Discussion Techniques for Active Learning

Yesterday, I presented at the 21st Century Pedagogy Institute’s 20th Annual Collegium on College Teaching Practices. This event takes place each year on the Wednesday before fall semester classes begin. Though not mandatory, both the keynote and workshops sessions are extremely well attended by UCO faculty; since we all know how busy that week before class begins is, the packed rooms speak to both faculty’s commitment to pedagogy and the quality of the event. After attending the Collegium my first two years at UCO, I decided to present during one of the workshop sessions this year. What follows is a brief description of my presentation that you can access directly here.

I decided to present and model several easily implemented discussion techniques to promote active learning. This was loosely inspired by previous workshops I led for CU’s Graduate Teacher Program on quick ways to add speaking minutes to the world language classroom (read the post here) and how to create communicative activities (read the post here). The Collegium workshops are short, so I decided the most effective use of my time would be to model three techniques that teachers of any subject could immediately work into their lesson plans with very little effort. Though I gave a brief explanation of active learning, I felt the time was better spent focused on practical application than pedagogical theory.

As became my practice during my years with the CU GTP, I modeled introduction on Kolb so attendees (and now viewers of the slides) would know exactly what to expect. Though the theory of learning styles is problematic, Kolb modeling suggests answering four questions to set all learners at ease for any presentation or assignment: What is the purpose? Why does it matter? What materials do I need to participate? What can I leave out? For this presentation, the answers were: three concrete strategies for classroom discussion; getting all students participating is difficult but essential; an internet connection; theory behind active learning.

Next came a brief definition of active learning with a few examples and resources to find out more. Broadly defined, active learning describes any method through which students are involved in the learning process. Active learning contrasts with lecture style learning in which the students are passive recipients of information that is given to them – and no, simply taking notes during a lecture is not being involved in the learning process. Examples of active learning include reflection, self or peer evaluation, jigsaw discussions, and many more. The following chart organizes activities based on their complexity:

The following chart offers a template for organizing a class period around active learning methods while also allowing time for traditional lecture to provide students with the knowledge necessary to complete the learning activities:

After quickly establishing the basics, I modeled three techniques: pyramid discussion, jigsaw, and digitally assisted discussion.


A pyramid discussion or debate begins like a think-pair-share: participants write down their ideas individually, then share them with a partner. Where a think-pair-share then asks each pair to share with the class as a whole, a pyramid continues the process by asking each pair to join another pair. Then each group of four joins another, and so on until the discussion becomes class wide. In the workshop, I modeled this activity by asking participants to share their best strategies for classroom discussions – thus, the model served a double purpose. In this type of discussion, it is helpful to use a timer to keep students focused and sharing ideas quickly (1-2 minutes works well). I have also used this discussion technique to great success as a debate: each pair is assigned to the same side of the debate, so first they strategize before debating with another pair. Advantages of the pyramid structure (discussion or debate) include: students must prepare as they cannot avoid participating; students have time to reflect upon their ideas before sharing them; students repeat information, refining their ideas or argument each time they share; students check each other’s knowledge and ideas; and it’s easy to moderate small groups while they work.

(image mine)

Jigsaw Discussion

Next, I described the jigsaw format that forms a large part of my literature and culture classes. A jigsaw breaks up the material into small chunks and makes each student (or group of students) responsible for just one chunk. Though useful for any subject, this format is particularly effective in L2 classes where the language barrier makes basic comprehension more difficult for learners. After each student or group has learned their part, students then share their discoveries with the other groups. This discussion type can be front-loaded as a homework assignment, or it can take place during class. I regularly use this format to break up difficult reading (ex. each group analyses one stanza of a poem) or to work difficult grammar concepts (ex. each group creates examples for different uses of the subjunctive). The jigsaw approach puts students in charge of their own learning, and that of their peers. They learn the material, then solidify that learning by teaching it to others. Breaking up the work allows students to concentrate more thoroughly on one element of the material, thereby understanding it more deeply. Additionally, students repeat the information several times (in the group and with the class), improving retention.

Digitally Assisted Discussion

(edit 11/2020 – this post turned out to be prescient! With distance learning, hyflex, Zoom, etc that have become the new normal, the community is now very accustomed to the advantages of multi-modal synchronous discussions. However, when I gave this presentation last fall, this sort of discussion format wasn’t on most educators’ radar. I’ve added this note because the post now reads as fairly dated – this is no longer new information to most of us! The original text follows. I have not edited the original Prezi.)

When most of us think of digital discussions, we envision asynchronous discussion boards on our institution’s LMS. Students notoriously hate these, no matter how hard we work to make them engaging. My active learning recommendation though is for digital synchronous discussion during class time. There are a variety of tools available online (GoSoapBox, Mentimeter, Kahoot, etc.), all of which are increasing their functionality so quickly that it is pointless to summarize them here. Some offer polls, others create word clouds, and others allow students to type in answers or questions. When my previous favorite (TodaysMeet) shut down, this post helped me find alternatives. I’ve had success two ways during lectures this way: asking a question/poll/etc and explicitly allowing time to respond, or opening the chat platform for a continuous discussion while class continues. For many students, speaking up in class is a challenge – this is doubly true in language classes such as my own. Digital platforms used synchronously in class can allow students to participate actively in a discussion (often anonymously) without having to speak in front of the class. In larger classes, this also allows more students to participate because many can contribute to the discussion at the same time. Some of these platforms also allow students to scroll through their classmates’ responses independently so they can learn from and respond to each other. In any size class, polls are a great discussion starter. I even use them to introduce food vocabulary by asking students to indicate their preferences. Finally, these platforms easily replace an exit ticket, and I find that more students ask clarification questions when they can do so anonymously.

Overall, this represents only an extremely short overview of just three possibilities for active learning. In my experience, even just a few ideas can have a significant impact on how students respond to class time. After incorporating a few of these techniques, it becomes easier to use additional resources to find activities more specifically suited to a particular subject or assignment. Though it’s always a lot of work to adjust established lesson plans, ultimately active learning takes some pressure off educators (especially if, like me, they tend to micromanage every minute of class time!). Shifting the burden of learning to the students improves the learning experience for everyone.


University of Minnesota Center for Educational Innovation: https://cei.umn.edu/active-learning  

University of Waterloo, Centre for Teaching Excellence: https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/developing-assignments/assignment-design/active-learning-activities

University of California Berkeley, Center for Teaching and Learning: https://teaching.berkeley.edu/active-learning-strategies

Silberman, Melvin L. “Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject.” Allyn and Bacon, 1996.

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