How to Tackle Student-Led Discussions


novak quote on helping studentsBy Sandi Novak

“I have tried to get my students to add on to their group members’ ideas, but my students just don’t get it!”

This comment from a teacher provoked a good discussion among his colleagues. Yet, the big question that this group of teachers grappled with—How do we help students refine their skills when they get stuck during student-led discussions?—is something that I hear many teachers ask.

Teachers can provide guidance in a number of ways depending on the area of need. Sometimes students benefit from watching a video of other students that have proficiently demonstrated a particular skill. For example, if students are having shallow discussions because they don’t elaborate on the points made by other members of the group, they can watch a discussion where group members have done a good job of using sentence frames like “Can you be more specific and clarify that point for me?” or “The point you just made is similar to . . .”

Sometimes teachers can help students move a discussion from good to great by using an example of something they observed during another student-led discussion. Examples often serve as evidence and spark conversation. Therefore, teachers can model good discussion practices by bringing up points made during a different dialogue that broadened the conversation, looked at various perspectives, or addressed big-picture issues.

Just like with other types of instruction, the gradual release model is an effective way to help students learn to conduct productive and informative discussions. Teachers should model discussion strategies with the whole group, guide students as they practice having discussions, and then gradually release the responsibility to the students to lead their own discussions. Many teachers have found that students’ motivation soars as they  engage in student-led discussions and get the opportunity to learn from and teach one another!

The ASCD Arias book Student-Led Discussions: How do I promote rich conversations about books, videos, and other media? is a great resource on this topic and contains video examples of 1st through 9th grade students having effective student-led discussions..

What have you found to help students refine their skills when they get stuck during student-led discussions?