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Section 2. Balancing Lecture and Discussion/Integrating Lecture and Discussion

Do I always have to use discussion?  Is lecture ever OK?  What is each effective at doing?  When do I use discussion, and when not?

A starting point for considering these questions is to entertain the idea that we often establish a 'false dichotomy' between lecture and discussion (Brookfield & Preskill, p. 44). The perception that we need to maintain this strict dichotomy relates to 1) deciding when lecture is appropriate and when discussion might be more productive in helping students deeply process the content and enter the realm of critical thinking, and 2) the perceived need to segment a class period or topic into dedicated lecture and discussion periods. An alternate perspective is to develop a pedagogy that integrates the lecture and discussion components during each class period.

Integrate lecture and discussion
When might lecture be more appropriate?
When might discussion be more appropriate?
Avoid potential pitfalls when integrating lecture and discussion
How can I cover all of the content if I devote time to discussion?
A final word
Section 2 Resources

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Integrate lecture and discussion.  (Brookfield & Preskill)

  • Tell your students up front at the beginning of the semester that you will be implementing a new class format that integrates lecture and discussion. Explain, illustrate with examples, and provide the rationale for each of the different discussion formats that you intend to incorporate into your lectures. This will help bring them on board and set expectations for their active participation.


  • Begin your lecture segment of each class with 1-2 questions that you are trying to answer. This primes students for those points during your lecture when you want to frame a discussion of these or related questions.


  • End each lecture segment with 1-2 questions that remain unanswered. This primes students to consider their own questions that have arisen from the lecture content. These student questions could identify specific declarative content that remains unclear, address current issues within the topic, or provide directions for future discussions during the next class period.


  • Allow time at the end of each lecture to share these questions with the entire class or with small discussion groups.


  • Listeners need time to integrate information presented in lecture format. During your lecture segment, periodically pause and allow students to reflect on the content. In addition, when you insert a discussion segment, ask a question intended to stimulate discussion, or ask whether students have processed the lecture content, allow 'wait time' for students to reflect on what they have heard and formulate a response or question.


  • Present applicable lecture content in the form of alternative perspectives, including those that might counter your own views.


  • Insert periods of 'assumption hunting' into your lectures, where you depart from professing content that will lead to pre-defined conclusions, and discuss the theoretical, practical, or political assumptions on which the content is based, e.g. "Think about the information I have just presented. These ideas are grounded in the assumptions that…. I wonder though what would happen if we take a different perspective…"


  • Insert brief 'Buzz Sessions' into your lecture segments. Students divide into small groups to address focused questions such as:  Of all the ideas/information you have heard today, which is the most obscure/ambiguous to you?  Why?  What's the most important point that's been introduced in the lecture so far?  What have you heard in today's lecture that was not well-supported?  What question would you most like to discuss regarding today's topic?  After allowing the buzz groups time to discuss the question, solicit reactions to the question and small-group discussions.     


  • Model the 'Think Aloud' approach while presenting applicable lecture content, to facilitate critical thinking that will in turn facilitate productive discussions. (Caulder, L. (2009). Think Aloud presentation at the UW Faculty College; Caulder, L, (2006). Uncoverage: Toward a signature pedagogy for the history survey. The Journal of American History. 92(4), 1358-1370.)  Allowing students to 'view' our line of thought, rather than simply listen to presentation of declarative knowledge, could open the door for discussion of alternate lines of thought or alternate strategies for solving a problem. If we have encouraged an open discussion atmosphere in our classroom, students will feel comfortable commenting on or questioning our stream of thought.


  • Students can also be encouraged to present their ideas via a 'Think Aloud', where the student talks through potential approaches to solving a problem, their assessment of a situation, their conceptualization of a clinical case, etc. The group can then expand and refine these ideas, or present alternate perspectives a democratic discussion process.    


  • Intentionally select course readings for each content area/topic that present different perspectives or lead students to compare or integrate across topic areas, clinical techniques, etc. Tell the students up front to think about how the readings relate to each other, to prior content, etc. Allow time during or after the lecture period to allow students to reflect on these connections and offer their ideas of how they can integrate the material.


  • Insert video clips of case studies, current events, social issues, etc. within the lecture content to prime short periods of discussion. Encourage students up front to think about how the clip relates to the lecture content/topic.


  • 'Turn-to-neighbor' discussion strategy:  Before engaging an entire class in a discussion topic or question, ask students to turn to their neighbor and discuss the topic. This helps students organize their thoughts and generate ideas.


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When might lecture be more appropriate?

  • Lecture can serve productive purposes at various points during a course and during a class period:

    • to launch a new topic;
    • to supplement the textbook content with current information;
    • to present additional background information that is not in the textbook or readings;
    • to model a particular way of thinking in a content area;
    • when explicit instruction is warranted to help students learn accepted procedures and protocols within a discipline (e.g. how to administer a standardized assessment; instructions for a lab procedure);
    • when you know that the distance between students' knowledge bases and the text or topic is greater than they can process independently.  Lecture can serve as a bridge;
    • to summarize the key points of a topic or discussion. This should occur at intervals during the class period, rather than only at the end;
    • to restate the problem or topic at intervals throughout the discussion, by summarizing what has been resolved and what remains to be discussed; or,
    • when the time commitment for a discussion outweighs the benefits of this teaching method.

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When might discussion be more appropriate?                          

  • Key opportunities for discussion that are integrated into lecture content can help students make connections between their personal experiences and course content, as well as connections across disciplines and topics.
  • In Honors and Masters level courses students should be expected to assume greater responsibility for their own learning. A productive discussion technique in seminar courses is to assign pairs or groups of students to be responsible for guiding the discussions each week. These leaders will process the material more deeply than their peers, meet with the instructor to make sure that key points will be covered, and then develop a discussion guide to prime discussion topics that will lead to deeper understanding of the content.

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Avoid potential pitfalls when integrating lecture and discussion.

  • Provide students with adequate warning, preview, and time to prepare for their participation in the conversation before employing the discussion method.
  • Refrain from opening the discussion segment by summarizing the key points or presenting your own perspective and/or concerns. This sends a message to students that the task is to find the 'right' answer rather than to explore possibilities.  
  • Asking vague opening questions to your discussion segment, such as "So, what do you think?"
  • Turning the discussion segment into an impromptu lecture, rather than facilitating a true discussion atmosphere.
  • Succumbing to the temptation to react to every student comment. 'Wait time' and teacher silence will allow students to process and react to their peers' ideas.
  • Fear of silence:  Not allowing enough 'wait time' after you have introduced a discussion question or topic, or after a student has responded during a discussion.

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How can I cover all of the content if I devote time to discussion?

  • Structure your lecture segment around an outline of 7-9 key points.
  • Prepare planned, focused lectures that address key points and potential discussion topics/questions related to those points.
  • Make study guides available prior to the lecture, so students can assume more responsibility for their preparatory reading and in-class learning.

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A final word:  Plan ahead! 

  • Productive discussions don't just happen; they require preparation and forethought.

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Caulder, L, (2006). Uncoverage: Toward a signature pedagogy for the history survey. The Journal of American History. 92(4), 1358-1370.

Calder, L. (May 26-29, 2009). What were they thinking? Using think alouds to open up hidden worlds of student learning. Seminar presentation, University of Wisconsin Faculty College.

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom's taxonomy: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41(4), 212-218.

McGlynn, A. P. (2001). Successful Beginning for college teaching: Engaging your students from the first day. Madison,

WI :  Atwood Publishing.  

McKeachie, W. J. & Svinicki, M. (2006).  Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston,

MA :  Houghton Mifflin Company.

Persell, C. H. (2004). Using Focused Web-Based Discussions to Enhance Student Engagement and Deep Understanding. Teaching Sociology, 32(1), 61-78

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