Improving discussion skills through guided practice and repetition
Jeanne Foster was concerned that her students weren’t making progress on their in-class discussions. She would evaluate each discussion facilitator each class period, but would often see others in the discussion group repeating the same mistakes. She wanted to share feedback so everyone could benefit, but also wanted to be careful about students’ privacy and morale.
As she was discussing her frustration with her husband, he shared some insight from his years of coaching basketball.
We have the same issue. We see the same mistakes being repeated over and over again. What we did was to take one mistake and make it a point of emphasis for an entire practice. What we taught them wasn’t new. We had covered it before, but I suspect that facilitating a discussion group is something that you just have to practice repeatedly to develop habits. We have the same thing in basketball. I know that you taught them what to do, but doing it real-time requires they develop habits, and that’s a lot more than having knowledge.
Foster took her husband’s advice to heart. After each class, she emailed students about one point of emphasis for the next class. The point of emphasis was a problem she saw happening in class, but she never described it as a problem nor did she reference a particular student. That way she avoided the privacy issue.
Over time discussions began to improve immensely. The points of emphasis did in fact become habits. She began to realize that discussion facilitation is much like a performing art. You can give students a script or a musical score, but they need guided practice and repetition.
As educators, we often fall into the trap of believing that covering the material one time in class is sufficient. In fact, the process of seeing, listening, and reading are at the lower levels of what we retain as information. Saying and doing form the highest level of retention. What Foster was doing with her point of emphasis approach was elevating the retention level.
Think about skills that have become second nature to you. You will often find that you progressed from awkwardness to proficiency through repetition.
Also, skills can be additive. Advances in one skill can make subsequent skills easier to acquire. Thus, each point of emphasis builds upon previous points of emphasis. These skills are almost impossible to learn at a performative level from a lecture or text.
Discussions are generally considered to be something we don’t need to teach. We just assume students know how to discuss. But do they know how to do it well? Do they know how to engage productively in a discussion? How might we develop our students’ discussion skills without taking away from the main content of a course?
Discussion facilitation is a critical skill in our society. How might we better foster this skill? What if we considered it a critical skill that all college students should know?
* * *
It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them. – Ben Franklin