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

A User's Manual for Student-Led Discussion

Gale Rhodes, Professor of Chemistry, University of Southern Maine
Robert Schaible, Associate Professor of Arts and Humanities, Lewiston-Auburn College

We published a version of this manual in"Talking students/listening teachers: The student-led discussion." Robert Schaible and Gale Rhodes, Issues & Inquiry in College Teaching & Learning, 15, 44, 1992, and in "Talking students, listening teachers: A user's manual for student-led discussion." W.G. Rhodes and Robert Schaible, in The Joy of Learning, Willard Callender, editor. Portland, Maine: University of Southern Maine Publications Office, 89-98, 1990.

You may use and distribute this version of the manual if you obtain permission from Gale Rhodes (, and agree to the following conditions: 1) You will not sell it for more than copying costs, nor include it in a commercial publication; 2) you will give credit to the authors, listing their names and affilitations on the first page; and 3) you will submit a brief report each year (by e-mail if your wish), in which you tell us the nature of the courses in which you use the manual, your experience with this method, and the adaptions you make for use in your courses. Here's why we make these requests.

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


We have developed a manual suggesting rules and useful tools for student-led discussion in the format we used in two interdisciplinary courses at the University of Southern Maine: 1) Metaphor and Myth in Science and Literature and 2) Life and Literature After Darwin. Our format evolved from traditional discussion methods as we sought more effective means to achieve one of the primary goals of our courses: to help students learn to form, articulate, and defend opinions in open discussion. Students develop their opinions as they analyze and criticize the texts and as they search for concepts, issues, and themes that connect the texts and the disparate disciplines that are represented in these courses.

Our format, in brief, is as follows. We ask all students to prepare for each discussion as if they plan to serve as discussion leader. Obviously, a student who prepares to lead discussion is well prepared to participate. Then at the beginning of each class, we pick a discussion leader and two supporters at random and turn the class over to the students: faculty do not contribute to discussion until near the end of the first half of the period. Instead, we listen, attempting to learn the students' level of understanding of the material, and to see which issues are of compelling interest to them. Near the midpoint of the period, we enter the discussion, but do not take it over. We try to take advantage of what we heard in the first half in order to help students attain a deeper understanding of the material and to make connections across the breadth of the course. In shaping discussions around the issues of genuine interest to students, we aim to bolster their confidence that they can read and analyze complex material on their own.

We treat our courses, in effect, as experimental arenas (or labs) in which careful reading, discussion, and persuasion are valued more highly than power and authority as ways of constructing truth and meaning in a pluralistic world. In so doing, we are developing a pedagogy that is consistent with postmodern theories of knowing, according to which no one speaks from a privileged podium and any truth claim is viewed as contingent--i.e., as constructed within and valid for a particular interpretive community. We are also responding to widespread criticism, found most notably in the report by the prestigious Carnegie Commission on Higher Education (1987), that undergraduate education is not adequately teaching the skills of critical thinking.

In any course, it is crucial to find a format appropriate to the course goals. Even if our format seems particularly apt for your course, do not adopt it blindly. Be willing to adjust rules on the fly if you see a variation that will sharpen the aim at your particular goals. Even if our format seems particularly inappropriate for your course, we urge you at least to read through the manual with your classes in mind; perhaps a specific rule or suggestion will trigger useful ideas that will make your own efforts more successful.

The first section of the manual contains the rules we follow, in the form of instructions to the students and faculty. The second section presents the instructions we give our students on how to lead discussion in our format, where the leader is not an expert, but has prepared in the same way as all other participants. This guide contains suggestions that may be useful to anyone who leads or participates in discussions. In the third section, we suggest reasons why our method leads to impressive, enthusiastic student participation, and why we find it so gratifying.

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

Last update: Dec 1999- Claude Aflalo
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