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Student-Led Seminar Discussion

Jordan Catapano


Do you ever feel like you do all the talking? Do you feel like your students tune you out, or are disengaged, or just rely on you to do the thinking for them?

If you do, you’re not alone. The traditional classroom model structure – with students in rows and a teacher talking in front of them – often creates an environment where the teacher feels like they’re “on stage” in front of an audience who may or may not be interested in the performance. This often leads to highly teacher-centered instruction, with student input and work pushed to the margins.

Here’s what occurs within traditional classroom discussions:

  • The teacher has control over the flow of classroom discussions and asks the questions.
  • As students answer, they only speak for a few seconds.
  • The teacher is the one who responds to and elaborates on the answer. In fact, well over 90% of all talking is done by the teacher.
  • Students raise their hands to speak, and when called they are concerned with being deemed “right” in the eyes of the teacher.
  • Students listen and learn from teacher; they are not interested in one another.
  • The majority of students may sit quietly, not necessarily engaged or even listening.

This is not to discredit classroom discussions entirely. They play an important role within the larger scope of the curriculum and serve as an effective means for a number of goals. However, the detriments are obvious: Traditionally, classroom discussions are centered on the teacher’s talking, thinking, and leading, and students are only engaged for seconds at a time.

One way to have a more student-centered discussion – in which they do the talking, thinking, and leading – is through a more seminar-style discussion format. In this setting, students freely share thinking with one another without that pesky, interjecting teacher getting in their way.

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But how do you get students to do this? Well, don’t just throw them in a circle and command them to discuss. Here are some steps that many instructors use to get their students involved in truly productive student-led discussions:

1.     Seminar Questions: Assign multiple seminar questions to the class. A seminar discussion question does not necessarily have a “right” answer at all, but is designed to open up multiple viewpoints and thoughtful consideration from the group.

2.     Time to Think: Before actually getting to the discussion, give students time to think about each question on their own. Many teachers like students to record their perspectives, quotations from stories, and questions of their own.

3.     Arrange Groups: Students don’t have to discuss all the questions they’re assigned – they only need to discuss one. Assign students to groups, or have them select which question they’d like to discuss.

4.     Share Expectations: Now that students have prepared notes with their own thoughts, quotes, and questions, they have laid the groundwork for a meaningful discussion with one another. Share with students what a good discussion between them looks like, including how they share thoughts, listen respectfully, disagree openly, and ask questions of one another. Also remind them that you, the teacher, will NOT be participating! If it gets awkwardly silent (which it may from time to time), you’re not going to rescue them. Also tell them how long they are expected to hold a conversation with one another.

5.     Begin Discussion: There are many different ways to actually have students discuss. Some teachers like to have student groups discuss simultaneously; others prefer one group discussion while others listen in. If this is your class’ first student-led discussion, it may be best to arrange students in two circles: Students in the inner circle are the ones discussing a certain question, and students in the outer circle are listening in on their conversation and taking notes. After a certain period of time elapses, switch! The next discussion group takes over the center.

6.     Take Notes: Once students begin discussing, your role shifts to listening and note taking. If you like, you can record and grade what kind of contributions each student is making to their group’s discussion. At the very least, you should be taking notes on what they discuss. Of course, if the discussion gets stuck or way out of focus, you can feel free to gently guide them back to where they need to be.

7.     Reflect: Student-led discussions are great for getting students to explore certain content, but they’re also great for teaching small group discussion skills. Spend time after the discussion reflecting with students on what kind of contributions they made, what they learned, and what they could do to have an even more effective discussion next time.

Now, with a student-led discussion, students don’t sit in rows, don’t rely on the teacher, and don’t silently keep their thoughts to themselves. Instead of the teacher hogging the attention, students’ thinking comes to the forefront and they are given the opportunity to freely explore their ideas through a thoughtful conversation with one another.

Above is one great method for facilitating student-led discussion in your classroom. What are some other methods you’ve developed? Share your experiences in the comments!

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