Whole Group Discussion Pros and Cons

Teacher with Group of Students
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Whole Group Discussion is a method of teaching that involves a modified form of classroom lecture. In this model, the focus is shared between the instructor and the students throughout the information exchange. Typically, an instructor will stand before a class and present information for the students to learn but the students will also participate by answering questions and providing examples.

Pros of Whole Group Discussion as a Teaching Method

Many teachers support this method as whole group discussions typically provide greater interaction between teacher and students. It provides a surprising amount of flexibility in the classroom, despite the lack of the traditional lecture. In this model, instructors give up the format of dictating the lecture and instead control what is being taught by steering the discussion. Here are a few other positive outcomes from this teaching method:

  • Auditory learners find them appealing to their learning style.
  • Teachers can check on what students are retaining through questions posed.
  • Whole group discussion is comfortable for many teachers because it is a modified form of the lecture.
  • Students have a tendency to stay focused on the lesson because they might be called on to answer questions.
  • Students may feel more comfortable asking questions during whole group discussions.

Cons of Whole Group Discussion as a Teaching Method:

Whole group discussions can be unsettling for some teachers, as they require setting up and enforcing ground rules for students. If these rules are not enforced then there is a possibility that the discussion could quickly go off-topic. This requires strong classroom management, something that can be a challenge for inexperienced teachers. A few other drawbacks of this option include:

  • Students who are weak in note-taking skills will have trouble understanding what they should remember from group discussions. This is even more so than in lectures in many cases because not only the teacher but fellow students are talking about the lesson.
  • Some students may not feel comfortable being put on the spot during a whole group discussion.

Strategies for Whole Group Discussions

Many of the strategies below can help prevent the "cons" created by whole class discussions.

Think-Pair-Share: This technique is popular in the lower elementary grades to encourage speaking and listening skills. First, ask students to think about their response to a question, then ask them to pair up with another person (usually someone nearby). The pair discusses their response, and then they share that response with the larger group.

Philosophical Chairs: In this strategy, the teacher reads a statement that has only two possible response: to agree or to disagree. Students move to one side of the room marked agree or to the other marked disagree. Once they are in these two groups, students take turns defending their positions. NOTE: This is also an excellent way to introduce new concepts to the class to see what students know or do not know about a particular topic.

Fishbowl: Perhaps the most well-known of classroom discussion strategies, a fishbowl is organized with two-four students who sit facing each other in the center of the room. All the other students sit in a circle around them. Those students seated in the center discuss the question or predetermined topic (with notes). Students on the outside circle, take notes on the discussion or on the techniques used. This exercise is a good way to have students practice discussion techniques using follow-up questions, elaborating on another person’s point or paraphrasing. In a variation, students on the outside may provide quick notes ("fish food") by passing them to students on the inside for use in their discussion.

Concentric Circles Strategy: Organize students into two circles, one outside circle and one inside circle so that each student on the inside is paired with a student on the outside. As they face each other, the teacher poses a question to the whole group. Each pair discusses how to respond.  After this brief discussion, the students on the outside circle move one space to the right. This will mean each student will be part of a new pair. The teacher can have them share the results of that discussion or pose a new question. The process can be repeated several times during a class period.

Pyramid Strategy: Students begin this strategy in pairs and respond to a discussion question with a single partner. At a signal from the teacher, the first pair joins another pair which creates a group of four. These groups of four share their (best) ideas. Next, the groups of four move to form groups of eight in order to share their best ideas. This grouping can continue until the whole class is joined up in one large discussion.

Gallery Walk: Different stations are set up around the classroom, on the walls or on tables. Students travel from station to station in small groups. They perform a task or respond to a prompt. Small discussions are encouraged at each station.

Carousel Walk: Posters are set up around the classroom, on the walls or on tables. Students are divided into small groups, one group to a poster. The group brainstorms and reflects on the questions or ideas by writing on the poster for a specific duration of time. At a signal, the groups move in a circle (like a carousel) to the next poster. They read what the first group has written, and then add their own thoughts by brainstorming and reflecting. Then at another signal, all groups move again (like a carousel) to the next poster. This continues until all the posters have been read and have responses. NOTE: The time should be shortened after the first round. Each station helps students to process new information and read the thoughts and ideas of others. 

Final Thoughts:

Whole group discussions are an excellent teaching method when used in conjunction with other methods. Instruction should be varied from day to day to help reach the most students possible. Teachers need to provide their students with note taking skills before starting discussions. It is important that teachers be good at managing and facilitating discussions. Questioning techniques are effective for this. Two questioning techniques that teachers employ is to increase their wait time after questions are asked and to only ask one question at a time.