The Discussion Project gives instructors vital skills to improve quality classroom discussion, learning
Engaging classroom discussion fuels learning. But quality discourse doesn’t just happen — it takes structure and planning.
Teaching these vital skills is the aim of The Discussion Project, a professional development series launched at UW–Madison in 2017 that’s designed to help instructors create engaging and academically rigorous classroom discussions.
“The tagline for The Discussion Project is, ‘Learn to discuss and discuss to learn,’ ” says Diana Hess, who is the principal investigator of The Discussion Project. “We want students to become better participants in discussion, just like we want students to become better writers or better musicians or better mathematicians. We want to make sure that students see discussion as something that they can become better at.”
Designed to improve quality classroom discussion across all subject areas, this work also aids educators’ efforts in developing a welcoming and inclusive learning environment.
“We believe that discussion is a tool to learn — and that you learn different perspectives from interacting with people who have ideas that are different from your own,” says Lynn Glueck, program director of The Discussion Project, which is also a large-scale, mixed-methods research study. That work examines what it takes for engaging discussion to occur.
The Discussion Project has been delivered to more than 700 college instructors — from tenured faculty members to first-year teaching assistants (TAs) — across more than 120 academic departments. It is offered both in person via a three-day course and virtually over seven, two-hour online sessions.
While the bulk of this work has been delivered across UW–Madison, the project this spring expanded its reach to educators at both Northeastern Illinois University, a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI) in Chicago, and Morgan State University in Baltimore, a historically Black college/university (HBCU).
The program is now being offered to other institutions of higher education through the Wisconsin Center for Education Products & Services (WCEPS), a nonprofit that works with School of Education innovators to disseminate products and services. In addition, The Discussion Project this summer is starting to test curriculum for educators at the high school level.
During coursework, participants see the modeling of strategies and also experience, practice, and apply these new skills. Earlier modules focus on how to structure small group discussion, craft questions, and facilitate whole class interactions. By the end, participants plan their own classroom discussion and receive feedback.
Diana Rodríguez Gómez, an assistant professor with the Department of Educational Policy Studies, often teaches about contentious topics such as armed conflict, forced migration, human rights, and education policy.
“The goal of my classes often is to support students in building complex understandings of the links between education and violence,” says Rodríguez Gómez, who took the course virtually during the pandemic. “My first big lesson learned was that discussion is an academic skill that must be explicitly taught, learned, and assessed. And as a teacher in the classroom, I was responsible for providing my students with the skills to navigate real risk and even the awkwardness of a good discussion. The Discussion Project gave me these important tools to provide a safe, engaging, and productive learning environment.”