Responding to Students

Class discussions often mirror the form of a tennis match between professor and students: Professor serves question to student, student sends answer back to professor, professor moves onto next student, and so on. Sometimes, however, it makes sense to volley continuously with one student so they might explain and expand their thinking further. Other discussions might better function as volleyball matches, where ideas are passed among students before the professor is brought back into the action. Whatever the situation calls for, one thing is clear -- how instructors respond (or refraining from responding) to students holds powerful consequences for a discussion’s flow, participation, and productivity.

How can we use our own voices more purposefully when responding to students? How do we facilitate collaborative discussion where students genuinely discuss ideas among themselves? When might we insert our own expertise in a student-centered discussion versus letting that conversation proceed uninterrupted? How can we encourage students to disagree with one another while maintaining safe, supportive, and respectful classroom communities? In this series of videos, featured professors discuss how they create the conditions for and encourage student-to-student discourse.

What does the research say?

  • Even when groups of students do not initially know the correct answer, research has shown that peer discussion leads to improved conceptual understanding (Smith et al., 2009)
  • When instructors’ responses to students are clear, purposeful, and meaningful, students are better able to understand the information intended to be learned and develop metacognitive strategies for future learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007)
  • Approaches to feedback that help facilitate self-regulation in students include clarification of good performance expectations, facilitation of development of self-assessment, encouragement of teacher and peer dialogue, and encouragement of positive motivational beliefs. In addition, helpful feedback gives instructors a chance to close the gap between current student performance and desired future performance (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006).  

Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of teaching (Vol. 85). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield and Preskill discuss response options for instructors, ranging from affirmation to using silence as a response (p. 95-100) 

McKeachie, W., & Svinicki, M. (2013). McKeachie's teaching tips. United Kingdom: Cengage Learning.

McKeachie’s Teaching Tips provides guidelines for responding to students when common discussion challenges are taking place (p. 45)

Nilson, L. B. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. John Wiley & Sons.

Chapter 14 provides an overview of the types of questions that instructors can use using Bloom’s Taxonomy to develop questions at targeted cognitive levels, and contrasts “good” questions versus poor questions (p. 137-144)