Discussions are a valuable learning tool, but what are the keys to motivating students to participate, and keeping them engaged? This enquiry formed the basis for the workshop In-Class Group Discussion Could Be Engaging and Fun. The workshop was facilitated by Michael Lee, Instructor and Curriculum Coordinator in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. Michael’s belief in the importance of experiential learning was evident in the way the workshop was structured and facilitated, with participants being encouraged to enrich the content by sharing their own experiences related to the topic.
The workshop attendees represented various UBC Faculties, including, Arts, Science, Medicine and Pharmaceutical Science. Michael began the workshop by asking the group – many of whom had used group discussions in the classroom – what they hoped to learn from the session. The responses focused on a number of areas, including how to make discussions fun, how to achieve consistent results, and what kinds of discussion strategies are recommended for higher education.
The first activity Michael had for the group was “Name Bingo”, an ice breaker game to get people involved, and help them discover shared commonalities. Each participant was given a sheet listing nine different characteristics – for example, “Bikes to Work,” “Is New to UBC,” or “Teaches a Class of More than 100.” The goal was to find a person in the group who was a match for each of the characteristics. The room soon became quite animated, with everyone up and circulating, asking questions of the other participants and exchanging information about themselves. “Bingo” was called as soon as the first person had completed the sheet.
Michael then moved on to the next part of the activity. Participants were asked to pair up with someone with whom they shared similar characteristics, and interview them for the purpose of introducing them to the group. The interview process revealed still more things the pairs had in common – whether in terms of their professional development, “we found we had taken similar career paths”, or their personal lives, “we both love sushi!”.
Group Discussions – The Pros and Cons
For the next activity, Michael divided the large group into two smaller groups, and asked them to discuss the pros and cons of small group discussions. Within their groups, participants shared thoughts and experiences related to the topic, and recorded their ideas on a flip chart. Michael circulated between the groups, supporting the discussions by validating insights, providing additional examples, and suggesting resources. At the end of the allotted time, all the attendees reassembled to report on the results.
On the “Pro” side, both groups agreed that in-class discussions increase the potential for individual participation. In a small group, everyone has a chance to speak – an important factor, in that people learn better when they are more involved. Students get to know one another more easily in a small group, and are more likely to express themselves. Students can also benefit from peer learning in small groups – communication between peers can help to simplify and clarify content, and allow students who have fallen behind to catch up. Another advantage of the group discussion format is that it allows for a longer exploration of a topic. The use of online discussion boards, moreover, can extend learning beyond the classroom.
In terms of the “Cons” or “Challenges” identified, some attendees felt that a lack of trust can be problematic in small group discussions. Students may not readily see the value of a group learning activity, and may be reluctant to accept the knowledge of their peers as valid. Group dynamics is another challenge: the effectiveness of a group discussion may vary, depending on the mix of individuals involved (introverts, extroverts). Similarly, differences in learning goals can affect the group discussion experience. For example, a student who is taking a course because it is required, rather than because it is a preferred choice, may be less motivated to participate. Group discussions can also present logistical problems for the facilitator – for example, the task of managing feedback effectively when a large number of groups are all reporting on the same topic.
Strategies for Promoting Participation and Engagement
Having examined some of the challenges, participants shared possible solutions, and strategies they have found effective in facilitating in-class group discussions:
- Create a climate for sharing:
Use an activity such as an ice breaker to allow participants to get to know one another, and to promote trust.
- Elicit a personal connection between the participants and the content:
Structure the discussion so that the topic resonates with the students’ own lives.
- Have virtual group discussions, using social media/blogs/online discussion boards:
For example, assign students the task of blogging about a website they feel is related to the course or topic.
- Introduce accountability:
Incorporate group discussions into the marking structure by assigning a percentage of the grade for participation.
- Use peer evaluation:
Have the groups evaluate other members of their group for their degree of participation.
- Involve participants in the process:
For example, provide the topic, have each group formulate a question to be discussed, and then swap the questions between groups.
- Use e-learning tools:
When working with larger groups, consider using iClickers for reporting activities.
- Employ the “Think-Pair-Share” strategy:
Allow students time to formulate and share ideas in pairs before presenting them to the group.
- Vary reporting methods:
For example, provide students with “Scratch and Win” cards (used in the Faculty of Applied Sciences), or conduct a group quiz which introduces the element of anticipation (groups or students are called upon randomly to answer questions).
Reflecting on How Group Discussions Work
The final activity consisted of a reflection on the effectiveness of the day’s group discussion exercise. Michael asked attendees to examine their experience in the group in terms of how ready people were to participate, what the dynamics had been, what had motivated people, and how the discussion progressed.
The participant responses highlighted some of the positive aspects of small group discussions, and provided some insights into how groups work. One participant acknowledged how the ice breaker game, at the beginning of the workshop, had increased the comfort level of the group, and made the discussion exercise more productive. Another participant noted the support she received from members of the group in response to sharing her difficulties using group discussions in her classroom. She felt validated by their understanding, and appreciated the strategies they recommended to ameliorate the problems. This experience made her aware that students who are reticent to participate could also benefit from group learning, if successfully engaged. She pointed out, however, that instructors need to be aware of the differing learning styles of their students. For example, some students might learn more successfully by participating via an online discussion board.
Workshop Mirrors the Process
By participating in the workshop, attendees were involved in an active learning exercise. Their own experience in the group discussion process mirrored that of their students.
The ice breaker at the beginning established personal connections between people, which were then extended to the group. By the time participants got together for the small group discussion exercise, a comfortable atmosphere for sharing had been created. Group members were motivated by their mutual interest in using the group discussion format as a teaching tool. They shared with their peers, learned from them, received validation, and were offered practical suggestions for making their group discussions more effective.
The role of the facilitator, as demonstrated by Michael during the workshop, was to assist in moving the discussion process forward.
Involvement of Participants is Key to Success
Throughout the workshop, Michael emphasized the fact that many of the challenges involved in facilitating small groups discussions can be overcome through engagement. There are numerous strategies, tools, and methods, including those contributed during the session, which can be employed to this end. As the participants learned through direct experience in the workshop, group discussions can indeed be stimulating, enjoyable, and productive.
Michael’s final remarks served to summarize and reinforce the central message of the workshop, as well as to communicate his enthusiasm for the topic. “Make groups fun,” he reminded the participants, and “keep the group engaged!”