Discussion and Learning Skills in an Introductory Course

By Bernstein, James M. | The Journalism Educator, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Discussion and Learning Skills in an Introductory Course


Bernstein, James M., The Journalism Educator


Conventional wisdom suggests that class size and the effectiveness of teaching techniques (for example, discussion vs. lecture) are connected.(1) What emerges from the impressions of this relationship is (a) a belief that discussion is more effective for student learning than lecturing, (b) most discussion components occur in courses with small class size, therefore (c) small classes are more effective than large ones.

In fact, the research suggests outcomes that in many cases contradict conventional wisdom. For example, a large number of studies that compare the two techniques have shown lecture classes to be superior or equal to discussion methods in transmitting information to students.(2) Likewise, about half the studies that compare large-class effectiveness with small class effectiveness find large classes at least as effective as small classes, particularly for learning factual information.(3) Still, in terms of developing critical-thinking skills and problem-solving abilities, discussion methods tend to be more effective. Because discussion techniques occur more often in small-size classes than large-size, small classes are considered more effective than large ones.(4) Ultimately, however, the interaction of class size and method occurs only when discussion methods occur.

But the fact is that in many institutions economic exigencies require increasing numbers of large classes at the expense of small classes. This "educational efficiency"(6) allows more students to come through the pipeline, but at what cost to learning? If in theory, and in reality, more learning--problem-solving and critical thinking skills--occurs when discussion takes place but the small-class settings that facilitate learning through discussion are impractical, what would happen when discussion techniques are introduced in a large lecture class?

One would expect some difficulties in implementing discussion in a large lecture class: Few members of a large class could participate at any given time and the existence of a large audience can no doubt inhibit even the most experienced person from speaking, let alone college students experiencing large lecture classes for the first time. On the other hand, the large lecture class would have at its disposal greater knowledge, experience, and skills than would the small group.(7) And discussion techniques could offset the typical feeling of anonymity that occurs in large lecture classes by allowing students to interact, not only with the instructor, but with other students.

This study tested the effectiveness of discussion techniques in a large introductory lecture class in mass communication. It attempts to determine the impact of a course component called an " expert panel" on students' comfort with learning and the development of skills needed to learn.

The study borrows from two theoretical frameworks: communication apprehension and information processing. In the following sections, the article will discuss relevant concepts and principles from each area. An explanation of the expert panel and the study design follow.

Information processing

Information-processing literature suggests that one of the ways to produce learning is to move information between one's working memory(8) and long-term memory. As information moves, pathways develop and strengthen between the working memory and long-term memory, a process which facilitates learning. Over time, learning can increase when individuals have opportunities to rehearse the information in the working memory--either for its own sake or within the context of other ideas--and store the information in their long-term memories for later retrieval.(9)

A simple example would be memorizing a telephone number. The number would be in working memory as we make a call, but our ability to activate the information would lessen and the chances of the number remaining in our working memory would decrease once we had completed the call.

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