Reflections on Four Approaches to Group Discussion Activities

This week was the penultimate week of classes for 2013 and, with all the material for the exam covered, I now have the flexibility to teach every group of students differently and thus experiment with my classes a bit more. Normally this is frowned upon in my school as the belief is that, if all students are taking the same exam, they should all do exactly (and I mean exactly) the same lesson. This is (supposedly) in order to prevent one group of students being given an unfair advantage (a subject for another blog another time).

Given this flexibility I decided to do some action research this week and chose to try and find out what the best way of facilitating free discussion and to encourage the sharing of opinions is for my Korean high school students. I did this by implementing four different methods for organising a discussion activity over the course of the week.

I chose this area because, in my experience, Korean high school students have a reputation for not being the best at sharing opinions. Certainly in my past experiences it is an activity they struggle with and so I wanted to see if this could be overcome.

Now, before I examine what I did and the results of these different approaches, I want to make a few disclaimers:

  • Although in this blog I only talk about Korean students, I am not saying that only Korean teenagers struggle to share opinions.
  • I have no way of knowing if similar results would have been found if doing similar activities in other countries. My conclusions are nothing personal against Korea, Korean students or Korean education.
  • This was some light-hearted action research purely based on my perspective, I didn’t collect students opinions and there could be a whole range of factors I haven’t taken into account.

The topic of the lesson was ‘Multi-Culturalism’, the majority of my students are intermediate to advanced English language speakers. I have around 35 students in each class. After doing some introductory activities to help students understand the concepts contained in the film, they watched the following short film.

After watching the film twice, once stopped intermittently to check students understanding, and being given the chance to ask questions about anything they didn’t understand, the students were given the following five questions to answer, each containing smaller questions.

  1. At the beginning of the video, how do you think the men feel about each other? Why do you think they felt like this about each other?
  2. How did you know the men felt like this? Why do you think they displayed their beliefs in this way?
  3. As the neo-Nazis arrived, how did the relationship between the two men change? Describe the factors that led to this change. What do you think caused this change?
  4. At the end of the film, how did the two men feel towards each other? Do you think they learnt a lesson from the experience? Do you think it might change their attitude in the future? How?
  5. Were your predictions in activity 1 and 2 correct? Why did you make those predictions? Is it possible to make predictions based only on what a person looks like? What have you learnt from these activities?

From here, I tried four different techniques to facilitate the discussion. I am now going to examine how I felt the activities went.

Method 1: Straight Up Discussion

Description –  For the first three classes I simply explained to the students that they have five discussion questions, and ten minutes to discuss them in English. I explained that every student should share their opinion, and the most important thing was not to finish quickly, but discuss every question together as a group. I pointed out that there are four people in each group, with five questions to discuss and they had ten minutes to do so.

Result – The majority of students did not actively participate in the discussions. Within one minute many students were either sleeping, discussing something completely different in Korean or simply messing around. When I asked individual groups why they were not discussing the questions (after around three minutes) they replied that they had finished already. One student who I noticed had not said anything at all I directly asked the fourth question to. She gave a perfectly fluent answer in English that was around thirty seconds long.

My Thoughts – There was no doubt that this was a fail. One of the biggest issues that I picked up on was the idea of having ten minutes. In the Korean education system students are trained to see learning as finishing the task as quickly as possible. Something is either right or wrong. The idea that the learning happens by doing is not one that they are accustomed to. Also, in general, I think only the most autonomous and motivated of learners would be able to handle the activity set up in this way. I felt the students were able linguistically to handle the task, but there were other preventative issues.

Active participation level – 25%

Method 2: Splitting the Questions

Description – This time, I gave the students one question to discuss at a time, put a countdown timer on the screen and told them they HAD to discuss the question for that amount of time and after each question I did some class feedback.

Result – The first couple of questions went OK, participation seemed to fall off towards the end. There was still an issue with students either saying nothing at all or giving very short, unformed answers, but it was an improvement on method 1.

Discussion – Thinking back, I think the countDOWN timer worked against me here, the concept of counting down seemed to make the students rush towards finishing and reinforced the idea of finishing quickly. I would quite like to try this method again, only this time with a countUP timer. Overall participation was a little better than method 1, but still not great.

Active participation level – 50%

Method 3: Korean -> English

Description – This time, I extended the activity from around 7-8 minutes total to around 11 minutes total. After giving the students the questions I allowed them 5 minutes to discuss the questions in Korean in their groups of four. Once the five minutes were up, all the students had to form completely new groups. The students then discussed the same questions in English in their new groups. In a slight adaptation I also had the students discuss the questions with the person sat next to them in Korean, and then the person opposite them in English.

Result – I noticed a significant improvement in the amount of English being spoken and the level of opinions being given. Some students were still inactive but fewer then in previous classes using methods one and two.

Discussion – The results were pretty interesting because it seems to support my belief that their English level was not preventing them from sharing their opinions. The explanation that seems to make sense to me is that by sharing their opinions in Korean first, it lowered their nervousness a bit. They weren’t having to share opinions AND speak in English in front of their peers straight away. Still the outcome wasn’t perfect and a decent amount of students wanted to finish quickly rather than properly. I noticed slightly better participation when they didn’t make completely new groups. This could be because they sit with their friends.

Participation level – 65-75%

Method 4: Writing Notes -> Discussing

Description -> I gave the students five minutes to read the questions and write short ‘notes’ before discussing the questions in groups of four.

Result – The participation level was pretty high with this one, however students weren’t really discussing the questions, they were just reading out the answer they had written (most students didn’t write notes, they wrote full answers)

Discussion – I would be tempted to try this technique again, as, similar to the method where student shared opinions in Korean first, giving time for them to collect their thoughts did seem to help participation. However, I think the note taking (as in one or two words per question) part would really need to be emphasised, with examples prepared and given.

Participation level – 65-75%

Conclusions

I think it is important to note that due to bad experiences with this kind of free discussion activity in the past I tend to shy away from open discussion activities and so students are not practiced in it. However, one might argue that by 17 years old, a student should be able to share an opinion and engage in free discussion. Of course, they are being asked to do it in a second language here, however I am absolutely certain that language knowledge was not the barrier. For me, the entire concept of working in groups to share and discuss opinions was alien to my students, whether in Korean or English. This would make sense, as they are not asked to do this in any other classes. My co-teacher pointed out that they are asked to give opinions, but usually in the format of one person speaking in front of other (a speech contest or a debate for example). In my opinion, this is a completely different skill and expectation. There are also cultural issues that need to be taken into account (I only have time to briefly mention here) such as loss of face that can some from challenging others opinions, the influence of collectivism and beliefs surrounding best learning practices.

While I wouldn’t say the activity was a complete success, it has certainly highlighted the importance of giving students a chance to collect their thoughts before engaging in their discussion. It has also highlighted the the method the teachers chooses can have a big impact on how successful the activity is. Although this is obviously not how a discussion naturally occurs, I would suggest starting a course that included open discussion activities by using this structure, providing feedback about how students can improve their discussions and slowly weaning them off the preparation time.

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5 thoughts on “Reflections on Four Approaches to Group Discussion Activities”

  1. Really interesting experiment. Your results are definitely not confined to your groups. I’ve been teaching a class of 15 young French students (average age around 20) as part of their sandwich course in banking this year. They have levels ranging from elementary to intermediate. A couple of weeks back, I tried a similar activity to your last one, after working on vocabulary and ideas through a video clip. Most of them vary quickly started discussing something completely different in French. And when I asked them at the end of the lesson how they would prefer to work, one of those who had paid very little attention and spoken very little English said he wanted more discussion activities. Doh!

    1. Hi Gillian. I’m glad you found it interesting. I also find it extremely interesting that you have similar issues with your students in France. Also similarly, my students on the feedback forms I collected this year said they wanted more free discussion activities and, well, these results are why I have shied away from them. I think this bring up an interesting issue regarding the role of the teacher and how much say students should have over the type of learning. Very interesting, thanks a lot for your comment.

  2. Just wanted to say that if I’m asking students to plan something with notes, I either give them a word limit or a really small piece of paper. This somewhat alleviates the “reading out an answer” problem.

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