Posted by: Piers Kelly | August 18, 2009

How to be a discussant – updated

Well done to those who launched off with the week 4 discussions. It was a challenging topic and by and large everyone seemed to have a pretty good grasp of it.

By now everyone else has witnessed (and participated in) a discussion so you’ll have a sense of what to do when it’s your turn to lead the group. Please note that as a result I’m going to be marginally more critical in my assessment than I have been of the first groups now that the ice is broken.

But don’t sweat it! Here are a few pointers to help you plan your discussion:

  • Most discussant groups decided to assign one reading per discussant. This seems to work well but it’s not necessarily the only way to do it. You could also allocate discussion by theme or have one discussant presenting one view and the other an opposing view. The best prepared groups managed to channel the topics back and forth between each discussant at relevant points.
  • A good discussant group won’t crowd out the discussion but will provide opportunities for other members of the tutorial to respond to questions raised. Important: Don’t be afraid of uncomfortable silences when you ask a question! The silences should only be uncomfortable for those trying to construct a relevant response, not to you!
  • One of the groups used a pass-the-parcel device with embedded questions. This was a surprisingly good mechanism to get people to respond without putting any single person on the spot.  This kind of creativity is rewarded.
  • If larger groups (eg, three to four members) want more than 30 minutes for their discussion that’s perfectly fine – just let me know.
  • Lastly, don’t forget to consult the Rubric for Discussant Role document on Wattle
  • [Update:] If you choose to run the discussion as a more traditional tutorial presentation, this is fine. Just bear in mind that part of your assessment is on how well you stimulate discussion, so make sure you allow a few intervals in which the class can respond. Remember, the more others are talking the less work you have to do!
  • [Update:] If you feel that any non-discussant students are dominating the class with their comments, consider butting in and redirecting the question to others – this is your right as a discussant.

What’s the point of this whole discussant bizzo? And why is general tutorial participation also assessed?

A core part of your academic development is the ability to communicate ideas verbally and to think on your feet. Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest to answer spontaneously. What would you say if someone in a pub asked you “What is language?” or “Wouldn’t it be better if everyone spoke English?”. When you figure out how to answer these kinds of questions, you’re really answering them for yourself as well.  Shyness might be an obstacle for individuals to overcome, but that’s simply part of the journey, as Oprah would no doubt say.

PS. While Oprah would make an excellent role model for discussants I don’t necessarily expect this level of engagement- just be yourselves!

PPS. OED provides 1927 as the earliest attestation of the word ‘discussant’. The use that approximates our general understanding of the term goes back to 1967. “Listener 6 Apr. 469/1 Besides the speakers there were ten discussants who did not contribute papers of their own.”


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