Discussion-based Learning

Facilitating class discussions can be an extremely valuable pedagogical technique. So, how do you know when to introduce discussion into your course, and how do you go about actually facilitating discussion to meet your student learning goals? Here's what some of Berkeley's Distinguished Teachers have to say about it:

"My first class I taught on campus was an 8am, first semester Physics lecture, and nobody wanted to talk...at all. I think that the key thing I've learned is the importance of persisting. Even if it goes badly one day, one week, one month, you just persist. If it's a goal you have, I learned that you can teach it to students, even if it's a bad start. There's a useful diagnostic you might want to think about. If a bunch of students crowd around the front to talk afterwards, what does that tell you? That means there's interest in the classroom about the thing, but they are more comfortable talking in that environment than where they were 15 minutes earlier. You can use cues like that to think about what is it about this class that's getting in the way. Maybe it's certain people, maybe it's that you address the topic in more formal terms, and then you can begin to see what they want to know more about, and how you might be able to start the next discussion."

- Bob Jacobsen, Physics

"The students, when they arrive at Berkeley, have the mentality that they are supposed to sit in the desks and listen. And, they have been trained that way since they were in kindergarten and all through high school. Then, all of a sudden, they are expected to talk. So, it's not going to happen overnight. You need to have different expectations of what a discussion might look like at different stages of their student career. If I knew what I know now, when I started here, I would force them less. I would provide the opportunity, but not make that a mark of success to achieve that discussion. I think that's something that has to be generated naturally."

- Juan Pestana, Civil & Environmental Engineering

"Largely, when I ask the right question at the right level, they're chatting away. Every so often, I give a question where I know there's great confusion, and then there'll be uniform silence across the way. But then we can have a rich discussion, using demos for example, as a starting point. And I always make sure to praise those students who do participate."

-Angy Stacey, Chemistry

"For me, one of the really difficult things, and it took me a while to realize this, I think many of us who go into teaching as a profession have a level of comfort with talking, and with talking to groups of people. I was always a student who was comfortable speaking in class. So, it took me a while before I understood intellectually that it was harder for certain people. At that point I started realizing people can be present in the classroom in a lot of different ways, and people can participate in different ways, and there are a lot of different things I can do as a teacher to cut down on some of that anxiety and some of the real fear that people have."

- Karl Britto, Comparative Literature & French

Are you interested in implementing Discussion-Based Learning into your course? If so, contact the CTL for a consultation! (teaching@berkeley.edu(link sends e-mail)(link sends e-mail))