Faculty Focus


Discussion Made a Difference in Student Learning

The evidence that students benefit when they talk about course content keeps mounting. In the study highlighted below, students in two sections of an introductory zoology course were learning about the physiological mechanisms of RU-486 and about emergency contraception medication. They learned about the topic in three 50-minute lecture periods. Students in both sections were given supplementary reading that reinforced the content, and they were encouraged to ask questions and discuss the content during lab. In addition, students in the experimental bioethics section read and discussed essays that addressed the social, ethical, and legal issues associated with use of emergency contraception. Students in the experimental section then discussed these readings. They managed the discussion, asking questions and raising the issues they wanted to talk about. The instructor intervened only when there was confusion about the content or when prompting and follow-up were needed to advance the discussion.

Students in both sections were given a pre- and post-course knowledge survey. “Overall, students in the bioethics section demonstrated movement from incorrect to correct knowledge on all but one survey item. Students in the content-only section demonstrated little to no increase in knowledge, and in fact performed worse on one item.” (p. 36)

Performance on an exam administered two weeks later that contained questions on this content was also analyzed. There was no difference in scores for those exam questions, for total exam scores, or for final course grades. Researchers did find qualitative differences in student responses to a relevant short-answer question on the exam. “Specifically, more students in the bioethics section correctly cited one or more ways in which emergency contraception may prevent pregnancy, and they seemed to have a better understanding of the mechanism of … emergency contraception overall….” (p. 37)

Discussion aids learning because “it is the connections students make, both within and between subjects, that help students create an understanding of concepts that goes beyond memorization.” (p. 38) Discussion engages students. It gives them the opportunity to practice using the language of the discipline, and in this case it was helping develop much-needed scientific literacy.

It’s hard to persuade faculty that talking benefits students, partly because students are content novices. They don’t talk about content as experts do. Their descriptions are not precise, their language is informal, and their understandings are preliminary. Faculty can do a much better job explaining the content, but research like this keeps verifying that students don’t learn as much by listening to expert explanations. They learn by constructing their own explanations. They need teachers who offer feedback and help them improve the quality of their explanations. Novices learn from experts, but not from experts with all the answers.

Reference: Bodensteiner, K. J. (2012). “Emergency contraception and RU-486 (mifepristone): Do bioethical discussion improve learning and retention?” Advances in Physiology Education, 36 (March), 34–41.

Reprinted from Discussion Made a Difference, The Teaching Professor, 26.6 (2012). © Magna Publications.