Using Research to Improve the Quality of Classroom Discussions

Using Research to Improve the Quality of Classroom Discussions


Studies conducted by the staff of the Classroom Interaction Research Laboratory at the State University of New York at Oswego reveal that teachers find it difficult to engage in guided discussions with their students. In many cases, discussions change into drill or lectures, as teachers strive to cover the material. We believe that interactive discussions should occur more often than usual. This idea led us to study ways in which teachers can become more successful discussion leaders and questioners.

At our Laboratory, we listened to hundreds of audio tape recordings of middle school and high school science discussions. We prepared transcripts of these discussions. Careful analyses followed. We classified questions and other teacher-student interactions. Pauses in dialogue were measured. We counted the students' words and, whenever possible, we noted the sex of the students. Many other factors were evaluated in an effort to describe typical interaction patterns and to facilitate the development of increased effectiveness of teacher-led questioning and discussion.

Our first major study was a research project funded by the National Science Foundation, and entitled "Wait Time and Questioning Skills of Middle School Science Teachers" (Swift & Gooding, 1983, p. 721-730). The study was designed to determine the effects of allowing longer pauses in the classroom for teachers and students to think and interact. We found that without special training wait time in teacher-student dialogue is short. Pauses average only 1.25 seconds between teachers' questions and replies by students (wait time 1) and only .55 seconds between the students' replies and subsequent comments by teachers (wait time 2).

In the middle school study of thinking time, we asked 40 teachers to tape record a discussion in one of their classes each week for 15 weeks. Most of the interactions were fast-paced drill, review for tests, with emphasis on low-level memory questions, or lectures' punctuated by brief questions designed to keep the students alert. Few teacher-student interactions could be classified as discussion or inquiry lessons intended to develop the intellectual processes of students. We found that students typically do not ask questions in classroom discussions, nor are they encouraged to do so. Thus it seems that, while research has revealed that memory-level drill and lecture are not the best tools for learning, teachers persistently follow these strategies.

We were able to help teachers slow the rapid pace of instruction with the introduction of a wait time feedback device (Wait Timer [tm]) in each of their classrooms. The device consists of voice-activated switches and a variable timer that triggers an amber light. The light is activated when a person is speaking. The light remains on as a signal to allow thinking time to occur. When three seconds elapse, the light goes out, indicating that it is appropriate for another participant to enter the discussion. Introduction of the Wait Timer resulted in changing interactive behavior to include more extensive use of evaluative questions, longer student responses, and improved level of student participation in discussion.

Increasing thinking time to at least three seconds following a high cognitive level question and a quality reply is crucial. That pause helps students extend and enrich their answers. This time also facilitates more effective follow-up questions by the teacher and other students.

A second project was supported by the National Science Foundation. This study entitled "Increasing the Effectiveness of Biology and Chemistry Instruction through Research Applications" enhances the ability of high school biology and chemistry teachers to use effective skills for questioning and discussion. The results of the first phase of this study revealed that even though high school students are developmentally more advanced than middle school students and the content more complex, high school teachers have some of the same difficulties in guiding discussions effectively. Teachers of biology experience greater difficulty in moving beyond the memory level of questioning than chemistry teachers. More of the discussion in the biology courses was at the lowest level of Bloom's taxonomy as redefined for science by Blosser (Education Associates, 1973), whereas the chemistry courses were found to involve a greater proportion of evaluative questions and analytical thinking. Of special interest in regard to this finding is that the high school biology course contains a large technical vocabulary of more than 1,100 terms to be memorized. Chemistry, by contrast, has an analytical focus with lower emphasis on definitions. Teachers of biology may be focusing on memory level learning, at the expense of the analytical and ethical issues that are inherent to the field of biology. In an effort to achieve mastery at the memory level, some of the most exciting and important biology may be omitted (Gooding, J. N., Swift, Schell, P. R. Swift & McCroskery,1990).

To help teachers address concerns of a mutual interest to them and to the research laboratory staff, we are developing a Teachers as Researchers Project in selected high schools in central New York. Our goal is to move from the linear model of research and development, with its "top down" approach, to a collaborative model that incorporates classroom teachers in all phases of research from problem definition to evaluation.

Our focus is on the quality of questioning and discussion in the classroom. We have invited teacher researchers to join with us on mutually designed studies on wait time, questioning skills, student and teacher attitudes, and a variety of related topics influencing effective teaching and learning. The science teachers involved in the Teachers as Researchers Project report that the opportunity to participate in the project reduces their sense of isolation and leave them exhilarated and motivated to teach science. Working on shared professional concerns is perceived as vital to their continuing growth as teachers.

The most direct implication for this project, as a facet in the improvement of teaching, is that teachers want and need professional development opportunities. They make sacrifices of time and energy in order to access programs where they are offered partnerships in research on classroom teaching. This approach, wherein the teacher researcher is creatively involved in the selection, design, implementation, analysis, and outcome assessment of research programs, is worthy of further study. We see this as a practical way to move research findings into professional practice.

by J. Nathan Swift, Professor Emeritus of Education, C. Thomas Gooding, Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Patricia R. Swift, Research Associate, State University of New York, Oswego, NY 13126


Education Associates.  (1973).  Handbook of Effective Questioning Techniques.  Worthington, OH: Author.

Gooding, J. N., Swift, Schell, P. R., Swift, & McCroskery, (1990).   Journal of Research in Science Teaching,,27, 789-802).

Swift, & Gooding.  (1983).  Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 20, 721-730.