Some Structure for Your Group Discussions

Teachers and Instructors everywhere are searching for ways to get students more actively involved in their own learning. One of the most popular methods around is group discussion.

While it does not take much thought to divide a class of thirty into five groups of six learners in each group, determining the focus of the group discussion is another matter.

While some extreme advocates of student-centered learning might opt for a self-discovery discussion where the students essentially identify their own structure, there are many who argue the teacher is ultimately responsible for establishing an initial focus and structure for group discussion.

These methods have at their core the fundamental belief that the goal of a group discussion is to force students to think through what it is you are teaching and find meaning in it.

The idea is to break an instructional period into teacher presentations followed by a group discussion period and reporting. Teachers can present content in a variety of formats - brief lectures, audio-visual presentations, or case studies. Here are four suggested approaches for structuring the group discussion:

    Compare and Contrast (Identify Similarities and Differences)
    Graphic Representations
    Decision Methods - Rank Ordering
    For and Against Rationale

Compare and Contrast

Have each group compare and contrast discrete topics you have presented. The most common comparison is to list how the topics or concepts behind them are similar and how they are different.

Depending on the content, you can also instruct the groups to compare and contrast the content presented against material with which they are already familiar. For example, if you are teaching a new appraisal system to a group of managers and supervisors, have them compare and contrast the new system with the system they are currently using.

Graphic Representations

If your content involves a series of steps to be taken, or topics that rely on understanding previous topics, ask the groups to prepare a flow chart of the content. For certain content a comparison table might be a more appropriate graphic representation.

Decision Methods

The simplest yet in many ways most comprehensive group decision task is rank ordering. Have the group rank order the topics from the presentation in appropriate ways. For example, you might have them rank them in order of importance. Some topics lend themselves to multiple rankings, such as segments deriving greatest benefit from a concept. For business seminars and some business education classes, the segments could include large corporations, small corporations, suppliers, customers, or investors.

For and Against Rationale

Based on the content, the instructor provides the groups with a hypothesis, or theoretical statement. For each statement, groups develop supportive and contrary reasons.

Feedback Period

At the end of the discussion period, it is important to allow a segment of time to report results from each group. To facilitate participation in the discussion, it is a good practice for the teacher to call on different members of the group to do the reporting after each discussion period. Having the group select its own spokesperson may be a valuable learning opportunity for leadership and teamwork classes, but not where the primary goal is learning a body of content.

Dr Bryan A. West is the owner and manager of Fortress Learning ( ), an Australian Registered Training Organisation who consistently generates greater than 90% student satisfaction ratings with their range of online courses. Learn more by visiting