How to get CS Students to Talk

A guide to leading better problem solving discussions


Does it matter if students talk in class?

Yes!

"Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn." - Herb Simon, Nobel Laureate and Artificial Intelligence expert

Getting students to talk productively about the content helps them learn more.

Discussions allow instructors to gauge students' conceptual understanding and problem solving abilities as they grapple with ideas and questions together. Their understanding and problem solving process improve through the immediate feedback from classmates and instructors.

By making time for problem solving discussions, we better prepare students to solve complex problems in the future.


What could a productive discussion look like in computer science?

Type in your name and start the tour to review a video discussion.

What does an unproductive discussion look like?

Type in your name and start the tour to review a video discussion.


What should be normal behavior (or "norms") for a good discussion?


Everyone talks: Everyone has to participate (not just observe the discussion) so that all students can get feedback on their problem solving process and conceptual understanding.

Understanding over speed: Understanding must be valued more than speed because deep conceptual understanding will be needed for more complex problems even when speed is not possible.

Multiple strategies: Multiple approaches must be sought so that students can learn how to test various ideas and decide which path to take.

Mistakes are welcome: Mistakes have to be okay so that students can learn how to handle them and to improve their conceptual understanding.

How would these norms manifest during discussions?

This rubric can be used to reflect on your discussion facilitation.

Norm Okay discussion Good discussion Great discussion
Everyone talks A few students dominate. Occasionally a quieter student talks. Most students talk most of the time. Everyone talks at some point during the class.
Understanding over speed The instructor calls on the first person to raise their hand to answer a question. The instructor uses talk moves to give students time to think before calling on someone. Instructor prompts students to explain their thinking. The instructor gives students time to think individually and in pairs before discussing as a class. Instructor prompts students to explain their thinking and connect it to others.
Multiple strategies The instructor supplies one strategy and asks students for one more. The instructor prompts students for at least 2 different strategies. The instructor prompts students to look for similarities and differences between at least 2 strategies before choosing a path.
Mistakes are welcome When a student makes a mistake, the instructor quickly corrects it. The instructor has anticipated 1-2 possible mistakes that students might make and prompts discussion to address them without making the student feel bad. The instructor has anticipated 3 or more possible mistakes that students might make, has some ideas on why those mistakes might occur, prompts discussion to address them while focusing students on learning.

What can I do during the discussion to keep it going?

As an intructor, there are many strategies you can use. Here are some (grouped by norm) that we recommend using in your discussions. See them in action in the video.

Everyone talks

  • Prompt students for further participation: “Let’s hear from someone new”
  • Wait time
  • Stop and jot
  • Partner time

Understanding over speed

  • “Say more”
  • Revoicing: “So what I’m hearing you say is…” by instructor or another student
  • Gathering information: "What do we remember about ?"
  • Wait time

Multiple Strategies

  • Agree/disagree & Why?
  • Add On
  • Stop and jot
  • Partner time

Mistakes are welcome

  • “Say more”
  • Agree/Disagree and why?
  • Challenge or Counterexample
  • Probe for evidence/reasoning

How do I prepare a discussion and reflect on it?

for (problem in problem_set):

//Complete this table


//Grab some friends to practice your discussion

//You're the instructor, they're the students



//How was your discussion? It can be good for one norm and okay or great for another. The goal is for everything to be great!

Norm Okay discussion Good discussion Great discussion
Everyone talks A few students dominate. Occasionally a quieter student talks. Most students talk most of the time. Everyone talks at some point during the class.
Understanding over speed The instructor calls on the first person to raise their hand to answer a question. The instructor uses talk moves to give students time to think before calling on someone. Instructor prompts students to explain their thinking. The instructor gives students time to think individually and in pairs before discussing as a class. Instructor prompts students to explain their thinking and connect it to others.
Multiple strategies The instructor supplies one strategy and asks students for one more. The instructor prompts students for at least 2 different strategies. The instructor prompts students to look for similarities and differences between at least 2 strategies before choosing a path.
Mistakes are welcome When a student makes a mistake, the instructor quickly corrects it. The instructor has anticipated 1-2 possible mistakes that students might make and prompts discussion to address them without making the student feel bad. The instructor has anticipated 3 or more possible mistakes that students might make, has some ideas on why those mistakes might occur, prompts discussion to address them while focusing students on learning.