An alternative to straight lecture is class discussion. Instead of the teacher simply telling the students the material with only occasional questions, whole-group discussions are more interactive. The teacher will still present some new material but the students will be required to participate by answering questions and providing examples.
This has the advantage of involving students much more in the learning process. Further, it can be used effectively with younger students for short periods of time. However, unless you require participation and use a system to mark each student who speaks, it can be hard to get everyone involved.
Breaking up the class into smaller groups of four to six students is another alternative for older students. Each group then receives a topic of discussion and questions they need to answer as a group. The teacher is much further removed from this type of discussion, which can have both positive and negative effects. As long as each group remains on task, holding small group discussions can be very rewarding.
Some students find joy in bringing up inappropriate topics for discussion. Be conscious of your students and try to see where they are heading with comments so that you can quickly intervene if the discussion seems to be moving in an inappropriate direction.
Rules for Discussion
It is important that you set up some ground rules for your students to follow during group discussions. A good rule is that during the class discussion, only one person should be talking at a time. You need to make it clear to your students that they are not to make fun of each other for their opinions. In a healthy discussion, it's normal for people to disagree, and your students need to learn how to respect their peers' opinions.
It is your job to act as the facilitator and keep the discussion on topic. You may be faced with students who have a different agenda and try to move the discussion to irrelevant topics. Their comments may even be of some educational value — for instance, they may relate to current events. However, unless a comment is something that needs to be discussed or is a teachable moment, you should not deviate from your original lesson plan.
Guiding the Discussion
One of the most important skills in your teaching arsenal is the ability to question effectively. Most teachers make the mistake of asking a question, waiting about three seconds, and then providing the answer. However, wait time is one of the most important components of effective questioning.
It is difficult to get the knack of how long to pause after asking a question. At first, it will feel as if you are waiting too long. However, waiting will get students to answer your questions. Your students will begin to realize that you are going to wait for them to raise their hands and respond. This does not mean that you should wait for a minute after each question; waiting ten seconds should be long enough.
The other major pitfall is the use of multiple questions. For example, the following is an improper question to ask students: “What is the largest river in the world? Where is it located? How long is it?” This type of question causes problems for several reasons.
For one thing, students will have a hard time remembering all the parts of the question. Secondly, they may not want to speak up if they do not know all of the answers. Finally, students may become confused about the correct answer for any of the questions or, worse, lose sight of what is really the point of the lesson.
It is also important to review how you respond to student answers. If you try to find something worthwhile in what a student says, even if she is wrong, then you will encourage her to answer again in the future.
For example, which of the following responses is more encouraging? “That is wrong, Sarah,” or “You are right that this was written in the Enlightenment period, but you have not given the correct author for the piece.” Obviously, the second provides more information and also allows the student to see that she was partially correct.