you begin? Simply clear your throat and read (or better, present) your prepared statement. End by asking the first question or asking for discussion of the first issue on your list. Before you know it, the hard part -- getting started -- is done.

    One word of caution: Start out on a positive note. Avoid beginning with an apology for being poorly prepared or for finding the reading difficult. Treat the day's topic as having real value. Openers like "I didn't get much out of this" or "I don't agree with anything the author said" will stifle, rather then promote, discussion. If you treat the readings as worthwhile, your classmates will follow your lead, join you in examining the day's assignment, and thus make your job easier.


    Discussions, like sleepy horses, need some urging to keep them moving. A discussion leader can often keep things moving with only modest prodding, giving the class its head when things are going well. Of course, if you can contribute something useful, do so; but other kinds of comments or actions on your part can sustain the discussion just as well as an injection of insight. Here are some suggestions:

    1. Get students to talk to each other. Ask for a response to the most recent comments. (Anyone have a response to Clara's opinion?) Or ask a specific student to respond. (Clara, do you agree with Ralph?)
    2. Get students to defend or explain their opinions. (Marvin why do you say that? What's your evidence or reasoning?)
    3. Encourage an exploration of differing points of view. When you hear conflicting views, point them out and get the holders of those views to discuss their differences. Perhaps ask a third person to sum up the two positions.
    4. Keep the class on the subject. If you are even halfway familiar with the material, you know when the discussion is no longer connected to it. Just say so. (We've gotten pretty far from the readings; let's get back on the subject.) Or simply consult your list of questions. Any sensible response to one of your questions is bound to be pertinent.
    5. Point to a particular passage in the text relevant to a comment made by one person, or to a discussion among several. This might be a passage that challenges, or sums up and confirms, the views being expressed.
    6. Don't fill every silence with your own voice. Any discussion will lapse occasionally. It is not your job as leader to avoid all silence. Some quiet periods are productive. Students who are not so quick to speak will frequently get the chance they need when others are quiet. If the silence gets too heavy, take advantage of the other students' lists of questions. (Ginny, give us one of the questions you brought to class.)

    Remember, as discussion leader you do not have to be the brains of the whole outfit. You are not expected to know it all; the class is full of students who have read the same assignment that you read. Your job is to give them a chance to talk about it and thus give others the benefits of their thinking. On the other hand, if any one student begins to do all the talking, gently correct this problem by bringing other students into the discussion. You are there to steer, to keep the beast reasonably near the center of the path, by pulling a rein when needed, by loosening the reins when it keeps to the trail, by reining it in when it threatens to gallop away to greener subjects. If students are talking to each other about the reading material, things are going well; relax, listen, and contribute when you can.


    Discussion should lead to two results.

    1. First, we want analysis and clarification of the material.
      • What is the author saying?
      • What is the author's intended meaning of key words in the text?
      • What is fact and what is the author's opinion?
      • With what evidence does the author support opinions?
      • What do you see as the theme of this story, poem, or play?
      • What elements contribute to this theme?

    2. Second, we want response to, and criticism of, the author's work.
      • What do you think of the author's opinion?
      • Is the evidence or reasoning convincing?
      • What other opinions are possible?
      • Compare your opinion with that of the author.
      • How does this poem make you feel? Why?
      • What connections (harmonies or conflicts) do you find between this author's ideas and those of other thinkers we have studied?

    It is best to attack these two tasks, analysis and criticism, in the order described; after all, we must understand possible readings of the work before we can properly respond or criticize. As discussion leader, you will find that students want to express opinions before doing anything else. Keep pulling the class toward clarification of the readings. The more you accomplish here, the more meaningful and pertinent the criticisms and other responses will be.

To reiterate, the discussion will swing naturally toward opinion, just as the horse turns naturally toward home. Keep pulling toward clarification (What does the author mean by...? What is a possible reading of...?) and you will achieve good balance between analysis and criticism.

Finally, we want you to enjoy the discussions. Keep this in mind whenever differences of opinion arise. It's okay to defend your beliefs, but it is also okay to be wrong, to concede a point, to change your mind. A mind that never changes is about as useful as a window stuck in one position. The main object of argument is not to win, but to know the pleasure of real thinking and learning.

Student-Led Discussion - User's Manual - RULES - HOW TO - REWARDS

Last update: Dec 1999- Claude Aflalo
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