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Leading a Class Discussion

 

 

I. Lead the discussion.

            For many students, leading a class discussion can be intimidating.  This guide is designed to relieve some of the pressure.

            A. Be a facilitator.

            It is important to remember that your assignment is to lead the discussion, not to lecture on the topic.  This is not a test of your knowledge: you don't need to know the answers to the questions you ask. You should make discussion happen, not pose as an authority.

            B. Bring out the major points.

            Your goal should be to make sure that the major points of the reading are brought out.  You should, therefore, ask questions which get the class to talk about the author's thesis and the argument used to support the thesis.  If time permits, you might also bring out other issues, such as the author's use of sources or the author's relation to other writers on the subject.

            C. Use your own judgment.

            Decide for yourself what you think is most important to cover.  Don't try to second guess me.  If you overlook something I think is important, that doesn't mean you did "wrong," it only means we have a difference of opinion.

            D. Don't panic.

            A discussion is a kind of conversation.  It is an exchange of ideas among people.  You cannot control that discussion, you can only direct it.  If things don't go as you planned, you should adjust to the new situation.

II. Some suggestions.

            A. Make sure you read the assignment.  While it is possible to lead a discussion without having read the material--talk show people do it all the time--you cannot discuss the material critically without having read it.

            B. Prepare a list of questions.  While you should be flexible and follow the discussion where it leads, you should know ahead of time the important points you think should be covered.  Prepare a list of questions which will help you bring out those points.  You should also have something prepared if you are confronted with a long silence.

            C. Ask questions which require complex answers.  "What does Smith think about the English Civil War?" rather than "Who was king of England in 1632?"  The more complex the question, the more discussion it should generate.  You may also wish to use questions which ask for evaluations: "What is your opinion of Smith's argument?"

            D. Don't smooth over controversy.  It may happen that there will be some controversy generated in the course of the discussion.  Don't panic.  Try to get the disputants to define their positions as well as possible.  Leave time for rebuttal and comment by the other members of the class.  You should not try to resolve the conflict, but rather help clarify the issues.

            E. Anticipate silences.

            Don't' be afraid of silence.  If your questions does not get an immediate response, it might be because it is difficult and people need time to think about it.  Count to ten--at least--before asking another question.  If you have waited sufficiently and still receive no response, try rephrasing the question.  What might be a clear question to you might be unclear to others.  Be sure to ask follow up questions if the answers you receive are unclear, ambiguous or incomplete.

            F. You must guide the discussion.

            As a facilitator, you must form a balancing act between getting the things you want discussed and letting people talk.  It may be necessary for you to cut someone off or ask them to keep to the topic.  This should be done as gently, but as firmly, as possible.  You are in charge and, if necessary, you should exercise that authority.  "That's interesting, but I don't think we have enough time to pursue that now."

III. The assignment.

            You are to lead the discussion in two different class sessions which discuss two different texts.  On the day you are scheduled to lead the class you will be asked to:

            1. Come to class prepared with a list of at least 10 questions designed to bring out the main points in the reading.

            2. Lead the class for a period of at least 20 minutes.  That is, you should attempt to facilitate discussion in the class.  Ask your prepared questions, ask important follow up questions, manage debate, keep the discussion organized and focused, allow everyone to speak and make sure the major points are covered.  If you wish to go longer than 20 minutes, that will be fine so long as the discussion continues to be productive.

            3. At the end of the class session, fill out the reflection sheet.

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