Monday, December 31, 2012

12/31: Discussion Facilitation Skills Support Learning

Our focus should be not just on seeing possibilities, but creating opportunity; and not just on creating opportunities, but on creating an environment that leads at least the most malleable people on our campus--the students--to seize opportunities.
~ Louis Schmier, in email 12.11.12 on the Professional and Organizational Development listserv

To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved
~ George MacDonald (Scottish author/poet d 1905)

The business of life is not to succeed, but to fail in good spirits.
~ Robert Louis Stevenson

We are privileged to learn something of value in . . . every interaction. Our teachers are all around us.
~ Karen Casey, A Life of My Own

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.
~Spoken by the Countess of Rousillon in All’s Well that Ends Well, (Act I, Scene 1) William Shakespeare

Happy New Year!  (image borrowed from newsletter of Dunn Gardens, Seattle, WA)

Executive Summary:  At 19 and a college junior, I helped in a freshman biology lab.  My supervisor, Betty Gilbert, offered me an opportunity to speak about cell division in a pre-lab talk.  I “prepared” a week ahead for the 5-minute task:  a snap, I thought. Two minutes in, a stumper question and an important lesson:   knowing-to-teach is getting it at a very different, deeper level that knowing-to-test.  Test questions about mitosis were simple for me—understanding was different.  Betty trusted me and walked away.  I never forgot.  (That was in 1963: now Professor Gilbert is in her 80s, lives in a family homestead in Vermont, drives on long bird-watching trips from time to time, and regularly commutes to Dartmouth’s library in Hanover, NH. ) Although the focus here is on skills for discussion, we build trust through all our behavior with students and with each other.   This post offers resources to expand your repertoire of skills for leading rich discussions.

What is discussion?  In an early part of my career, I might have described discussion as a loosely-structured  question-and-answer session.  It is far from that:  healthy discussion requires careful advance thought about outcomes and skillful management of direction and student responses.  Like any skill, competence with facilitating discussion expands with practice and mistakes.  In return, it offers (1) students a rich window into their own thinking, and (2) teachers an unparalleled assessment opportunity.  It also gives students a chance to utilize concepts and to deepen their thinking through articulation and exchanges with you and with fellow learners, and provides an opportunity to build confidence and trust:  trust of your students in themselves, trust of your students in you and trust of students in classmates.  Some issues:   How can I get a discussion started?  How can I keep it going?  What can I do if it falls apart?  How can I avoid lapsing into lecture?  How can I encourage involvement from quiet students, prevent a few from dominating exchanges?  How can I deal with inappropriate responses?  Should I grade discussions or participation?

Here are five bottom-line keys:  (1) Enter a discussion, as you would any activity in any class, with a clear view of academic and skill outcomes: What do you want to happen?   (2) Have a clear picture of your role as a facilitator.  (3) Pack a toolkit of skills for what-to-do-when unexpected things happen or the discussion or tone takes an unwanted direction.  (4) Have central questions ready, and plan to encourage student preparation as needed.   (5) Plan or script responses that you can use when students answer badly, incompletely, incorrectly; or when incivility springs forth.  There are many discussion-planning resources available, in print and online.  A few of the best and most complete are listed below; it’s worth looking at several, because-- though many sources mention similar issues--counsel about challenge management differs in interesting ways and you’ll learn a lot from comparing them and deciding what fits for you.  Each includes a wide variety of additional links, including some how-to video.

Princeton:  This is a wonderfully organized piece that covers planning, structuring questions, and dealing with problems.  A roadmap opens the show, making it easy to navigate rich content: Tips for Discussion Facilitation

Bok Center, Harvard:   This is a compact, printable document with brief tips and a bibliography leading to other resources: Harvard Bok Center Discussion Tips and Resources

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching:   This user-friendly web page neatly capsules basic principles, then moves to specific tools, strategies and models, leading the reader to expanded resources by using additional annotated links:  Vanderbilt University Teaching Resources:  Discussion Tips   

Indiana University:  This nicely-organized page that includes counsel about the usual variables but also a significant component on whether to and how to grade discussions:  Indiana University:  DIscussion Tips    Also see Leading Discussion of Sensitive Issues.  From any IU page, search “discussion” for more resources.

University of Washington:  While constructed for teaching assistants, advice here will support all faculty:

MIT:  We can manage student responses, even poor ones, in gentle ways that encourage everyone, build trust and model civility.  This is a neat page about how to respond to students in a discussion:  MIT:  Responding Efffectively to Student Questions .  Another counsels question-building:  “What Makes a Good Question?” at  MIT:  What Makes a Good Question?  

Yale:  A three-page bullet-point, neatly-organized list of hints for discussion leaders:

University of North Carolina:  This is a big, useful document that explores many aspects of guided discussions, dating back to 1992.  Likely intended for graduate teaching assistants, it nevertheless contains much useful advice for faculty: University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill:  Guiding Discussion

Warm wishes always,

Mike Dabney

Write me:
702 Wake Robin Drive, Shelburne, VT 05482

Call me: 802-985-0088 (Vermont) 808-781-3294 (nationwide cell, does not work well at home)

Travel schedule includes New York (January), Seattle (February, March, April, June), San Diego (June), Los Angeles (early February and late June), San Francisco (March and April).

TEACHER TRAINING has been much in the news, much under scrutiny.  Highlights:   What makes a Great Teacher?   Building a Better Teacher, from the New York Times (March 2, 2010):

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


We find that people's beliefs about their efficacy affect the sorts of choices they make in very significant ways. In particular, it affects their levels of motivation and perseverance in the face of obstacles. Most success requires persistent effort, so low self-efficacy becomes a self-limiting process. In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, strung together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life.
~ Albert Bandura (1925-  Stanford psychologist)
I tell students:  “Don’t just tell me what it is.  What can you do with it?”  In just three months, they learn this method of thinking. They may have lived in a black and white world, but now they see there are lots of gray areas—and how to evaluate them.
~ Michael Lange, Champlain College (VT), teaches undergraduate core courses
Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.
~ Helen Keller
When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That's the message he is sending
~ Thich Nhat Hanh (81-year-old Zen Buddhist monk)
If you truly want to make a difference in a student's life, if you want always to make each student feel appreciated and noticed and invaluable, if you want each of them to achieve, be careful to not demean or diminish her or him; if you want each of them to succeed you have to see intently in each of them the potential that they so often don't know or believe is there.
~ Louis Schmier (in email 8-27-08)

I have a success autopilot!

Executive Summary   The dandelion begins life as vulnerable as any organism, but with a pre-set plan and the genetic means and determination to survive-and-thrive.  Our students arrive with a mixed bag of strengths and deficits, not only in academic skills but in beliefs about self-efficacy that underpin basic happiness and success.  It may be that optimism and resilience—the belief that in persistence one will prevail—is partly hard-wired.  Even so, I believe there is much we can do to set the stage for better student self-understanding of strengths and robust growth of the belief that personal success is possible and likely, as well as to build the capacity to cope successfully and hopefully with confusion, chaos, and setbacks, common at some point in every life.  In this message, I explore a few strategies to do these things.  As you discover others, please share.   

Students arrive with diverse skills and attitudes, sometimes dragging a negative self-image and a doomsday prophesy of their ability to cope with academic challenges.   This phenomenon, which afflicts higher education at every level, has spawned a movement called developmental education, of special prominence in community colleges, and some controversy about whether bringing students up to skill-speed is the responsibility of special courses/curricula or can be embedded in content teaching.  There’s a National Center for Developmental Education, part of the education school at Appalachian State University (  The director, Hunter Boylan, writes:

  Students fail to do well in college for a variety of reasons, and only one of them is lack of academic preparedness. Factors such as personal autonomy, self-confidence, ability to deal with racism, study behaviors, or social competence have as much or more to do with grades, retention, and graduation than how well a student writes or how competent a student is in mathematics.

Programs that focus on skill development across the curriculum, such as OnCourse ( have identified choices of successful students and make web-based materials available to anyone.

What is resilience?   One dictionary describes it as the ability to recover quickly from misfortune or adversity:  bounce-back.  We might extend that to the positive capacity of people to cope with stress or catastrophe, sustained optimism, competence and productivity in the face of challenge, or accomplishment beyond what might be expected based on inherent or imposed limitations.  My mother was widowed in 1974, without money management skills.  No math whiz, mom rolled up her sleeves and, with the help of a brokerage firm, took charge of her investments for thirty years.  My own life offers an example:   In 2003, life challenges brought me near a break-point.  I was in Vermont helping my mother, by then disabled and unable to travel alone but addicted to spending part of each spring in the chilly, muddy, icy wilderness steps from Canada.   In a pristine spot, we were both miserable.  My mom was a prisoner of emphysema, unable to walk out without help.  One cottage away, I was broke, underemployed and imprisoned by crushing debt.  I lay awake night after night, nursing a bad attitude.  Then one night I recalled a lesson from a friend with a life-threatening illness:  I consider my challenge a gift.   I stilled negative thinking and began a mental gratitude list, hoping to discover the gift inside my challenge.   Every night thereafter, the gratitude list grew and a plan began to form.  Something in me was saying, if not shouting: You can face and resolve this!   I did, without bankruptcy—but that’s another story.

ASCD (the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, an educational leadership organization) in 2005 published Resilient School Leaders: Strategies for Turning Adversity Into Achievement by Jerry L. Patterson and Paul Kelleher.  Chapter 1 portrays the development of resilience as a continuous building process; the full, illustrated chapter is available online at

How do we help nurture resilience?       Many authors believe schools can support students, particularly those at risk, through resilience-building experiences that focus on five themes: (a)  competency (feeling successful), (b) belonging (feeling valued), (c) usefulness (feeling needed), (d) potency (feeling empowered) and (e) optimism (feeling encouraged, hopeful).   Experiences that relate to these five factors are likely to enhance student motivation and self-esteem — and consequently, achievement.1    Some ways:

1.  Offer challenge coupled with support   Learners engage best in tasks that provide challenges they perceive as do-able, and opt out when the task is perceived as too difficult or too easy.  You may have students whose pre-college experience predisposes them to demand spoon-feeding; don’t pander to them.  Provide reasonable challenge and supports for those who perceive themselves not quite up to the challenge.  Workplace reality:  employers  want problem-solvers, not information-consumers.

2.  Model effective coping when setback and failure occur.  Share your own stories; solicit stories from students; encourage community-building around the telling of experiences that make us stronger.

3.  Prompt self-awareness of performance goals    Success and failure both instruct powerfully.   You can enhance student awareness of performance criteria, and prompt goal-setting by asking students to help build performance rubrics.  For a rubrics primer, see    and The best introduction to rubrics I’ve ever seen is the ASCD article linked early in the latter item.

4.  Provide opportunities for belonging and usefulness    How we respond in classroom and office exchanges, can support or exclude . . . and students can be taught inclusive responses.  Later in 2013, I’ll devote an entire post to these skills.  Meanwhile, a good start is at

5.  In assignments, create experiences that build competence from many levels and are planned to provide the experience of small, integrated successes.   My first year teaching at HPU I required students to conclude projects with a class presentation.  Most of them had no idea how to design or deliver a quality piece and there was much visible anxiety, reading-in-a-whisper-voice from prompt cards, many yawns.  When I began to teach the elements of presentation-building, including how to build audience outcomes and engagement strategies, things improved.  Similarly, complex assignments (such as papers or presentations) or complex ideas, often can be broken into components, a useful technique called scaffolding.  Assignment scaffolding reduces the cost of errors and enhances risk-taking.  For an introduction to some scaffolding ideas, see  

6.  Express confidence that all students will exit your class at a level of competence and navigational skill higher than when they entered as well as more knowledgeable about content.  Carl Farrell, a colleague at Hawaii Pacific Univesity, taught me this point of view.    

7.  Teach that criticism and failure need not be taken personally   Some might call this attitude adjustment.  P.M. Forni, a John's Hopkins professor of Italian literature, has written two charming books on commonplace civility.  Fundamentally, both concern emotional-energy-conserving shifts in response to negative environmental events.  In The Civility Solution, Forni offers an approach to rudeness.  In essence he suggests we not mentally tag events as "unacceptable" and thus spare expenditure of emotional energy on imagining unnecessary "solutions." He suggests practicing acceptance of everyday irritants, stripping them of the emotional baggage, the “fight-back” we usually attach. Could this strengthening tactic be taught to students?  Forni’s books can be found at Forni Civility Books  

8. Intentionally build community for students with resilient peer and instructor mentors.  Individual resilience often grows out of the experience of adversity, through which individuals learn to navigate adverse circumstances and then to capitalize on those experiences in future adversity.  In classes, create opportunities for community-building and experience-sharing, drawing on experiences of major and minor adversity and the strengths that emerged from those challenges.

9.  Solicit office visits by students, opening conversations that help you know them better.

10.  Finally:  Linda Meccouri, formerly at Springfield Technical Community College, published an article describing a classroom exercise she uses to prompt student self-awareness of strengths:  Promoting Resilience in First Generation College Students.  Though this article is no longer available online, a PowerPoint slide series related to it is at
Also see

1 Pikes, T., Burrell, B. and Holliday, C.   (1998) Using Academic Strategies to Build Resilience.   Reaching Today's Youth Vol. 2 Issue 3. pp 44-47. Online at

∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞

This post is part of a series published monthly and intended for college and community-college level educators.  Readers should feel free to use parts of any post in their own newsletters, with appropriate attribution, and to contact me with questions or suggestions at

An immensely rewarding part of my retirement life is helping individuals or groups, playing a part in their growth.   Often the issues are simple, involving classroom irritants.  Sometimes it’s about locating a resource, suggesting a fresh approach to a classroom challenge.  It’s sometimes about thinking ahead to a challenge, such as a re-appointment portfolio.  Sometimes it involves a broader or more complex matter, such as ways to improve end-of-term evaluations (and to eliminate the “bombs” that often come attached), or dealing with challenging dynamics in a class or in a faculty group.   In such conversations, I learn and  thrive.  You can engage full and confidential attention from me by using email:   Telephone or Skype conversations can be arranged.   I travel often to west and east coast cities.

Michael W. Dabney
702 Wake Robin Drive
Shelburne, VT  05482