Group Discussion Techniques: Table Tennis, Not Bowling (Part 1)

table tennis

Discussions should resemble a game of table tennis 

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

There are techniques which guarantee that all students will be engaged in a discussion.  In other words, the discussion will look like a game of table tennsi, in which students react and respond to what their group members have said.  It doesn’t look like bowling, in which one member tell his/her opinion, followed by a second member, then by a third etc., without necessarily even listening to the other members.

Some of the techniques that compel students to listen to each other and actively interact are:

  • asking follow-up questions
  • seeking and giving clarification
  • using comprehension checks
  • soliciting more details from others
  • interrupting others during a discussion
  • helping the leader of a discussion

A great technique to practice early in a discussion course is “seeking and giving clarifications.”  This involves using expressions such “Did you say …?”  “I didn’t understand …”  “Can you explain … more?”

After students have used the two attached handout-activities, they usually find the technique to be a “tool” that they can use not only in group discussions but also when interacting with teachers and others outside the classroom.

A brief summary of the two activities attached

Activity 1 (attached here)  Discussion technique_Clarification Part 1
The bases of the discussions are true news stories.  Activity 1 provides a model.  The students practice asking clarification questions in controlled exercises.

Part 1.  Article: “Animals in Movies.”  One group member (Student A) reads the first three paragraphs of a short news story (which the others haven’t seen) stopping at the end of each paragraph and asking if the other member had understood.  After each paragraph, group members (Students B and C) read a clarification question about the paragraph had just been read by Student A, who responds with a clarification.   This provides them with a model for how they will apply the technique in the non-controlled exercise in Activity 2.

Parts 2 & 3: Student B reads the second three paragraphs and Students C reads the final three.  As with Part 1, after each paragraph the “listening” partners ask their clarification questions.

Part 4: Students read factual questions to their partners to “test” how well they understood the three parts of the story.  Finally, they discuss their opinions about and experiences with the topic using the provided questions a prompts.

Activity 2 (attached here) Discussion technique_Clarification Part 2
Article: “Sleep.”  This activity is similar to Activity 1 except in these exercises, the students are not given the clarification questions.   As a group member reads his/her third of the story about sleep, s/he stops after each paragraph, asks if they had understood, and the other members must think of a clarification and ask it, even if they had understood what had been read.

Just as in Activity 1, there is a Part 4, in which students ask/answer factual questions and discuss their opinions and experiences.

Needless to say, we don’t normally ask a clarification question after every paragraph that someone says.  Students understand this.  And they realize that these exercises are meant to help them develop this technique, which they’ll be able to use in a variety of situation.

For more discussion techniques like these, see Discussion Strategies

To see a short YouTube talk by an instructor who has used this material, see Tea Talks–Conversation Strategies

I’d enjoy continuing this conversation with you and hearing your perspectives and experiences.  Feel free to click on “Reply” at the top of this posting, and/or send me an email by clicking on “Contact” and we can continue this.

David Kehe

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