The Handbook for Economics Teaching Assistants

5.1 Common Difficulties in Facilitating Class Discussions

The following are some of the common problems that can occur in classes and some ideas about how to cope with them:

  • The whole group is silent and unresponsive - ask students to work in pairs to get people talking and energised. Ask "What is going on?". Ask groups of four to discuss what could be done to make the group more lively and involving and then pool suggestions.
  • Individuals are silent and unresponsive - use open, exploratory questions. Invite individuals in: "I'd like to hear what Clive thinks about this," Use "buzz" groups (pairs or groups of three).
  • Sub-groups start forming with private conversations - break them up with sub-group tasks. "What is going on?" Self-disclosure: "I find it hard to lead a group where..."
  • The group becomes too deferential towards the tutor - stay silent, throw questions back, open questions to the whole group. Negotiate decisions about what to do instead of making decisions unilaterally.
  • Discussion goes off the point and becomes irrelevant - set clear themes or an agenda. Keep a visual summary of the topics discussed for everyone to see. Say: "I'm wondering how this relates to today's topic." Seek agreement on what should and should not be discussed.
  • A distraction occurs (such as two students arriving late) - establish group ground rules about behaviour such as late arrivals. Give attention to the distraction.
  • Students have not done the preparation - clarify preparation requirements, making them realistic. Share what preparation has been undertaken at the start of each session. Consider a contract with them in which you run the seminar if they do the preparation but not otherwise.
  • Members do not listen to each other - point out what is happening. Establish ground rules about behaviour.
  • Students do not answer when you ask a question - use open questions, leave plenty of time. Use buzz groups. Ask students to write down their answers first and share with a neighbour.
  • Two students are very dominant - use hand signals, gestures and body language. Support and bring in others. Give the dominant students roles to keep them busy (such as note-taker). Use structures that take away the audience. Think about how you position yourself. If you sit next to them rather than opposite them, it is harder for them to "come in". See if you are giving them too much "non-verbal" encouragement, such as nods, eye contact and positive comments. You may need to break some social rules now and then!
  • Students complain about the seminar and the way you are handling it - ask for constructive suggestions. Ask students who are being negative to turn their comments into positive suggestions. Ask for written suggestions at the end of the session. Agree to meet a small group afterwards.
  • Students reject the seminar discussion process and demand answers - explain the function of seminars. Explain the demands of the assessment system. Discuss their anxieties.
  • The group picks on one student in an aggressive way - establish ground rules. Ask 'What is going on?' Break up the group using structures.
  • Discussion focuses on one corner of the group and the rest stop joining in - use structures. Point out to the group what is happening. Look at the room layout, how are students positioned and where do you sit? - see if physical re-organisation can make a difference to undesirable group dynamics or can enhance discussion flow.

Adapted from materials produced by Dr Alan Booth (University of Nottingham) and Jean Booth (University of Coventry). Enhancing Teaching Effectiveness in the Humanities and Social Sciences: participant guide (1997) UK Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency, Sheffield, p115-6.