Common problems and possible solutions

Have you ever experienced any of the situations listed below? Read more to learn about techniques for dealing with them:

Group is silent and unresponsive

  • If you have asked a question, make sure that students understand what you are asking. Clarify if necessary.
  • Make sure that you are asking "open" questions (questions that require more than just a "yes" or "no" answer).
  • Give students time to think. Remember the 7-second rule!
  • Break into smaller groups to get people talking.
  • Ask small groups what could be done to liven things up and then pool the suggestions.
  • Use a highly structured discussion model that requires all students to particpate equally (i.e. round-table or snowball discussion).

Sub-groups start forming with private conversations

  • Break them up into new groups.
  • Inquire about their discussion and what they have found; ask them to share these finding with the group.

Discussion goes off topic and becomes irrelevant

  • Set clear expectations and an agenda before you begin.
  • Ask them how their discussion is related to today’s topic.
  • Seek agreement on what should not be discussed.

A distraction occurs

  • Establish group ground rules about behaviour such as late arrivals.
  • Give attention to the distraction and then move on.

Students are not prepared for the discussion

  • Clarify preparation requirements, make sure they are realistic.
  • Consider a contract with students; you will only run the discussion/seminar if they come prepared to contribute. Both of these solutions are best done proactively.

Students do not listen to one another

  • Point out what is happening.
  • Establish ground rules about behaviour (ideally this has been done before the discussion begins).
  • Run a listening exercise (have students practice listening and paraphrasing what they have heard).

One or two students dominate discussion

  • Use hand signals, gestures and body language to support and bring in others.
  • Give dominant students roles to keep them busy (such as note takers).
  • Set rules for discussions early (e.g., four other students must speak before they can speak again).
  • Acknowledge the time constraints: "Jon, I notice that our time is running out. Let's set a thirty-second limit on everybody's comments from now on."
  • Avoid making eye contact with particularly talkative students.

Students complain about the discussion and the way you are handling it

  • Ask students with negative comments to reframe complaints as positive and constructive suggestions for improving the discussion experience.
  • Ask for written suggestions at the end of the session.
  • Agree to meet with a small group afterwards to discuss their concerns.

Students reject the discussion process and demand answers

  • Point out to the group what is happening and review the function and benefits of the discussion process.
  • Use different discussion settings; alter the lay-out of the room.
  • Take note of your own body language.