Posted by: Maria | October 29, 2009

How to promote classroom discussion

My academic training in education and teaching dates from my MA in English.  I remember in one class learning various techniques for encouraging and fostering classroom discussion.  This is where I learned about wait time, or having a class sit in a circle and going around that circle and making each person say at least one thing once.  There was some other thing involving Starburst.  I think it involved passing out candies to each person in class, and when asking a question, saying, “Only people with yellow Starburst can answer the question.”  The idea was that it would prevent the same students from dominating the discussion day after day.   I tried out these (and other ones I don’t remember now) techniques in my classroom when I taught first year composition, but I don’t remember with what degree of success.

I didn’t get any real training in library instruction in library school, so it was this training from my MA that I bring to my experience as an instruction librarian.  And some of these classroom discussion techniques don’t really work.  My library classroom is not arranged  in a way that encourages the Round Robin set up, and there’s really not a whole lot I can do about that.  I could try the Starburst thing, though, although the nature of the library instruction class period is not conducive to letting each person talk once, which I think was part of the point of that strategy.

What are your techniques for promoting, enhancing, and fostering interactive discussion in the library instruction classroom?  What do you do when your wait time simply leads to an awkward pause and blank stares?  Please share your tips and tricks!



  1. I would love an instruction lab equipped with laptops and roundtables to promote movement and small groups and discussion. Right now we’re all wired down in rows with barely enough room for me to move up and down, much less anybody much larger than me. It’s not conducive to much other than lecture and work in pairs. I think some of this is more about physical layout than I would have thought a year ago.

  2. At IU Librarians’ Day a few years ago, there was a session about classroom design, and we got into groups and invented our ideal library instruction classroom. It resembled what you described: laptops, round tables, and everything easily rearrangable and flexible. If I could change the way our current set up works, I totally would.

  3. In my dean’s review, he asked me if there was anything he could do to make doing my job easier. I said, “Laptops and round tables.” There was laughter.

  4. We do not have a dedicated instruction classroom, which is sometimes an advantage. We have an L-shaped bank of computers, so we pull the chairs into the middle for the instruction part of the session and have a screen to pull down so they can see what we are doing on the computer. This means that students are not able to play on the computers while we are teaching. Also, they are about 5 feet from me, so it is a little easier to get students to respond to my questions. I usually sit on a chair that is raised a little, so they can see me. This makes it feel a little bit more informal and, I think, a little less intimidating for the students. (Instead of me standing in front of them and lecturing.) After I have gone over our resources, they are sent to the computers to start searching for their articles and books. That way I am able to help them one-on-one as they need assistance for the remainder of the class period.

    • That’s interesting, Amanda–you can really move things around. Our classrooms are dedicated, and super-wired, meaning you can’t even really move things much farther apart than they are. But I was working with a professor yesterday who suggested we just turn the computer banks so they face not the FRONT of the classroom, but each other. Or would that just be too weird?

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