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Taking part in academic discussionWhy have discussions and how to improve your participation

Academic discussions are a key part of university life. In addition to increasing your understanding and challenging your ideas, they may also form part of your assessment, as you may be given a grade for your participation in tutorial discussion. This page will help you understand the reasons for taking part in discussions. It also gives ways that individuals and groups can help to create an effective discussion, with some example phrases you can use. Taking part in discussions can be a daunting experience, and the page includes tips on how to improve your discussion skills.


Why have academic discussions?

There are many reasons why academic discussions at university are useful. Some of the main ones are:

  • to help you understand a subject more deeply
  • to enable you to share ideas and insights with other students
  • to hear the thoughts and ideas of other students
  • to challenge and perhaps change your ideas
  • to increase and clarify your knowledge
  • to improve your ability to think critically
  • to increase your confidence in speaking
  • to improve your English speaking skills

What makes an effective discussion?

Discussions happen when many people get together and talk. However, not every discussion is effective, and there are many reasons for this. Perhaps there are too many people talking at the same time. Perhaps the participants fail to listen to what others are saying, or listen but refuse to change their own opinions. Perhaps there is a question which needs answering, but the discussion does not lead to any agreement. In order to ensure that academic discussions are effective, there are several things which the individuals and the group need to do.


Individual actions

It is important for you, the individual participant, to do the following:

  • prepare for the topic
  • be willing to listen to others
  • build on what other people have said
  • be willing to change your opinions
  • not be afraid to give your honest opinions
  • support your opinions with evidence
  • give others a chance to speak (i.e. do not dominate the discussion)
  • encourage others to speak by inviting them to give their opinions
  • show your agreement or disagree politely
  • make your points clearly but briefly
  • allow others to finish, without interrupting

Group actions

In addition, the following are important for the whole group:

  • there are clear aims, so that everyone knows what the outcome of the discussion should be
  • there is a timetable for different stages of the discussion, and a time limit for the discussion itself
  • there is time at the end for summing up what has been agreed or decided
  • only one person speaks at any one time
  • everyone contributes by saying something

Useful phrases

Giving opinions

  • I think that...
  • It seems to me that...
  • As far as I'm concerned...

See the opinions page for more examples


Giving others the chance to speak

  • Thanks Alice for your contribution, but we need to hear from other people as well.

Inviting others to contribute

  • What do you think about what I've just said George?

For more examples, see the opinions page


Agreeing

  • Yes, I agree with you.
  • That's a good point.

See the agreeing/disagreeing page for more examples


Disagreeing

  • I see what you mean, but...
  • I take your point, but...

See the agreeing/disagreeing page for more examples


Setting aims

  • Our goal for this conversation is...
  • Our aim today is to...

Setting the timetable

  • We'll spend the first fifteen minutes discussing, and the last five coming to a decision.

Summing up

  • So, to sum up...
  • We're running out of time, so...
  • So, it seems that, as a group, we've decided...
  • All things considered, we feel that...
  • We couldn't reach an agreement on this issue...
  • Although we agree that..., we still stress that...


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Improving your discussion skills

It can be difficult, at first, to take part in academic discussions. Perhaps you lack confidence in your spoken English, or perhaps you do not think your ideas are strong enough. If you find it difficult to speak or ask questions in tutorials, the following ideas may help you.


Prepare

This is perhaps the most important thing you can do. You will not be able to contribute to a discussion unless you are well-prepared and already understand the topic fairly well. At a minimum this means attending lectures and completing any assigned readings. You can also do further reading on your own to deepen your understanding. Talk to other students on the same course as you about the topic area, and speak to your lecturer outside class if you need further assistance.


Observe

When you are taking part in tutorial discussions, try to observe how other students participate. Think about how they give opinions, how they agree or politely disagree, how they ask for clarification or ask questions. Also observe how long each speaker speaks for, whether anyone dominates the discussion, and what strategies speakers use to ensure everyone contributes.


Listen

A good speaker needs to be a good listener. Although this can be difficult if your English isn't at a high level, the more you practise listening, the more you will find yourself understanding. Focus on what the other speakers are saying during a discussion, and try to identify the main ideas. Try to relate what is being discussed to what you have already learnt in your lectures and readings. Most importantly, keep an open mind: you may have your own opinion, but the opinions of others should be respected and listened to.


Participate

Although you may lack confidence, it is important to participate each time you take part in a discussion. You can start in a small way, for example by simply agreeing with someone else's opinion, or asking someone for clarification. Learn some useful phrases for these and other skills to help you. You could also prepare a question beforehand and try to ask it during the discussion. If you begin with these small steps, your confidence will grow and you will find yourself participating more as time goes on.




Checklist

Below is a checklist for this page. Use it to check your understanding.


Area OK? Notes/comment
I understand reasons for taking part in academic discussions
I know how my individual contribution will make the discussion more effective
I know what the group should do to make the discussion more effective
I know some useful phrases for discussions such as inviting others to speak and setting aims
I know how to improve my participation in academic discussions by preparing, observing, listening and participating


References

McCormack, J.and Watkins, S. (2012). Speaking. Reading: Garnet.


UNSW Sydney (2014). Guide to Discussion Skills. Available from https://student.unsw.edu.au/discussion-skills (access date 17 July, 2015).



Wallace, M.J. (2004). Unit 5 from Study Skills in English. Cambridge: CUP.





Next section

Read more about giving opinions in the next section.




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Go back to the Discussions main page.






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