The purpose of a group discussion is not to win an argument or to amuse your classmates.  The purpose of a discussion is to help each group member explore and discover personal meanings of a text through interaction with other people.  Much of our everyday talk is made up of descriptions in which we seek in one way or another to convey ideas to other people.  These ideas are usually concerned with what we know.  A learning group discussion is far more tentative, even halting, in its progress, for it deals not with certainty but with search.  Listening to a group discussion, one is likely to hear such expressions as ďit seems to meĒ, ďI think, ďI believeĒ.  Group discussion should not seek to convince; rather, it should deal with matters unresolved and seek to help each member find meanings that did not exist before.  (Adapted from A.W. Combs, The Professional Education of Teachers.)


          Fruitful discussions do not just happen.  They are the product of concerned cooperative effort on the part of all participants.  Moreover, discussions that result in learning have very specific characteristics. In order to make our discussions as profitable as possible in this course, we will begin with a rather carefully structured set of ground rules.  Following these rules may be a bit difficult at first, but give yourself a chance to get your bearings with them.  Later in the course, if we choose, we can modify them. 

          In any learning discussion, communication is the essential issue, and the type of communication in use at any particular moment depends on the nature of understanding of each participant with regard to the topic at hand.  Sometimes everyone understands a particular topic, in which case it need not be discussed.  Sometimes nobody understands, in which case the group should consult the instructor or the text or else move on if it is not a topic of particular importance or interest.  More commonly, some understand a particular issue and others do not.  When this is the situation, those who think they understand may find, while trying to explain, that they donít understand as well as they thought they did.  And by the same token, those who thought they didnít understand may find, in the process of formulating their question and attempting to pinpoint their difficulty (that is, thinking out loud), that they can answer their own question.  Note that the element in these exchanges is expressing what you donít understand.  Positive roles in a group help individuals express what they donít understand.  The negative roles mentioned below interfere with this communication process. 

          There are two steps which together can appreciably increase the quality of learning, and the enjoyment of all group discussions.  These are thoughtful preparation and organization of the discussion period.  Unless each member is well prepared the group discussion will flounder.  A Discussion Work Sheet will be required for each discussion reading assignment.  These work sheets will help you prepare effectively for class and allow the instructor to ascertain that you have indeed done this.  The worksheets are to be prepared before the discussion period and handed in at the end of that period.  You will often want to add ideas to these worksheets during the discussions; this is strongly encouraged, but please use a different color of ink or lead.  The discussion worksheets and the organization of the class period will use almost the same sequence so that preparation of the class worksheet will facilitate the organization of the discussion period.  The following steps apply to the group discussion, and all but steps I-4, I-5, and III-1 apply to your worksheet preparation as well.

Organizing a Successful Discussion

Step 1:  Briefly define all important terms and concepts.  This will help insure that participants arenít talking past one another, by using the terms differently from one another. 

Step 2:  State the authorís general point in your own words.  In 3 or 4 sentences, what is the author basically trying to get across?  Often there is a subtle point which is more important than the most obvious one.  Ask yourself ďwhy do I think this article was assigned?Ē  Sometimes this question will help put the rest of the worksheet into perspective.  (Note that this is the 2nd step during discussion, but as you prepare your worksheet you may want to do it after step 3.  Be sure to read the entire article before doing this!)

Step 3:  Identify the major themes and key points of the article.  Make special note of those which are relevant to the concerns of the course. These will provide the most for discussion.  In preparing the worksheet, a point-outline of the article is often an effective way to accomplish this.

Step 4: Allocate a certain amount of time for discussion of each major theme.  There is never enough time to cover everything of interest.  Budgeting time before you begin helps you pace the discussion so that you make sure you cover the most important topics.

Step 5: Discuss major themes or key points identified in step 3.  Emphasize material which is not readily understood by all group members or which seems especially profitable to discuss. 


Step 1: Integrate the material with other knowledge.  This will become increasingly important as the course proceeds.  As you compare each article or book with those that have been studied before, you will be broadening the scope of your understanding.

Step 2: Consider possible applications and implications of the material under discussion.  This will also become more important as the course proceeds. 

Step 3: Evaluate the authorís presentation.  It is useful to note if an essay is dull or unclear, but it is more important to evaluate a given work on the basis of its argument.  How does the author support his or her position?  Is it convincing?  Why, or why not?  In other words, try to isolate reasons for reactions you have to each reading, and try to state them as you can. 


Step 1: (In class only.)  Evaluate the performance of the group as a whole and the roles played by group members.  This is a crucial step because it gives you and the instructors a check on the degree to which the discussion is working right.


Roles in a Successful Discussion

          Letís consider some of the things which can make discussions fail or succeed.  Many college seminars founder on rocks such as these.  First, in a discussion, as in everyday life, participants play roles.  Some roles contribute positively to the group.   Other roles interfere with the individualís and groupís goal of learning; we can call such roles dysfunctional or negative.  For example, when an individual plays up his own area of special knowledge, often the intent is to divert discussion from an area in which he or she feels shaky to one where he or she can shine.  This is a typical way for students to attempt to make brownie points with the teacher, while camouflaging their area of ignorance.  Similar to this is dominating behavior, when one or more participants consistently hold the floor without giving others who may be less aggressive a chance to speak. Sometimes seminars consist of a series of monologues; each participant saying his piece, but none listening to others or responding to what others say.  If some participants are particularly aggressive or competitive, this may well intimidate others into silence, leaving their questions unanswered and their potentially valuable comments unheard.  If some participants are consistently silent, particularly if they are also inattentive or visibly uninvolved in the discussion, this often dampens the discussion as a whole as the more active participants feel a burden of excessive responsibility.  Horsing around and joking can be valuable ways of releasing the tension that sometimes builds up in learning discussions, but carried too far they serve only to sidetrack the group from the issues at hand.  Making apologies for oneís self, or oneís preparation, or oneís point of view can also be ways of avoiding the difficulties of the material under discussion, and participants should try to avoid introducing their questions and comments with lengthy monologues along these lines.  These are just some of the kinds of behavior which can hinder learning, and the group as a whole must seek to control their occurrence by referring back to the ground rules.
          Positive Roles

          Letís now consider the roles played by group members that are necessary and positive in their contribution to group process.  For a group to work, for discussion to be fruitful, all of these roles must be performed by one or another member- but not always the same member.  Each participant should be performing most or all of the necessary roles at one time or another.  We can think of these roles or activities as being of three types:  roles which facilitate the tasks of discussing specific topics, roles which facilitate the overall tasks of the group, and roles which help maintain a cooperative and open atmosphere in the group. 

Type 1:  Roles which contribute to the fruitful discussion of a particular topic include activities such as 

a)    Initiating:  Breaking as initial or interim silence by introducing a possible topic for group consideration.  Sometimes people are reluctant to do this for fear of being viewed by others as an eager beaver or as a status-speaker, but it must be done for discussion to get off the ground.  (Roles b-f often serve to initiate as well as continue discussion of a topic.)

b)     Asking for and giving information

c)      Asking for and for giving reactions

d)    Restating in your own words another personís comment and giving examples. This gives feedback to the speaker that he had adequately communicated what he had in mind.

e)     Comparing Ideas.  The purpose of the group discussion is to develop personal understanding.  This calls for kicking ideas around, testing them, examining and comparing them.  This is the best accomplished when members are willing to express their own beliefs and feelings freely on the one hand, even when they are unsure about them, and to listen respectively and sympathetically to others peopleís ideas.  In doing this it is valuable to state how you agree and disagree with each other and why.

f)      Clarifying, synthesizing and summarizing.  When many ideas have been offered about a topic, the group may find itself in a complicated tangle.  Clarifying the underlying issues, synthesizing and summarizing what has been said helps provide closure a way of getting out of the tangle and on to the next topic or step.  Recognizing when to move on to the next topic can be a key contribution to a good discussion.

Type 2:  Two roles essential to the process of group discussion are

 g) Gatekeeping:  Gatekeeping is a kind of verbal traffic management.  A person play this role momentarily attempts to spread participation by encouraging those who have not recently spoken to share their thoughts and questions.  Gatekeeping is also necessary when several persons wish to speak at once.  At such times, encouraging the less assertive members to continue first will often facilitate communication.  Gatekeeping also helps the group move efficiently from one topic to the next and through the steps of the discussion process.

 h) Timekeeping: This is a special kind of gatekeeping, sometimes best handled by choosing a timekeeper for the dayís discussion.  If the group is to keep within the time budget it has allowed itself, someone must be responsible for keeping track of the time and warning other members when the time allotted for discussion of a particular discussion is nearly up.

Type 3: Three roles that contribute to the overall climate of learning are

  i)  Sponsoring and Encouraging: These are important in maintaining a relaxed and accepting atmosphere in which all members feel free to ask questions and respond to others.  Be as sympathetic and understanding of other peopleís views as you can, and if you disagree, say so, but avoid doing so in a belligerent of threatening way.  Encourage nonparticipants tactfully in a way that demonstrates the sincerity of your interest in their views.  Be sure to take time to compliment each other for especially good ideas, helpful explanations, or other positive contributions.

  j)  Listening: This is as essential a part of successful communication as speaking, and is often neglected in everyday life.  You can practice this by trying to formulate in your own mind or stating out loud the gist of what a previous speaker has been saying before adding your own contribution.  This is what is involved in responding to other people and building common understandings Ė and what is lost when each participant simply waits for his turn to speak his own mind.  It is also the difference between merely participating and interacting.

  k) Group tension-relieving: When discussions become deadly serious, disagreements become intense, or frustrations rise, it is valuable if someone can cut the tension with a joke or diverting remark that can relax the group.  Too much of this can be a way of avoiding the difficulties of the task at hand, but in moderation it will help the group to continue more comfortably with the assignment.

These Discussion Guidelines were adapted from guidelines distributed at a workshop on effective teaching by Craig Nelson, Emeritus Professor of Biology at Indiana University.  Birmingham-Southern College, September 21, 1990.