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.
- Critical Thinking
- Planning – the requirement to lead a biweekly evidence-based discussion as well as participating in a discussion when they are not leading one.
- Cognitive Flexibility – Having to consider new and different ways of looking at a topic requires cognitive flexibility.
- Persistence – The on-going regular workload requires persistence in order to successfully complete the Course.
- Willingness to Self-Correct – In both their reading and during their discussions (online and face-to-face) students will have to reconsider their stance on certain ideas when new evidence is presented.
- Focussed Attention – In order to participate in meaningful, recursive discussions, a student must remain focused on the material that is being discussed.
- Consensus Seeking – During face-to-face discussions, students must be able to reach a consensus based on the evidence presented.
- Rational and Logical Thinking – Both of these are required to carry out recursive discussions that are seriously considered by their peers.
- Creativity – Students choose for themselves what area of the topic that they want to focus on. They also are required to look at the evidence and create ways that the evidence can be transformed into practice. When students participate in a non-assessed discussion, they are willing to take risks in what they talk about which doesn’t happen when everything is assessed.
As well as some basic academic skills:
- Reading – Because each discussion requires solid evidence, students will be required to read primary sources every week.
- Presenting and Leading Discussions – The students are presenting and leading discussions every other week throughout the semester.
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.