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Types of Classes

Discussion-based tutorials | Lab-based demonstrating | Case-based / problem-posing tutorials


Discussion-based tutorials

Student discussion, when used effectively, provides students with learning opportunities to learn collaboratively through analysis of problems, organizing concepts, articulation of ideas, exposure to alternative perspectives and evaluation of one’s own as well as others’ perspectives and evidence. Students will get more actively engaged in the course materials through discussion. As discussion gives students opportunity to articulate their own ideas, it may also help students gain confidence in their intellectual abilities and learn how to synthesize ideas and communicate. A successful discussion is often not only meaningful in helping students practise higher-order thinking skills it is also very often enjoyable and appealing to students’ interest. To organize a successful discussion, you need to prepare both the students and yourself for the discussion beforehand, setting a clear focus and direction for the discussion and encouraging students to talk to each other.

Planning for the discussion

As we discussed in planning a class session, part of planning is being clear about the learning outcome you hope to achieve. With a clear idea about the intended learning outcome/s to be achieved, you then could think about an appropriate topic for the discussion. Whenever it is possible, choose a topic which your students can relate to, for example, a controversial question, a real-world problem, or some common experience people are experiencing concurrently, to help arouse students’ interests in the discussion.

Once the intended learning outcomes are clarified and the discussion topic is chosen, the next thing to think about is the ways to organize the discussion. It is worth considering the following questions while setting the agenda of the discussion:

  1. What knowledge or skills do students need to commence the discussion? Do students have the appropriate knowledge and skills for the discussion?
  2. What challenges the students may face during the discussion? Are the challenges appropriate in terms of their level of understanding?
  3. What kind of support will you need to provide for the discussion?

Preparing students for discussion

Students may be hesitant to participate in discussions. Such hesitancy may be more likely to happen when students feel ill-prepared, or the tasks are uninteresting or meaningless, or the instructions are not clear. To prepare students for discussion:

  1. Set the scene for the discussion. Begin the discussion with an illustration of the issue, the controversy, or the problem to be solved. Highlight the meaning of the discussion, the connections of the discussion with other parts of the class, and possible benefit students would be able to obtain from it;
  2. Give clear instruction prior to the discussion, including the time allowed for the discussion, and what is expected at the end of the discussion.

Getting students to talk

The participation of students is essential to the success of a discussion session. A teacher’s personal style and attitude can have impact on the amount of student participation in a discussion. For example, an overly assertive teacher who has a closed mind to different perspectives may find his/her students very silent in discussion. A teacher who always acknowledges student contributions and provides constructive feedback may increase students’ willingness to be engaged in the conversation.

In general, to encourage student participation in discussion as a whole group or in a small group, you could work together with students in the first class to identify the characteristic of effective discussion and establish some guidelines for the participation in discussion. Ask for their cooperation in implementing these guidelines. Besides, you could try to build a safe classroom community for students to discuss. “Safe” means rapport among/with students. Students will be willing to share their ideas and learn collaboratively in such an environment. Having students introduce themselves and get to know each other at the beginning of the course will help build up such environment.

Specifically, to generate discussion as a whole group, you could:

  1. Prepare a set of accompanying questions to stimulate discussion or guide discussion through good open questions (See Questioning techniques).
  2. Provide students with chances to draw upon their feelings, perceptions, and life experiences in the discussion. For example, relate the discussion topic to a real-world scenario that your students may care about. You could even draw on specific students by name to have them better connected with the context of the question. Being personally related to the discussion topic, students may be more interested in the discussion and have more to share with each other.
  3. Encourage your students to build on what they have learnt. Having an opportunity to apply their previous knowledge, students may be able to build up connections between the discussion topics. What they have learnt in the past may become meaningful to them. These may also encourage their willingness to participate in the future discussions.
  4. Consider email discussion questions to the class or put them on an online learning system ahead of time to allow enough time for students to prepare for the discussion. When students are better prepared for the questions, they may be more willing to get engaged in the discussion.

To get your students to talk to each other in small group, you could try:

  1. Arranging seating to promote small group discussion. Ask students to sit in circles so that they could see themselves in a group and have a sense of belonging.
  2. Giving responsibility for a particular question to each group to stimulate some competitiveness between groups. It will help generate positive interdependence and collaboration among group members.
  3. Assigning different roles to students. Ask one or two students to lead a discussion. Tell them the leader will assume responsibility for generating and facilitating the discussion. The other roles you could assign to students include observer (responsible for commenting on the discussion), summarizer / speaker (summarize the main points / speak in the whole class on behalf of the group), recorder or note-taker (take notes), and timekeeper (keep the discussion on schedule). By giving roles to each student, you give gentle pressure to each to participate in the discussion in some way. It is worthwhile to try this at the beginning of a semester to help students form a mechanism within the group for small group discussion.

In practice, you could vary what you do in class from time to time. Students may get bored if you organize the discussion in the same way all the time.

Focus, direction

During the discussion, you are responsible for:

  • keeping students engaged
  • keeping the discussion on track, and
  • handling problematic behavior

Remember that your role during discussion is to guide and facilitate, making sure there is a clear focus and direction in the discussion. However, you also need to allow enough freedom and time for the students to analyze issues, make judgment, and formulate argument themselves.

If you have a carefully designed plan for the discussion and have prepared well for the students as mentioned in the previous two sections, your students should have a clear understanding of the background of the discussion topic, the value of the discussion, the agenda, the timeline, and what they need to produce at the end. Then it is likely your students will have a clear focus in the discussion.

If it is a student discussion in groups, it will help if you walk between groups to observe what is going on and facilitate the discussion when it is necessary. By visiting individual group, you will bring along the pressure on students for progress in the discussion. Through facilitation, it will not only help the classroom discussion to go on the intended track but you will also be able to build up a good rapport with your students.

Summarizing the discussion

Giving a summary at the end of the discussion provides a closure to the activity. You could:

  1. acknowledge students’ input,
  2. provide feedback, and
  3. reinforce the important points covered.

It helps students to consolidate knowledge and gives students a sense of progress in learning. Also, as students learn that some form of action – such as individual or group reports – will be required of them in the future, they may, as a result, participate with greater interest.


  • Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Hyman, R. T. Improving Discussion Leadership. New York: Teachers College Press, 1980.
  • Meyers, C. (1993). Promoting Active Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lab-based demonstrating


Case-based / problem-posing tutorials

Case-based tutorials

Case method or case study is a teaching method building on real-life examples (in other words “cases”). Through reading and discussing the “cases”, students are involved in analytical thinking, decision making, and problem solving (Hativa1, 2000). Case method originates from business school, law school and social sciences disciplines.

‘Cases’ used in teaching can cover a wide range of problems posed for analysis in a wide range of shapes and sizes.  But most often, a case includes several key elements: real-world/simulated scenario (cases based on real-life situations with possible changes or on a construction of events that could reasonably take place); supporting data and documents (e.g., real-life documents, audios, videos, images, simple data table, etc.); and open-ended problem (which encourages students to come up with multiple potential solutions).

Some case study examples can be found here.

For cases to be effective in your teaching, first and foremost, you need to set specific learning outcomes that you want students to achieve, for instance, building analytical skills, enhancing interpersonal communication capacities, making connections between concepts within or across discipline(s).

As case study approach is now being used in many disciplines, referring to published cases will save a lot of your preparation time. You can also create your own cases using your experience. It can be as simple as outlining the major components of a problem to be solved, or gathering materials necessary to create circumstances in which students work as decision makers.

When you first introduce case approach in your teaching, or if it is the first time for your students to work on a case, start with something small and relatively simple. It is also advised that you give students an opportunity to reflect and provide feedback for future revision and refinement of the case.

When using the case, take sufficient time to introduce the case facts. Also, make sure that you give very clear instructions to students in terms of what they need to accomplish, e.g. discussing major issues (See Discussion-based tutorials), identifying central problems, outlining possible solutions, etc. In a group work setting, you may want to set some ground rules to make sure that every student will participate.

References and resources

  1. Hativa, N. (2000). Teaching for Effective learning in Higher Education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  2. Teaching with Case Studies, Stanford University, 1994
  3. Using Cases in Teaching, Penn State University
  4. The Case Method and the Interactive Classroom, Foran, NEA Higher Education Journal, 2001
  5. Bonney, K. M. (2015). Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 16(1), 21–28. http://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.846

Problem-posing/Inquiry-based tutorials

Problem posing or inquiry-based learning can be incorporated in your tutorials or demonstrations, where students are required to work collaboratively to solve real-life or simulated real-life problems. This approach to learning promotes problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and effective communications. 

If you plan to incorporate problem-based learning in your tutorials, there are a number of things that you need to consider in developing problems:

  • Structure the learning outcomes around the problems;
  • Set problems that allow multiple solution paths;
  • The problems need to be authentic in your disciplinary area;
  • Solving the problems requires creative and critical thinking;

In problem-based learning, the purpose is not for students to achieve any predetermined ‘right answers’ or solutions. Instead, they should be encouraged to come up with any possible solutions they can think of and articulate their rationale. In a way, the process of problem solving is more important than the solution. Along the process, helping students identify mistakes and errors made is actually helping them to build up effective problem solving skills.

Examples of problems can be found here.

For problem-based learning to be effective, you may want to model the thought process involved in solving a problem and allow students to see clearly each step in the process leading to the solution. Once you have students work through a particular problem on their own, remember your role as a facilitator. Provide assistance when needed by asking directing questions instead of giving them direct ‘answers’.

References and resources

  1. Hativa, N. (2000). Teaching for Effective learning in Higher Education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  2. Whimbey, A. & Lochhead, J. (1999). Problem Solving and Comprehension, Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. Teaching Problem Solving. Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University
  4. Savin-Baden, M. (2000). Problem-based learning in higher education: Untold stories. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
  5. Speaking of teaching: Problem-based learning. Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University