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Establishing Discussion Norms with Students

Instruction

Imagine students participating in group discussion. The teacher provides an opening question, a student replies with an answer, and the teacher responds to the student with an evaluative statement or additional question. This sequence repeats as various students offer their ideas and thoughts to the group. 

Now imagine the same students engaging in a similar discussion, this time without teacher mediation. The air is peppered with multiple student voices seeking attention at the same time. Students repeat previously shared ideas or ignore others as they compete for the floor. Fairly quickly, chaos ensues. How can we find middle ground, where students lead the discussion but make room for all voices to be heard? 

Group discussions can be an effective tool for assessing and building on student knowledge. Discussions serve not only as a way to review content and encourage higher order thinking, but also function as a space to build social-emotional skills. This is especially true in student-led discussions, where the majority of control around a conversation is placed on the students themselves. In my experience, students tend to lack specific skills and experience for effective discussion facilitation. Communication skills – such as when and how to listen and how to thoughtfully and respectfully contribute to the discussion – are important throughout a person’s life. Teaching students how to run and engage in an effective group conversation primes them with skills that they can use for their entire academic career, as well as other professional and personal settings. 

Explicitly building skills in a few key areas will guide students to success. 

  • Wait Time: Wait time is well-documented to improve student responses. The average teacher waits less than 2 seconds before having a student respond to a prompt. Increasing the wait time to a mere 5 seconds can increase students’ response length by 400% and decrease the number of students who don’t respond. Developing an explicit structure and culture where silent pauses and space to write down notes are encouraged can lead to more successful group discussion. Encouraging space to think not only gives time to those students who may need it to process, but allows all students to edit and strengthen their initial thoughts. 
  • One Voice: Taking time to practice listening to one voice at a time in all situations highlights the idea that all voices are important, both student and instructor. Student led discussions help fortify the idea that students can turn to their peers for knowledge and guidance. Asking students to call on one another helps to ensures the one voice guideline and encourages them to listen to one another.  I have found that students are more likely to stay engaged when they are accountable to their peers. You can support this process by using a talking object such as a stick or folded bandana, and having students pass it to each other as they speak. Alternately, you can have students say the name of the next person they choose to speak. 
  • Listening:  Explicitly defining what listening looks and sounds like in a group setting can be effective scaffolding for the group. For many people in the US, listening involves tracking the speaker with one’s eyes and body posture while being silent. Active listening may include non-verbal signs that the audience is following along, such as head nodding or cues such as “uh-huh” to indicate acknowledgement or agreement. For some people, fidgeting or doodling is an effective way to maintain focus, though it may portray disengagement to an outsider. 

Be aware of how listening norms may differ. While Western culture often values eye contact in social settings, other cultures may view direct eye contact to be unnecessary or disrespectful. Certain folks, such as those with Autism, may avoid eye contact for othe reasons. Discussing and agreeing upon a range of suitable options to demonstrate listening promotes an inclusive learning environment. 

  • Nonverbal Communication: When students agree with their peers, they often want to express their endorsement. Many people restating the same idea or uttering “Yeah, I like her plan” can impede the flow of a conversation. Using non-verbal cues or hand signals to show agreement is an effective use of time. Silent applause or thumb-and-pinky-out-hand-shaking are common hand signals I have used. Encouraging the group to come up with their own hand signals for agreement and/or appreciation is a great way to get buy-in from the students. Having a special signal that only applies to the group imparts a sense of belonging to those who use it, and can be highly effective at building community and camaraderie. 
  • Agree to Disagree: Reflecting on how students can and want to respond in a conversation can be an eye-opening discussion. Disagreement should be celebrated and encouraged. It shows critical thinking and engagement on the listener’s part, and encourages the original speaker to substantiate their claims with more evidence and/or consider other viewpoints. Intentionally discussing possible reactions when disagreeing with others provides a structure that may prove useful with many students. This can be scaffolded with sentence stems that are visible and available for students to use, such as:

“Yes, and ____________.” 
“I disagree with that because __________.” 
“Have you considered _______________.” 
 “Could you tell me more about _____________?” 

As with many other communication norms, the form argument and disagreement takes varies amongst people. Recognize different degrees of directness, assertiveness and aggressiveness students may naturally use and provide space to discuss different approaches to communicating disagreement. 

This is just the beginning when it comes to building communication and conversation skills. Once your students have gained experience with the framework, bring in additional ideas. Encourage students to self-assess their contributions – should they step up or step back? Discuss the benefits of speaking in the positive, stating what one should do rather than focusing on what one shouldn’t do. Explore and try out different questioning techniques with your students. The possibilities are endless.  

 

However you choose to explain conversation norms with your group, concretely naming them and creating a visual aid will increase success. Below are few mnemonics developed by IslandWood instructors this past year that have been useful in naming the steps to a successful student-led conversation. 

When engaging in discussion, remember your TONE 

Think about your response; Wait 5 seconds after a question is asked to answer 
One Voice; one person speaks and everybody else listens 
Norms; We will respect different opinions. We will politely agree and disagree 
Everybody Responds; We can respond verbally and nonverbally. Everyone’s contribution is important to the group. 

We will SLOW down our conversations

Speak one at a time
Listen to all responses
Observe our Surroundings
Watch for emotion

We will LEARN from each other

Listen; listen until the speaker is done 
Eye Contact; Make eye contact at some point with the speaker to let them know you are listening  
Agree; use  a hand signal to show agreement 
Respectfully Respond; if you disagree or want to add on, raise your hand to do so respectfully 
Notice who’s next; students will call on the next person, be sure to include people who haven’t had a chance to speak yet 

 

 

 

Imagine students participating in group discussion. The teacher provides an opening question, a student replies with an answer, and the teacher responds to the student with an evaluative statement or additional question. This sequence repeats as various students offer their ideas and thoughts to the group. 

Now imagine the same students engaging in a similar discussion, this time without teacher mediation. The air is peppered with multiple student voices seeking attention at the same time. Students repeat previously shared ideas or ignore others as they compete for the floor. Fairly quickly, chaos ensues. How can we find middle ground, where students lead the discussion but make room for all voices to be heard? 

Group discussions can be an effective tool for assessing and building on student knowledge. Discussions serve not only as a way to review content and encourage higher order thinking, but also function as a space to build social-emotional skills. This is especially true in student-led discussions, where the majority of control around a conversation is placed on the students themselves. In my experience, students tend to lack specific skills and experience for effective discussion facilitation. Communication skills – such as when and how to listen and how to thoughtfully and respectfully contribute to the discussion – are important throughout a person’s life. Teaching students how to run and engage in an effective group conversation primes them with skills that they can use for their entire academic career, as well as other professional and personal settings. 

Explicitly building skills in a few key areas will guide students to success. 

  • Wait Time: Wait time is well-documented to improve student responses. The average teacher waits less than 2 seconds before having a student respond to a prompt. Increasing the wait time to a mere 5 seconds can increase students’ response length by 400% and decrease the number of students who don’t respond. Developing an explicit structure and culture where silent pauses and space to write down notes are encouraged can lead to more successful group discussion. Encouraging space to think not only gives time to those students who may need it to process, but allows all students to edit and strengthen their initial thoughts. 
  • One Voice: Taking time to practice listening to one voice at a time in all situations highlights the idea that all voices are important, both student and instructor. Student led discussions help fortify the idea that students can turn to their peers for knowledge and guidance. Asking students to call on one another helps to ensures the one voice guideline and encourages them to listen to one another.  I have found that students are more likely to stay engaged when they are accountable to their peers. You can support this process by using a talking object such as a stick or folded bandana, and having students pass it to each other as they speak. Alternately, you can have students say the name of the next person they choose to speak. 
  • Listening:  Explicitly defining what listening looks and sounds like in a group setting can be effective scaffolding for the group. For many people in the US, listening involves tracking the speaker with one’s eyes and body posture while being silent. Active listening may include non-verbal signs that the audience is following along, such as head nodding or cues such as “uh-huh” to indicate acknowledgement or agreement. For some people, fidgeting or doodling is an effective way to maintain focus, though it may portray disengagement to an outsider. 

Be aware of how listening norms may differ. While Western culture often values eye contact in social settings, other cultures may view direct eye contact to be unnecessary or disrespectful. Certain folks, such as those with Autism, may avoid eye contact for othe reasons. Discussing and agreeing upon a range of suitable options to demonstrate listening promotes an inclusive learning environment. 

  • Nonverbal Communication: When students agree with their peers, they often want to express their endorsement. Many people restating the same idea or uttering “Yeah, I like her plan” can impede the flow of a conversation. Using non-verbal cues or hand signals to show agreement is an effective use of time. Silent applause or thumb-and-pinky-out-hand-shaking are common hand signals I have used. Encouraging the group to come up with their own hand signals for agreement and/or appreciation is a great way to get buy-in from the students. Having a special signal that only applies to the group imparts a sense of belonging to those who use it, and can be highly effective at building community and camaraderie. 
  • Agree to Disagree: Reflecting on how students can and want to respond in a conversation can be an eye-opening discussion. Disagreement should be celebrated and encouraged. It shows critical thinking and engagement on the listener’s part, and encourages the original speaker to substantiate their claims with more evidence and/or consider other viewpoints. Intentionally discussing possible reactions when disagreeing with others provides a structure that may prove useful with many students. This can be scaffolded with sentence stems that are visible and available for students to use, such as:

“Yes, and ____________.” 
“I disagree with that because __________.” 
“Have you considered _______________.” 
 “Could you tell me more about _____________?” 

As with many other communication norms, the form argument and disagreement takes varies amongst people. Recognize different degrees of directness, assertiveness and aggressiveness students may naturally use and provide space to discuss different approaches to communicating disagreement. 

This is just the beginning when it comes to building communication and conversation skills. Once your students have gained experience with the framework, bring in additional ideas. Encourage students to self-assess their contributions – should they step up or step back? Discuss the benefits of speaking in the positive, stating what one should do rather than focusing on what one shouldn’t do. Explore and try out different questioning techniques with your students. The possibilities are endless.  

 

However you choose to explain conversation norms with your group, concretely naming them and creating a visual aid will increase success. Below are few mnemonics developed by IslandWood instructors this past year that have been useful in naming the steps to a successful student-led conversation. 

When engaging in discussion, remember your TONE 

Think about your response; Wait 5 seconds after a question is asked to answer 
One Voice; one person speaks and everybody else listens 
Norms; We will respect different opinions. We will politely agree and disagree 
Everybody Responds; We can respond verbally and nonverbally. Everyone’s contribution is important to the group. 

We will SLOW down our conversations

Speak one at a time
Listen to all responses
Observe our Surroundings
Watch for emotion

We will LEARN from each other

Listen; listen until the speaker is done 
Eye Contact; Make eye contact at some point with the speaker to let them know you are listening  
Agree; use  a hand signal to show agreement 
Respectfully Respond; if you disagree or want to add on, raise your hand to do so respectfully 
Notice who’s next; students will call on the next person, be sure to include people who haven’t had a chance to speak yet 

 

 

 

About the Author
Danielle Alon

Danielle Alon hails from Northern California, where she first began her foray into teaching and tutoring. As an anthropology major at Pitzer College, she furthered her interests in other cultures by teaching and learning abroad. After experiencing the wonders of Botswana, Thailand, Myanmar and Israel, Danielle made her way back to the US to explore the realm of environmental education. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Teaching, where she plans to gain skills to help her facilitate her own 5th grade classroom in the near future.