Turn Ordinary Class Discussions Into Meaningful Interactions


By Bruce A. Johnson, Ph.D., MBA

Do your students actively participate in the class discussions? Do you find that your students are engaged in the process of learning because of their interactions with you and the other students? Class discussions have the potential to enhance the learning process when the course materials and topics are brought to life through the knowledge and experiences shared by both the instructor and the students. Creating an environment that successfully transforms discussions into meaningful interactions requires advanced planning and focused participation.

Creating the content of a discussion question is the starting point for the process of developing of an interactive learning environment. The initial discussion question should serve as a springboard to begin the process of critical thinking and reflection. A question that requires only a yes or no answer is not likely to stimulate vibrant discussions. In contrast, a question that encourages students to answer and provide an explanation is an effective starting point for engaging discussions.

Facilitation Matters Instructors have a choice with class discussions to approach it as another form of lecturing or facilitate a process of interactive two-way communication.  A lecture-based approach to discussions acknowledges the students’ contributions without further follow up as the instructor is leading the discussion and determines what is relevant. In contrast, when instructors facilitate a discussion they encourage students to be co-creators of the learning process by acknowledging their contributions and then building upon those responses.

Listen for a Connection Class discussions have the potential to become meaningful interactions when students are interested and more importantly they are contributing ideas and information. An instructor can help the process by encouraging students to consider how the course topics relate to their personal interests, professional needs, and academic goals. One method of accomplishing this goal is listening to what the students are stating in their responses for an understanding of their thought process and how they are working with the course materials. Georgeanne Cooper of the University of Oregon provides this tip for listening to students: “really listen when your students contribute and rephrase your understanding of what they said.”

Connecting to the Real World The course materials provide a foundational base of knowledge, which is necessary for the development of learning activities. Class discussions provide an opportunity to relate these materials to the real world through the inclusion of examples and professional experiences. Instructors discover another benefit of active engagement in the classroom discussions. As noted by Columbia University discussions “allow an instructor to get prompt, continuous feedback on students’ understanding or misunderstanding of the course material.” This feedback allows instructors to adapt their teaching methods as needed and guide students through the learning process.

A Respectful Learning Environment Colorado State University published a teaching guide about class discussions and indicated that “effective class discussions create a community in which students are willing to share their ideas and accept constructive criticism from their peers.” As students begin to share their ideas, beliefs, knowledge, and opinions the discussions may involve emotional responses, especially when controversial topics are addressed. This emphasizes the need for instructors to create a respectful learning environment by establishing ground rules for the class discussions. Online instructors may also find it helpful to post the Rules of Netiquette in their class.

The Process of Transformation One of the most powerful methods of transforming class discussions into meaningful interactions is through the use of follow up questions that are designed to encourage exploration of the course topics. Jennifer Barton, Paul Heilker, and David Rutkowski of Virginia Tech remind instructors that “the kinds of questions we ask can make all the difference between an engaging and fruitful discussion and the verbal equivalent of pulling teeth.” These questions can be built around the students’ contributions, with the inclusion of theory and real-world examples, while encouraging students to utilize critical thinking skills.

Class discussions provide instructors with an opportunity to create meaningful interactions that bring the course topics and materials to life and in turn this transforms the discussions into dynamic conversations that are conducive to learning and knowledge creation.

About the Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a PhD in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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  1. Hello Sharon:

    Thank you for the reply. You have asked a very good question: How do you have an engaging discussion about mathematical procedures?

    As a summary, here is the context for your class discussions: students have limited knowledge of the subject, there is limited participation, and real-world examples are often not helpful.

    I have some suggestions to consider:

    1. When I have facilitated an entry-point class I realized that many students did not understand the process of active engagement in the class discussions and they did not understand the process of critical thinking. I provided tools, tips, and techniques for class participation. I also talked to them about critical thinking and what that means to them.

    2. As a means of encouraging participation it is helpful to allocate points for this requirement so that students understand that participation is mandatory.

    3. As to the issue of relevance, is there a class textbook you could refer to in your discussions? That could be a starting point. Ask students about something from the textbook and what it means to them. In addition, are there outside resources (websites, articles, etc.) that you could utilize to help them learn the basics?

    4. Perhaps you could ask students what math means to them and help them find relevance, rather than trying to tell them why it is important.

    My suggestion is to start with the basics. Once students learn the basics through the use of multiple resources and they feel comfortable working through the basic mathematical functions you can then help them expand their cognitive abilities.

    I hope this is helpful.
    Dr. J

  2. Everytime I read this sort of article, I feel frustration. I want to be the type of teacher who “engages” my classes. I teach intermediate algebra. Most of the students are there because they failed the math entrance exam. I ask lots of critical thinking questions, but it’s often hard to get them to participate. When I do group exercises, they usually complain. When I try to offer an application to a math concept, they can’t relate because it usually is from the higher sciences.

    Algebra is very difficult to relate to young adult’s personal experiences because they often can’t see how it works in the “real world”. And frankly, sometimes the concepts will not be relavant to them…ever. They may use applications daily, but will never utilize the algorhythms themselves.

    How do you have an engaging discusion about mathematical procedures?

    I wish I could figure that out!

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