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Discussion and Dialogue: Defined and Explored

Discussion and Dialogue: Defined and Explored

Using the in-class exchange of ideas and opinions to stimulate critical thinking.

Discussion's multiple effects upon learning

Discussion is crucial to learning for at least three reasons.  First, research has shown that the more we elaborate upon something, the easier that knowledge is to retrieve and use (Svinicki, 2004).   Second, the socio-emotional aspects of discussion are important, as emotion has powerful effects upon learning (Zull, 2002).  Finally, discussion is fundamentally "critical" because it demands that one explore one’s own beliefs in order to articulate and contrast them to others’.  This exposure "forces the subject to go beyond his current state and strike out in new directions" (Piaget, 1985, p.10, cited in Palincsar, 1998, p. 350). 

Palmer (1998) extended this last point by describing discussion's transformative effect upon knowledge which can make it as a rich a learning experience for the teacher as it is for the student. He described this phenomenon by visually depicting how relationships to knowledge itself differ between "mythical objectivism" in which the "truth flows from the top down " and a "community of truth, as in real life, when there are no pristine objects of knowledge and no ultimate authorities" (pp. 99-101).

Palmer's Objectivism/Subjectivism

Instead of truth being an object at a top of a ladder, Palmer offered a definition of truth as "an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline " (p.104).

The importance of preparation and structure

While the spontaneous nature of discussion makes it engaging, students must be prepared for discussion and the conversation must have structure for the time to be productive, especially in today’s distraction-filled classroom.

Student preparation for discussion can occur outside of class or during class. Outside of class, many instructors have found that students come prepared to discuss when they are required to write discussion papers or "think sheets" before coming to class. Activities like this force students to process the reading deeply enough to develop opinions about it and when opinions are formulated enough to be written down, they are easier to speak about. During class, students can be prepared for discussion by a short lecture, film, problem or case followed by specific questions from the instructor (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2006).

Students can be asked to engage discussion questions in many ways.  They may be asked to reflect privately or in writing before speaking.  At a more structured level, they may be asked to work in small groups in order to make a tough decision or explore conflicting aspects of an issue. 

Creating a container for fertile discussions

Many teachers remark upon how important it is to include discussion from the very first day, so that students habituate to discussion as a natural part of the course. Even in very large courses, techniques have been developed to make student participation easy and important to how a class session unfolds.

Discussion works best when students enter into dialogue with an open mind and the flexibility to adjust their views: the end product of discussion may not be agreement, but rather the complex nature of the issue and a clarification of differing positions. Discussion is ultimately intended to be a democratic experience, which means instructors must create an environment where students feel comfortable engaging in dialogue with other students (Wade, 1996). Brookfield and Preskill (1999) suggest nine principles for creating such an atmosphere: hospitality, encouraged participation, mindfulness, humility, mutuality, deliberation, appreciation, hope, and autonomy. These are important and useful principals to embrace, as facilitating a fruitful discussion can be a difficult and artful task requiring both commitment and flexibility from the instructor.


Brookfield, S.D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kawashima, R., Sugiura, M., Kato, Y., Nakamura, A., Hatano, K., Ito, K., et al. (1999). The human amygdala plays an important role in gaze monitoring. Brain, 122, 779-783.

McKeachie, W.J. & Svinicki, M. (2006). Teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university professors. New York, NY: Houghton-Mifflin.

Palincsar, A. S. (1998). Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 345-375.

Palmer, P.J. (1998) The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Svinicki, M.D. (2004) Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

Wade, R.C. (1994). Teacher education students" views on class discussions: Implications for fostering critical reflection. Teaching and Teacher Education, 10(2), 231-243.