Peer discussion, with moderate input from a professor, is the best form of teaching there is. There are several reasons that I will go over.
The first is the basic information transmission, retention, and recall. When information is taken in it becomes knowledge. Knowledge must be embedded into our understanding in order to become something useful. Understanding is how we internally reflect reality. Our understanding of the world is the reality that we live in. For the majority of our students, knowledge is never embedded but is simply filed away as something that needs to be put into episodic memory just before it is necessary to recall it for an exam.
Moving knowledge to understanding is a complex process, and is what we refer to as deep processing. The easiest way for knowledge to be embedded shallowly in understanding is to simply transmit information with a few explanations, something done in lectures, reading, and demonstrations. The information is taken in, transformed into knowledge, and embedded into the student’s understanding. Some students will reconstruct their understanding in order to incorporate the knowledge into a new understanding that (we hope) is a better reflection of reality.
Unfortunately, deep processing isn’t all the same depth. For the vast majority of our students, the knowledge is incorporated into their pre-existing understanding with little or no restructuring of their understanding to better reflect reality. The knowledge is made to fit what is already there. Why restructuring understanding is not carried out as often as we would like is because restructuring is difficult and so is often avoided.
What does this have to do with discussions? During a discussion, students (who participate) have to modify their understanding in order to make a meaningful contribution to the group. At the very least, this will strengthen memory traces and make the knowledge (correct or not) easier to recall. If the discussions are shallow and without some guidance, the understanding that emerges may not be a great reflection of reality and standard test performance, even open-ended questions, may result in lower performance scores than for a student who simply crams into episodic memory in order to present a convergent (what the professor wants to hear) answer.
However, there are things that you can do to make a discussion much more effective and significantly increase the depth of processing that students engage in.
The first is to take advantage of what we know about academically motivating students. If a student feels empowered in a discussion, they will be more interested in the topic than if they are simply assigned a reading of the professor’s choice to reach a consensus (convergence) with the other students about what it is that the paper is saying. Giving the students freedom to choose a topic, within the guidelines set by you, they will take more ownership of the work and the depth of discussion will be greater for that student. If there are several discussions going on simultaneously, the students not leading a discussion can choose which of the topics they would like to participate in and will have some sense of empowerment as well.
Another pillar of academic engagement depends on what you are doing during the discussions. If you listen attentively and ask sincere questions about what they are presenting – not to trip them up or demonstrate your superior knowledge, but to demonstrate your curiosity about what they are saying. Caring about their learning is one of the primary academic motivators.
Finally, recursive discussions when the students have to regularly lead a group (I have my students lead a discussion every other week) means that they begin to develop several of their higher order thinking skills.
As well as some basic academic skills:
Through the regular interaction, students are more willing to reconstruct their understanding in ways that don’t happen in more traditional teaching. It is through the reconstruction of their understanding that higher order thinking skills can be learned. Additional components can be added to develop other higher order thinking skills. A requirement to choose a specific topic that they focus on during two or three of their discussion leads can lead to a more in-depth understanding, complex inductive reasoning as they synthesize their work, and possibly hypothetico-deductive reasoning if they are exploring their topic from theory to application.
In the distant past (75+ years ago) discussions, debates, meaningful seminars, and small tutorials were the bedrock of a good education. Thinking was challenged. Evidence was asked for and then produced at the next meeting. Discussions had to be planned and cognitive flexibility was necessary. All of these things together led to a population of graduates for whom high-level thinking skills were well developed, at least in their area of study.
In our present model of education, the dialog tends to be one-way at a time. The lecturer transmits information and the student answers back with coursework or exams. In order to develop higher order thinking, students must engage in a recursive process of presenting their thoughts, defending their thoughts, changing their thinking when evidence requires it, and persistence in order to get through it.
If your goal as a teacher in higher education is to foster higher order thinking skills, regular group discussions are the best way to teach. If your goal is to simply have students process their knowledge in order to embed it into their understanding, discussions are the best way to teach. If your goal is to get the information in for later regurgitation without forgetting it two days after an assessment, discussions are the best way to teach. Discussions are the best method for teaching.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.