Focus on Discussion-Based Learning

By Barbara Gutierrez

Focus on Discussion-Based Learning

By Barbara Gutierrez
Select classes will feature Harkness tables where students will sit campfire-style and engage in conversations and dialogue.

When Keegan Gibson started his freshman year at the University of Miami, he had a difficult time adapting to classes held in a lecture-hall setting. 

His high school years at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire had been quite different. There, each class had only 12 students who sat at an oval table called a Harkness table. With their teacher serving primarily as a facilitator, students engaged in meaningful conversation, taking responsibility for their own learning.

“It was a difficult transition coming from a classroom setting that was so interactive to a lecture hall setting with 100 students,” said Gibson, a sophomore in UM’s College of Engineering. 

Other UM students had similar trouble adjusting to larger classroom sizes. So Gibson, a member of UM Student Government, and others voiced their concerns to UM administrators and academic officers. As a result, discussion-based learning (DBL) will be implemented in select classes this fall and during a pilot program in spring of 2019.

“The idea came from the students,” said William Scott Green, senior vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. “They said to us, ‘We want to be talked with not talked at.’ ”  

Discussion-based learning is at the center of the University’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) or “Learning through Dialogue and Discussion,” a well-defined course of action that will improve students’ undergraduate experience. The QEP is a requirement of the institutional reaccreditation process for colleges and universities by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Green heads a QEP committee that has put together a comprehensive plan to achieve the changes in the curriculum. 

Research suggests that student-to-student dialogue and discussion stimulates active learning, socialization, and knowledge construction. The goal of the QEP is to increase the number of opportunities for students at UM to engage in discussion-based learning using several teaching strategies such as: 

  • A problem-based method in which students are presented with a challenging problem and are required to collaborate to achieve a resolution.
  • A flipped-classroom method in which students access printed, video and podcast content before coming to class and are then required to use class time to engage in dialogue, work on problem sets and debate issues and other forms of active learning.

But at the core of all these methods is discussion-based learning—“learning that is generated, motivated, led and initiated by the students in conversation,” said Green.

The Harkness method—developed at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1930 through a gift from  oil magnate and philanthropist Edward Harkness, who challenged the school to come up with a radical new approach to secondary school education—will also be implemented at UM with small classes of up to 15 students. In this teaching style, students not only share an oval table but also an instructor who is more of a facilitator than a lecturer. The professor starts the discussion and helps guide it and keep it on track but does not dominate the conversation.

This kind of learning “changes the dynamic of the classroom,” said Javier Torres, a UM sophomore, who also participated in this type of learning in his classes at Ensworth High School in Nashville, Tenn. He is also an active participant of the QEP committee.

“You learn more from your peers than you do from the professor,” said Torres. “You learn to collaborate with peers to solve complex problems.” The method also promotes a strong work ethic among students since they have to come prepared to each class.

“You cannot hide when sitting at a Harkness table,” said Gibson. Students have to do their homework and come to each class prepared to engage in dialogue. Both Gibson and Torres said that discussion-based learning is more inclusive because it ensures that all students bring their social, economic, and ethnic experiences to the table. The intimate setting highlights each individual’s strengths, identities and points of views. So understanding and showing mutual respect is key to the success of each class.

In order to implement the QEP, faculty will be recruited from all UM schools and colleges to receive training in the new teaching models, and classrooms will be renovated to accommodate Harkness tables and other features of the DBL curriculum.

Faculty and students will participate in intergroup dialogue sessions led by School of Education and Human Development Dean Laura Kohn-Wood, and Miriam Lipsky, a senior learning and facilitation specialist with the Office of Institutional Culture and a lecturer in the Teaching and Learning department. Both have worked on UM’s Intergroup Dialogues Program (IGD), which recently received a grant from the duPont Fund to carry on its work. 

“It was like a light bulb went off in Dr. Green’s head that if we were going to advance discussion-based learning in classes, it would be important for professors to learn about studying social identity because who these students are will really impact how they interact with each other,” said Kohn-Wood. 

Kohn-Wood said this kind of dialogue helps participants build skills to talk with each other, not with the intent of changing someone’s mind but to understand how the other person arrived at their position or point of view.

 “This training represents a unique partnership at the intersection of the Culture of Belonging initiative and the Educational Innovation initiative,” said Lipsky. 

 The Office of Institutional Culture, which spearheads the Culture of Belonging initiative, has a goal of promoting practices and behaviors that uphold a culture of belonging among students, faculty and staff. A Culture of Belonging is a culture where students, faculty, and staff feel valued and have opportunities to make valuable contributions. Research in several social science fields has shown that some students may feel less of a sense of belonging in some classroom settings based on their social identities, such as gender or race.  As part of the QEP faculty development plan, faculty will learn more about these issues in order to promote a culture of belonging in their classrooms. 

Green said that when a group of UM professors traveled to Exeter Academy to observe classes that used the Harkness method, they saw that discussions took place in every class, even mathematics classes, where students exchanged ideas of how they approached a mathematical problem.

Said Green, “The virtue of this kind of learning is that it diminishes the sense of worry or shame about not knowing or about being wrong.”