How to Facilitate In-Class Discussion

Outlined below are the steps on how to structure your classroom discussions.  

  • Students as Experts. By framing the activity as a mechanism to learn from the students--who are the experts in the transition to their particular program, at this particular institution, at this particular time, you are placing the student in the role of having unique expertise that help inform our work. This shift in roles from the beneficiaries to the benefactors of the activity, students experience a reduction in defensiveness to the message impact, which normally results when a person expects to be placed in a position where they are told how to improve (i.e., how they are deficient in important ways). This allows students to share from a position of strength, knowing that their disclosures are a valued contribution to the knowledge building exercise, rather than a source of weakness on which they may be negatively judged by others.  

  • Modeling. The facilitator should model what an optimal response looks like by first sharing their own story of uncertainty during a critical transition. By first having the faculty and facilitators share their own stories of uncertainty and struggle during a critical transitional period, they also have the opportunity to influence the structure of the students' responses. This affords the facilitators to insert a few key ingredients that creates a balanced and productive framing.  

  • By first identifying their own psychological uncertainties during their transition to law or the legal profession which may include worries about not being smart enough, not belonging, not having the “right” experiences, or not being similar enough to others, faculty are able to convey that we all have these concerns at some point.  

  • By including a behavioral strategy that they employed (e.g., reaching out to professor, volunteering in student group, inviting a peer to study together), that they were able to see that their concern was not warranted.  

  • By ending with a psychological resolution, which includes a realization that those initial concerns were common among all students, and are a normal part of the transition, the facilitator is able to convey that these concerns are temporary and pass with time and the employment of effective strategies. 

  • Gradually build-up. The structure of the survey tools, the focus group, and the in-class facilitated discussion are built in such a way as to gradually build up the norms of disclosure. The key is to solicit input gradually by first asking about common, and non-vulnerable, aspects of their lives. For instance, in the in-person focus group and class discussions, we typically begin with an ice-breaker to get everyone in the practice of sharing something about a guilty pleasure—something we all likely have, regardless of status or role. From there, we ask students to jot down three good things and three negative things that happened in their lives, and pass those pieces of paper to the facilitator to share with the class, anonymously, and to open a discussion about the common experiences. Finally, building on the conversation that has already been started, you might ask students to comment on about whether the topics being discussed are relevant to their own lives.  

  • Normalizing concerns. A key force that negatively impacts students when they experience uncertainty or difficulty is the phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance, which is the perception that what you're going through is unique onto you whereas everyone else feels the same way and similarly feel that they are the only ones feeling that way. Thus, to strip the power of pluralistic ignorance from making students feel like they are the only ones struggling is to create a context in which they are able to observe their own concerns shared by others. The in-class and focus group activities do this through the facilitated discussion that they are able to generate, where students share about their own challenges, and then hear from others who are experiencing similar things. This conveys that  their uncertainty is common and normal—a powerful agent to ward off stigma or shame.  

  • Humanize interactions. Finally, the focus group and in-class discussion have the power of humanizing the interactions between peers and with the faculty. By addressing very human, and common experiences, students come to see themselves as more similar, and thus more relatable. To drive home that message, you should welcome students to connect with you (as the faculty) about any and all aspects of their lives—that they aren’t valued only for their performance in class. To drive home that message, you should welcome students to connect with you (as the faculty) about any and all aspects of their lives—that they aren’t valued only for their performance in class. 

This is an ongoing project. While we have learned a lot, there is more work to be done. In the next phase, we plan to continue our collaboration, using what we have learned to refine and implement brief, targeted interventions and continue enriching our understanding of the student experience. Through collaborations, we hope to continue our work and expand beyond Pitt Law.