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TNLI: Action Research: Curriculum Implementation: Student Discussions in the Social Studies Classroom: An Action Study

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Helping all students achieve higher standards

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Student Discussions in the Social Studies Classroom: An Action Study

Nora K. Flynn, Walter Payton College Prep

The Questions:
What happens when students lead their own discussions?
What preparation do students need to be successful in a student-led discussion?

These questions guided research into how high school students navigate discussions in a Social Studies classroom over the course of a school year. While much research into discussion-based activities in Social Studies has been published, these questions were answered from both my (the teacher's) perspective and the students' perspectives. By addressing student perceptions of discussions, teachers can more readily understand how to approach and improve the implementation of this technique in their Social Studies class.


  • written reflections from students after completion of six discussion-based activities
  • my own observations (sociograms and discussion mapping) and reflections on student discussions
  • student "interviews" - a group discussion about a class discussion

The Process:

Over one school year, three frosh level World Studies classes completed six discussion-based activities. Each activity was related to different content, and was implemented in a different way from the others. During and after each activity, students wrote individual written reflections, charting their roles in discussions, their comfort level, and their preparedness in discussions. In addition to student responses, I also observed discussions and mapped them for participation and content covered. I reflected after each discussion-based activity about the goals I had for the content and process and whether those were met. Finally, after the last discussion-based activity, students led a small group discussion about their student-led classroom discussion. I mapped this discussion as well.

Data Analysis:
Student Reflections

Students identified roles that they often play and never play in classroom discussions, including (direct quotes from students) "the loudmouth," "listeners," "people who play the game," "the comedian," and "those who don't pay attention at all". They identified interest and peer relations as the determining factors for how they act in a discussion, based on a free response prompt. This data helped set a baseline for student perceptions of discussion in any class. Student motivations for discussion are an important aspect for teachers to understand when approaching discussion-based activities.

Students rated their comfort level and preparedness after a primary source study anchored a discussion. There was a high correlation between preparedness in using a reference and feeling comfortable in discussion (67% of students). Factors for feeling uncomfortable, other than lack of preparedness, included peer perceptions. Having sources that help shape and provide support for students' interpretations are essential for their perceptions of comfort and readiness for group discussion.

Students participated in an online forum as one discussion-based activity. They responded very well to this very quiet conversation. Students noted that this forum gave those who do not speak up in class the opportunity to share their ideas, and many were impressed by those who are usually "quiet". Students found the ability to simultaneously research while discussing to be helpful. Some found the threaded discussion format a bit confusing and felt "lost" "keeping up" with the responses. Exposing students to a variety of ways to actively participate in class discussion is helpful to their ease in expressing ideas. Having sources readily available allows students to form and support their opinions, which is not only an excellent research skill, but they identify this as a reliable aid to their comfort and understanding in discussion.

Teacher Observation and Reflections
I also reflected on what a "good" discussion might entail and how best to prepare students for the rigors of a Social Studies discussion. Many reflections resulted in the question, "How best could I combine content and process in a discussion-based activity?" This question resulted in the various forms of the six major student-led discussion activities throughout the year.

Student "Interviews"
Four students gathered to discuss, "What happened today at the U.N. Crisis Simulation?". While I intended the format to be interviews, the students led their own discussion about discussion as I ended up taking notes. This last data tool is a microcosm of the action research process in my class this year, and also provided the best example of student-led discussion I have observed yet. Students talked about motivation: a real-life crisis that they could take in any creative direction they chose. They discussed frustrations: students who wouldn't work as a team, though one was the leader. They discussed preparation: having an account of proceedings on the online forum was useful; using maps would have helped in securing alliances. They evaluated discussion, which was three-pronged (online, written, and group conferences): "I loved talking to EVERYBODY!" By evaluating this discussion, students answered all of the questions they had used for reflection throughout the year, but in a student-led conversation. My own reflection shows that they related both content and process seamlessly, achieving the goal I had set in asking this question, but in a way I had not anticipated.

Though students and teachers have different perceptions of class discussions, their ideas of what is a "good" discussion and how best one can be prepared for such a discussion are compatible. Flow of conversation, pertinent topics, and readily available resources are all imperative for a high-quality discussion process related to Social Studies content. Student and teacher reflections on the roles we play in discussions helped us improve our discussion techniques, culminating in a fine group activity in the Crisis Simulation, but even more so in the student-led analysis of this discussion.

Policy Implications
Social Studies teachers must have training in the variations of student-led classroom discussions. They need to use primary sources and other sources that lend to student interpretation, along with adequate secondary material for students to feel comfortable in discussing. In addition, teachers should be experimenting with technological resources to encourage various discussion styles and multiple learning styles.
Principals and administrators need to provide teachers with the resources to prepare students for discussion; from primary source books to internet connections to town-hall forums for students, a school culture for discussion about pertinent issues must be fostered.
Area Instructional Officers should be using discussion-based activities as one area for "Vertical Teaming," combining elementary and high school Social Studies teachers' efforts to best prepare students for the rigors of high school. Primary and secondary school teachers should be discussing with university-level instructors to determine for what we are preparing our students by using discussion-based activities.

Next Steps
Collaboration among colleagues in my Social Studies Department about our curriculum, benchmarks, and standards will rely on this research. I will propose attention to discussion-based activities and this study to teachers in the Area 20 Social Studies Vertical Team. As collaboration ensues, new questions arise:

  1. What preparation do students have in Social Studies discussion-based activities before entering their freshmen year?
  2. What bridge between grade eight and freshmen year is necessary for all students to succeed in discussion-based activities?
  3. What bridge between senior year and college is necessary for students to excel in the Social Studies?
  4. How do students' various backgrounds (educational, social, etc.) influence their reactions to discussion?
  5. How do teachers of different subjects approach discussion-based activities?

Finally, new ways to track discussion from the student perspective must be addressed. Tracing individual students' responses over time to the content and process of Social Studies discussions in my World Studies class will be the next step within my own classroom.

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