Designing for Discussion-Based Teaching


Dr. Barbara M. Hall

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What is discussion-based teaching, and how does it differ from other forms of teaching? Discussion-based teaching is an instructional approach that prioritizes learner acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes through discourse rather than passive approaches that focus on lecture, reading, or viewing.

Designing for discussion-based teaching means thinking beyond the question prompts themselves, and this need exists whether the learners are participating online, blended, or in physically co-located classrooms. The entire course must be considered – objectives, resources, activities, and assessments. Does each element support the focus on discussion-based teaching? After all, consider the definition above – “prioritizes…discourse.” Every element of design must support this priority.

Consider the objectives. Do the objectives reflect the need for discourse? Clearly, discussion should be a necessity for the students to achieve these objectives. Compare these two objectives: 1) The learner will analyze the causes of World War I. 2) The learner will synthesize the perspective of others in debating the causes of World War I. Note that the first objective can be accomplished individually with sufficient resources, while second objective prioritizes debate.

Next, review the resources. Resources should scaffold the discussions, rather than replace them. The resources, like readings, videos, or (if really necessary) lectures, should enable and enhance discussions without supplying all of the information needed to achieve the objectives. For example, resources might include different perspectives on an issue, thereby scaffolding a discussion on the merits of the arguments. Or, resources could offer basic information, like declarative knowledge, needed to ensure that participants have a similar baseline of information and a common vernacular to use during the discussion. If the resources alone enable the students to achieve the objectives, without participation in discussion, then this part of the course design may not reflect the intent of discussion-based teaching.

The activities should be drawn from the resources provided to support those activities. Here, of course, think about activities in addition to discussions. What tasks are learners asked to do in preparation for discussion? Consider the difference between preparing bulleted points as notes to use during discussion versus submitting a written essay. Which task more effectively supports a learner’s participation in a discussion? This comparison leads to the next point – assessment.

Assessments are another part of course design that can support – or work against – discussion-based teaching. The most obvious example is the grading weight of participation in discussions. If the course grading emphasizes performances other than discussions (e.g., exams or assignments), then the course design may not reflect the intent of discussion-based teaching. If discussion-based teaching prioritizes discourse in achievement of objectives, then learners should be assessed on their discourse.

Furthermore, the grading weight of discussions must emphasize true discussion and discourse, not just the statement of one’s own thoughts. In an online or blended course, this means that learners must engage with depth beyond their own initial posts; the learners must return to conversations to reply in ways that build the conversation. This idea has been called intersubjectivity. In classrooms where the learners are physically co-located, the participation grade must also reflect this back-and-forth inherent in true discourse; learners must demonstrate that they are listening and considering the contributions of others, working to propel the conversation toward achievement of objectives.

This need to propel the conversation forward brings us to facilitation – the one aspect of discussion-based teaching that is usually highlighted. Indeed, the facilitation of the discussion – whether online, onsite, or both – critically influences how the discussion grows or withers. Instructors should be acutely aware of how their participation affects the flow of the discussion, particularly of how the discussion is or is not moving learners toward achievement of the objectives. But the point here is that the act of facilitation is not part of the course design; what is part of the course design, though, is a facilitation guide. Designing a facilitation guide is a topic of its own.

Another element that influences discussion is infrastructure – the nuts and bolts and bits and bytes of the digital or physical classroom. While infrastructure is certainly important, it is often outside of the purview of an individual faculty member or a design team at the course design level. Thus, infrastructure is not addressed here beyond noting that institutions should heed the paradigm shift from passive dissemination to active collaboration and construct physical and digital course rooms that support this shift.

Alignment is the crux of all instructional design. A discussion-based course design is no different. The objectives, resources, activities, and assessments must all align with the intent for learners to develop and demonstrate proficiency through discussion. A lack of alignment with any one of these components can pull the focus away from the priority on discourse required in a discussion-based approach.


Dr. Barbara M. Hall is an Associate Professor and Program Chair of the instructional design program in the College of Education at Ashford University. She also serves as a consultant for a private firm specializing in re-designing on-site courses for online delivery. Dr. Hall earned a Ph.D. in instructional design and has 22 years of experience designing and facilitating training. She is a professional member of OLC, a certified peer reviewer with Quality Matters, and a reviewer for multiple journals and conferences. She frequently presents and publishes her research focused on designing for discussion-based teaching and learning, particularly intersubjectivity within peer participation in online discussions and collaborative activities. Dr. Hall lives with three of her four children in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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