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Skills for Educators

All Skills for Educators

Guiding Large Group Discussions

Many adolescent pregnancy prevention curricula include lessons that require the educator to lead large group discussions about a variety of topics. While leading discussions may seem straight forward, it can sometimes be difficult to engage the youth or reach the desired outcome. Therefore, this month's edition will review an effective process for guiding large group discussions.


Description

The usual purpose of large group discussions is to have students reflect on information presented or examine their personal beliefs or conclusions about a specific topic or issue. In addition, group discussions allow youth to test their ideas and beliefs with their peers and with the adult educator as well as to hear the views of others. From our experience, effective large group discussions follow the four phases described below. These phases are appropriate when the discussion is educator lead. If the educator wants to maximize youth-to-youth interaction, we suggest the use of smaller, cooperative learning groups.


Phase I: Preparation

Prior to guiding the discussion:

Review Lesson Objectives and Make Generalizations
Review the lesson objectives and decide on the generalizations you want youth to leave with. For example, you want teens to recognize that there are many factors that influence decisions about having sexual intercourse and to identify their own strongest influences.

Prepare Open-ended Questions
For each discussion topic, prepare a few open-ended questions to use in Phases II, III and IV. Open-ended questions are questions that require more than a yes or no answer. They begin with sentences like, "why do you think...", "how do you feel about...?", "when might you...?" or "what is the reason for...?" For example, you might ask: "Why do you think teens become sexually active?" or "How do you feel about teen fathers?" or "What would you do if your best friend said she was afraid she would lose her boyfriend if she didn't have sex?"

Vary Types of Questions
Be sure to include questions that ask youth to do the following:

  1. recall
  2. analyze
  3. apply
  4. generalize and
  5. personalize the information or topic discussed.

See The Alanzo and Briana Story in the Learning Activity section for examples of these types of questions.

Arrange Room
If possible, arrange chairs in a circle or semi-circle to maximize eye contact and conversation among youth.

Provide Ground rules
Involve students in establishing ground rules for discussion. Some suggestions for ground rules include: one person speaks at a time, no teasing or "dissing," listen to one another, everyone has the right to pass, and personal comments are confidential.


Phase II: Initiating the Discussion

Include Recall Questions
Invite youth to share their ideas, feelings, opinions about the topic you are discussing by using the open-ended questions you developed during the preparation phase. Usually recall type questions help to get the discussion going at this phase. For example, if you want to have a discussion about contraception, you might ask the youth what they know about methods of contraception.

Use Motivational Activity
Another technique for starting the discussion is to use an Anticipatory Set. An Anticipatory Set is a 3-5 minute motivational activity used to elicit feelings, increase involvement, raise unconscious feelings related to a topic and assess the group. For example, prior to a discussion on the use of contraception, you might ask youth to turn to their neighbor and identify three reasons why teens don't use contraception. This allows the youth to begin thinking about the topic before the large group discussion begins.


Phase III: Managing the Discussion

Once the discussion has started, use the following techniques to keep youth on task and to increase interaction:

Use Effective Listening Skills

  • Turn toward the speaker and make eye contact.

  • Nod where appropriate.

  • Check the meaning and/or content by trying to restate what was said. (e.g., "It sounds like you are saying adults should give teens more credit for their decision-making skills. Is that right?")

  • Ask for more information. (e.g. "Can you say more about that?" or "Can you give me an example?")

  • Use non-evaluative responses and facial expressions. (e.g. "I think I see what you are saying" or "Okay" rather than "That's good" or "You're kidding!")

Broaden Participation

  • Ask youth to respond to comments and direct their eye contact toward one another. (e.g. "What do other people think?" or "Does anyone have a different opinion?")

  • Encourage youth to express different points of view. If the discussion gets heated, remind teens of the ground rules.

  • Whenever you can, express appreciation for the way individuals and the group are participating in the discussion.

  • Sit in a circle with the youth or move away from the front of the room to reduce your leader role and support their interaction.

Stay on Track

  • Use the open-ended questions you developed in the preparation stage that ask the youth to analyze and apply the information or topic that is being discussed.

  • Ask youth to link their comments to the discussion topic if they appear to be divergent. (e.g. "I'm not sure how this connects to this topic. Can you help me?")

  • Deflect personal storytelling or sharing of confidential information by gently reminding the speaker of the ground rules. (e.g. "John, we agreed not to talk about personal behaviors in class. Is there a different comment you'd like to add?")

  • Manage rambling responses by stopping them and restating the relevant part of the speaker's comment. (e.g. "So it sounds like you agree that 13 is usually too young for sex, but you think there might be some exceptions.")

  • Manage monopolizers by stopping them, acknowledging their enthusiasm and reminding them that others want a turn as well. (e.g. "Sara, I'm glad you have so many good ideas about this issue, but let's hear from some others for a while.")

  • Periodically summarize what's been said so far and reconnect to the topic. (e.g. "So, we've said that there are many health reasons for teens to wait to have sex, including…")

Phase IV: Concluding the Discussion

Elicit Generalizations
Use the open-ended questions you developed during the preparation phase that ask youth to generalize and personalize the information or topic being discussed. For example, you might say, "Considering what we've said so far, what factors seem to have the most influence on a teen's decision about sex?"

Summarize Key Points
Have youth summarize what they have learned from the discussion. You might ask, "What were three reasons for avoiding teen pregnancy that have come out of this discussion?"

Personalize Learning
End by having students personalize what they've learned. For example, you might ask them to write down three things they learned and describe how these things might affect their decisions in the future.

To see these guidelines for Guiding Large Group Discussion in a lesson, check out The Alanzo and Briana Story in the Learning Activity of the site.

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Tips

To maximize your effectiveness in guiding large group discussion, we recommend that you:
  • Design discussions around topics that are most relevant to young people's lives. Relationships and sexuality are usually high interest topics.

  • Limit the number of questions you ask. Educators tend to bombard youth with questions during a discussion. As a result, youth often get overwhelmed; they do not know which question to respond to or don't have time to fully explore any one question.

  • Ask only one question at a time and allow youth some "think" time. Become comfortable with silences.

  • Avoid preaching or making judgments about youth's ideas, feelings or opinions.

  • Demonstrate your comfort with the topic by using and allowing appropriate humor. Teens may deal with the topic of sexuality by making jokes. This is often because it brings up feelings of embarrassment and discomfort. If necessary, have a ground rule about no "off color jokes" or street language.

  • Give youth time to write or silently reflect on the topic before beginning the discussion. This can help alleviate the silence that often follows when you ask the first discussion question. Anticipatory Sets work well for this.

  • Post ground rules for easy reference if youth forget one of the rules. Remember to include the right to pass in your ground rules because we need to be careful to protect privacy and confidentiality when discussing sensitive topics like relationships and sexuality.

  • Encourage youth to use the listening and responding skills you are modeling. You might even teach a separate lesson on these skills.

  • From time to time, direct questions to reticent youth as a way to get them involved in the discussion. Be gentle with this and remember youth are learning even if they aren't actively participating in the discussion.

  • If a large group discussion isn't working, ask the youth for feedback. It might be the topic, the time of day, something that has happened recently in their lives, etc. Youth can give us good insights into what makes discussions work for them.