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College Quarterly
Spring 1996 - Volume 3 Number 3
Discussion Teaching in College Education
by David Heming

The image of college education today involves more than the mere transfer of information. Students need to learn how to formulate applications of abstract theory and principles; gain practice in logical, creative, and critical thinking; and develop an appetite for continuous change and further learning. Compared to the traditional lecture method, discussion teaching elicits a learning-centered education climate characterized by higher levels of reflective, analytical and critical thinking, and creative problem-solving through synthesis and application.

Discussion teaching refers to a teaching/learning strategy that emphasizes participation, dialogue, and multi-way communication. The discussion method involves the teacher and a group of learners addressing a topic, issue, case study, or problem; and exchanging information, experiences, ideas, opinions, reactions, and conclusions.

Discussion Teaching Described

Discussion teaching moves away from lecturing; it requires active involvement in the acquisition, refining, integrating, and development of knowledge. Discussion teaching fosters reciprocity of learning between learners and teachers. It is the art of managing spontaneity; it demands mutual collaboration - a reciprocity of effort. Students learn through their active participation and the contributions of others.

As well as facilitating a high level of analytical and critical thinking, discussion teaching develops a broad range of verbal and interpersonal skills that will last well beyond immediate tasks. While students learn subject matter, they also master skills that will stand them in good stead throughout life - skills that are especially important in today's work circumstances in which workers can anticipate changing jobs and careers several times in their lifetime.

Discussion teaching requires learners to formulate and verbalize their understanding of ideas, concepts, and issues, as well as clarify any misinterpretations or confusions other learners may introduce. By helping and supporting one another to understand, learners are teaching and learning to communicate ideas: both their own and others'. Discussion learning converts blind spots into opportunities for learning and teaching and develops positive attitudes and perceptions about learning.

In this way, discussion teaching is a dialog between teachers and learners, and among learners themselves. It is not a debate or a tug-of-war; rather, it is a free-flowing process of inquiry and advocacy building on each others ideas. Discussion teaching is a systematic way of constructing a context for learning from the knowledge and experience of teachers and learners, rather than exclusively from the canons of academic knowledge.

In sum, discussion teaching - as an intellectual journey - is a means of creating a learning community; a dynamic partnership of knowledge builders fashioned by the learning architects: the learners and the teacher. It involves the fundamentals of description, analysis, and application. It focuses on teaching learners to think by directing the flashpoint of the discussions - a series of related questions that focus on a subject from different vantage points - into crevices that usually remain dark.

Classroom Choreography

For many years educators, particularly adult educators, have tried to develop ways to deliver instruction, practice, and intellectual and emotional experiences that enhance the innate capacity to learn (Brookfield, 1986; Brookfield, 1990; Knowles, 1980; Knowles, 1984). This quest shows that most students learn more effectively through experiential techniques, such as discussion, than through passive listening and lectures. Moreover, most learners want to acquire knowledge and learn skills they can apply to their immediate real-life circumstances, events, and situations (Cross, 1981).

Learners acquire knowledge and skills to the degree to which they can actively manipulate facts within some general framework and can relate general ideas to specific events in their experience. In other words, learners possess knowledge and attain skills only as they participate in their construction and use.

The dynamics of discussion teaching focuses on information integration, asking questions, and making responses. These activities - questioning, listening, and responding - are the basic building block processes of discussion teaching. To ensure discussion teaching flows smoothly in a safe and supportive environment, the classroom culture should include:

  1. the establishment of clear learning outcomes, learning goals, and an explicit expectation of participation, interaction, collaboration, and regular attendance to foster academic belonging;
  2. development of a risk taking atmosphere characterized by co-operation, openness, support, encouragement, civility, and teacher and learner mutual shared responsibility and accountability for results;
  3. thorough background preparation of learning resources and an assurance that all learning outcomes and goals will be fulfilled;
  4. a climate of inquiry to stimulate multiple learning perspectives - past, present, and future;
  5. descriptive, constructive, and focused feedback of individual and group contributions, accomplishments, and intellectual performance, and
  6. an appreciation of learner diversity and the accommodation of individual differences.

Successful discussion teaching requires three fundamental shifts from the more traditional teacher-focused classroom. The first is a shift in the balance of power: from an autocratic teacher-centered focus to a more democratic learner-centered environment. The second shift is in the locus of attention: from a concern for the content material alone to an equal focus on content, classroom processes, and a learning-centered climate. The third shift is in teaching strategy and skills; moving from declarative explanations rooted in analytical understanding and knowledge of subject matter, to questioning, listening, responding, and exchange.

Role of the Teacher

The teacher as the discussion leader is responsible for the content, the classroom processes, and the products of the learning experience (Schwarz, 1994). The “what” of teaching (the content; the facts; the concepts) is no more crucial than the “who” (the learners; the products or outcomes of learning) and the “how” (the process used). By mastering the “how” of discussion teaching, the teacher unites the other two and influences the moment-to-moment flow of events in the classroom. This role and behavior - the mastery of content, process, and product - is the distinctive competence of effective discussion teaching.

The teacher's role is to engage students in learning, to foster conditions where learners actively construct knowledge. In this conception of teaching, the roles of the teacher and the learner become reversible. Learners teach each other; and they teach the teacher by revealing their understandings of the subject. In this view, teaching is enabling; knowledge is understanding, and learning is the active construction of subject matter.

Expert discussion teaching and classroom leadership require and reward flexibility - an appreciation for multiple viewpoints, insights, levels of understanding, and creativity. Moreover, all learning is contextual: new knowledge is acquired by extending and revising prior knowledge; new ideas assume meaning when they are presented in a coherent relationship to one another, and knowledge becomes usable when it is attained in situations that entail and require applications to different viewpoints, critical thinking, and creative and pragmatic problem solving.

At the heart of discussion teaching is the formulation of strategic questions at different levels of abstraction. Good discussion questions provoke thinking and stimulate recall, challenge beliefs and broaden perspectives, create new paths of inquiry, rejuvenate old topics with fresh insights, uncover and gnaw away at sanctified assumptions, draw implications, and promote conclusions.

The purpose of the questions is to encourage, stimulate, invite, and, when necessary, to challenge learners to test their long-held values and beliefs particularly in controversial topics (Goldsmid & Wilson, 1980). Good discussion questions engender valid alternative interpretations and conclusions. To pose alternatives creates a psychological learning ‘space’ - an atmosphere of intellectual hospitality - where learners can safely explore differing opinions. This environment provides a climate of rich complexity and foundationalism (Borradori, 1994) where multiple solutions exist, forgotten knowledge is uncovered, imprisoned ideas are freed, and where diverse elements are interconnected and assimilated into coherent and useful thought.

There are five types of strategic questions typically used by discussion teachers. Strategic questioning is the skill of posing questions that make a difference; it empowers learning, creates options, and avoids “yes or no” responses. Analytical questions ask the “why,” the “how,” and the “so what” of issues. Abstract questions seek generalizations. Clarifying questions ask for elaborations and judgements. Hypothetical questions seek the “what ifs,” and force learners to consider different or new situations. Predictive questions probe the “what is likely to happen” domain, and force learners to extrapolate and assemble reasons for forecasts.

Guiding the discussion process takes skill and patience, as most discussions are fluid and do not move and flow in straight lines. One of the teacher's most crucial tasks is discussion summarization, integration, and linking: explicitly relating and helping learners relate current points of argument to previous discussions (Lampert, 1985). Mastering the art of discussion teaching - questioning, listening, responding, and linking - is a lifetime learning process for discussion teachers.

Lessons Learned

All evidence supports the effectiveness of discussion teaching across many academic disciplines in creating optimal learning, content comprehension, and maximum retention (Christensen, Garvin & Sweet, 1991; Ewens, 1985-1986; McKeachie, 1978; Rabow et al.,1994). Discussion teaching - intellectual collaboration by greening the landscape of ideas - can be learned by both college teachers and learners.

To achieve maximum adaptation to change, both learners and teachers in discussion classes need to experience some discomfort (Levinson, 1972) before genuine motivation to learn or to change occurs. However, not all motivation to learn or to change stems from dissatisfaction with past or current performance. On the other hand, just because learners and teachers are physically present and appear interested and intellectually engaged and interested does not necessarily mean they are motivated to learn or to change their behavior (Blake and Mouton, 1983).

Discussion teaching validates that fundamental learning occurs when learners identify, their core values and beliefs, understand how some beliefs and values undermine their effectiveness, and learn how to think and behave with a more effective set of ideas and meanings (Argyris and Schon, 1974). These adjusted values and beliefs, combined with other content learnings, need to be applicable to learners' lives. Students need to maximize the quality of their workplace performance (Bond, 1993, p. 11) and, most particularly, they must apply what they've learned to their lives, and to their work-lives.

If learning lags behind societal changes, then college education is seen as not meeting the needs of the real world. The conclusion is that college education is part of, or creating, the problem (Boyatzis, Cowan & Kolb, 1995). College education often reinforces “getting the right answer” as the ultimate goal of learning. Learners have often been trained to memorize and feed answers back to teachers for confirmation and approval (for which, read “grades”). Rarely, for example, does an examination ask learners to list and describe the questions the course has posed for them. Similarly, learners are frequently greeted by teaching that provides answers before the questions are advanced. The sequence needs to be reversed. Discussion teaching helps make this happen.


Education, knowledge, and learning cannot be inflicted upon students. In discussion teaching, knowledge and learning emerge as living processes that breathe and constantly change. The significant by-products of the discussion process, including enhanced self-confidence and a thirst for more knowledge, perpetuate this living energy in the classroom.

In most occupations and professions, today's state of the art is tomorrow's obsolescence. Consequently, active problem-solving and critical thinking are indispensable skills. The abilities of learning how to learn, and learning how to motivate oneself to learn and persist in the face of discomfort and frustration, are necessary 'emotional intelligence' skills (Goleman, 1995) developed through discussion teaching.

Discussion teaching supports learners in becoming more able and competent in formulating sound verbal skills, understanding issues of complexity in greater depth, and self-exploration, as ways to better understand ideas, issues, and course content. Through discussion teaching, learners develop a greater appreciation of themselves as continuous learners and teachers. And these outcomes facilitate a potent commitment to life-long learning, for both college learners and teachers.


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David Heming currently teaches at Centennial College in Scarborough.