Stella Dean, “Managing the Discussion in the Literature Course.” English Department Handbook for Teaching Assistants. 1992

This chapter of the sourcebook begins with the assumption that students will best learn in discussion rather than in lecture the critical vocabulary and the analytical skills that we ask them to demonstrate in essays. While many new teachers vow that they will teach using the "discussion method," in practice it is not easy both to "cover" material and to give students the opportunity to develop and debate ideas. The contributions to "Managing the Discussion" offer many useful in-class strategies that encourage student exchange and debate. In the introductory groups of suggestions, I focus on the instructor's preparation for discussion. I hope to convey that teachers of literature can best direct, rather than control, discussion by carefully preparing and organizing questions--that such preparation will in fact enable the instructor to depart from her/his plan during the discussion without "losing control." Student preparation is also essential for productive, lively class discussion and ought to go beyond reading the text. Explicitly tell your students at the start of the semester that a successful class depends on their active class participation, and use discussion techniques that involve as many students as possible.

Prepare for Class

•           Know your material well; knowledge of your text will enable you to call to mind and discuss passages from the text that a student brings up but that you had not planned to discuss.

•           Set an intellectual goal for the day: a concept you'd like to develop or an idea you'd like to debate. Your goal ought to be more than a topic; your students will get more out of the class when you model the kind of development of ideas that you expect them to be learning. Be willing to discard less important concepts for the sake of making sure the important ones are understood and that the students are learning them in discussion.

•            Carefully think out questions that will promote discussions, not answers, about the idea you want to develop. Phrase your questions so that the task is clear to students.

•           Put yourself in your students' shoes; try to imagine various ways to approach a question. Write some general questions that cover the whole topic and groups of more specific questions that approach the problem in different ways. Try to anticipate possible responses to questions and think about how they can be used positively to move the class toward more understanding. Prepare alternative ways to phrase some of the complex questions.

•           Decide on a sequence of questions to move the discussion toward your goal. Start with small, concrete questions and work up to more global, thought­ provoking questions. Organizing your own thought process in this way will allow you to revise your sequence during the course of the discussion without feeling that you have lost control of its direction. Write out two or three important questions--a beginning, transitional, and concluding question, for example--that you will use word for word during the class.

Prepare Your Students for Discussion

•             Accompany assignments on the syllabus with one or two study questions to help students focus their reading, or ask that they submit written responses of one or two paragraphs on a topic to be discussed in class.

•           Tell your students at the beginning of class what your intellectual goal is for that class, the topic or concept you hope to be developing and its relationship to the course as a whole.

Managing the Discussion

•           After asking a question, pause for a response (as long as fifteen seconds for complex questions). For thought-provoking questions, you can let your students know that you expect them to think about a response for ten or fifteen seconds.

•           Don't force your sequence or outline to such an extent that you discourage the free flow of ideas.

•           Make few statements; your role as discussion leader is to listen to student responses and to formulate your next question. Ask questions that follow up on students' comments, that encourage them to develop ideas, and that teach them to elaborate points by using textual evidence. Have students respond directly to one another

("Do you agree with Susan?" "Is another interpretation possible?")


Create an Environment in Which Everyone Participates

•           Move furniture so that everyone in the class can see and talk to everyone else.

•           Early in the semester, use short, in-class writing or questioning that everyone will read aloud or respond to.

•           Call on students who don't volunteer in a non-threatening way; don't rely solely on volunteers.

•           Ask students to respond to and ask questions of one another; don't always be the one to comment on a student response.