The start of a new semester is the perfect time to try a new approach to classroom discussions. Discussion is the second most used teaching strategy, coming second only to lecture. But often discussion turns into recitation, that is, the teacher asks a question, a student responds, and the teacher evaluates the response. This technique does not distribute participation evenly across the class and often does not require higher order thinking skills. However, there are several well-tested techniques that allow for a more engaging and inclusive discussion, one that requires students to tap into their critical thinking skills to create novel ideas and solutions. Below are three such techniques, the Fishbowl, the Gallery Walk, and Four Corners. We provide a description and an example of each discussion strategy.
Fishbowl is a method for structuring a type of group participation that encourages peer-to-peer dialogue and active listening, facilitating equal class participation and ensuring that every student contributes to the discussion.
Arrange the class space into a smaller inner circle of 3-4 chairs and a larger outer circle of remaining chairs. The facilitator poses an initial question, and those in the inner circle discuss the question among themselves while all others in the outer circle listen attentively. Participants in the inner circle may choose to leave, at which point anyone in the outside circle is free to take the empty seat in the inner circle and join the conversation. Continue until everyone has had a turn.
Note: The Fishbowl exercise is also an excellent pre-writing strategy, offering new perspectives and insights that students can build upon during independent work time.
Students in political science set up a fishbowl with 3 students in the center to discuss a recent presidential election. The small group is asked to discuss the implications of the electoral college while the larger group observes. When a student from the inner circle decides to leave, he/she steps out and someone from the outside steps in to participate in the discussion. Students take notes of important insights and write a brief essay arguing a position or exploring a perspective they had not previously considered.
A Gallery Walk is a great way to get students energized and moving as they explore texts and images that are located around the room. Gallery walks can be a way for students to share their work, analyze images, examine historical artifacts, or respond to written text and quotations.
Gallery Walk Description
Instructor sets up stations around the room to display writing and artifacts. Students form groups and move through each station, following the directions for participation. Students might engage in discussion, answer prompts, or perform some other task. Students are engaged in the course content the whole time and guided through important conversations.
Gallery Walk Example
World History students are studying American and Japanese propaganda during World War 2. The instructor has set up stations throughout the classroom to help students analyze how propaganda served the allies and the Axis powers Germany and Japan. For example, at one station students are asked to compare and contrast propaganda posters from the United States and from Japan. Another station requires students to read brief newspaper articles and analyzes the work within the context of racism and how it contributed to the tensions and fears of the time. A third station has students examine propaganda posters intended to ease fears and boost morale in Great Britain and the United States.
A Gallery Walk should conclude with a debriefing discussion, writing activity, or assignment that helps students synthesize and reflect on the information they learned.
Four Corners is an example of an activity that might be done near the end of the course for students to reflect on their cumulative learning. Students get to select the topics they most want to discuss with their classmates and they get to hear other students’ perspectives on the topic.
Four Corners Directions
Four (or more) discussion topics are set up around the room. Students can join any topic group they like. Groups can take notes on large poster paper so all can see the sub-topics being discussed and reference key points when groups report out. This activity also gets students moving and standing, so it can be energizing to tired students. Best of all, Four Corners takes very little time to organize.
Variation: Students can switch to another topic and review what was written at that corner, then add to it. Students won’t need as much time for subsequent stops. Adding “more stops” allows for a deeper reflection on course content.
Four Corners Example
At the end of a Women’s Studies course students are asked to debrief and reflect on how women have impacted and been impacted by political issues in America. The can select to go to one of the four following topics: Voting Rights, Equal Rights, Employment Rights, and Reproductive/Contraception Rights. Groups can write points on large poster paper as they hold a discussion. If time allows, students can move to another corner. At the end of the activity, students from each group will report out.
Integrating inclusive discussion strategies into your course is a great way to engage and include all students in the learning experience. We hope you will try one this semester.