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  • Writer's pictureDr. Allen

Ivy Teaching Tip: Skip the Lecture & Use Discussion as a Way of Teaching

#allenivyprep #collegeteaching #teachingmethods #lecturefreezone #adulted #adultlearning #highered #knowles #brookfield #keynote #chooseivy

The best-known adult learning theoretical framework comes from Malcolm Knowles. Knowles (1980) proposed a framework of adult learning, which he felt was different than pre-adult schooling. This theory became known as andragogy, which means the art and science of helping adults learn (Clapper, 2010). Knowles (1980) distinguished the assumptions of pedagogy from those of andragogy. From these assumptions, Knowles proposed a program planning model for designing, implementing, and evaluating educational experiences with adults (Merriam, 2001).

Knowles (1980) lists assumptions of andragogy, but I won’t list them here. Instead I’ll list three ideas connected to andragogy that guide my teaching philosophy:

1)    Adult learners should be treated like experts. In other words, as educators we recognize that we may not be the authority in the room on all topics discussed in class.

2)    Adult students learn best when the instructor utilizes experiential techniques such as: group discussion, case methods, and simulation exercises.

3)    Adult learners have been on this planet for a while and just for the sake of being here longer, they have accumulated a great deal of life experiences. Incorporate those life experiences in the classroom.

The way these three ideas of andragogy play out in my classroom is ultimately through discussion. I am inspired by Stephen Brookfield (2013). He explains how discussion can be used as a way of teaching adults. Anyone who has had the unfortunate luck of having a classroom near mine has been subjected to loud noises coming through the walls or making their way down the hallway. No, a fight has not broken out, well at least not a physical one. We are just talking about life. And talking about life is something adult learners are very passionate about doing. Therefore, I allow my students to talk about their lives as often as possible.

Benefits of Discussion as a Way of Teaching

The benefits of using discussion as a way of teaching are endless in my opinion, but here are just a few I’ve found:

Students stay awake. If there is lively and thoughtful discussion taking place then students may even put their cell phones away and pay attention.Students will remember what they’ve learned. They can read and read and read. And they can take a million practice quizzes, but nothing sticks in a student’s head like a funny or horrifying story someone tells in class and what’s even more helpful is if the student is the one who shared the story.Students can clearly connect their life experiences to what they are learning. A student reads a definition and looks blankly at the page trying to translate what they just read. BUT if a student is involved in a discussion, then they will remember that taste aversion relates to Chipotle. They ate Chipotle once and got E. coli, after that, every time they see a Chipotle restaurant they feel sick. Once the story is told and the definition is clear then everyone wants to know where that Chipotle is so as to avoid it and they want to share their personal examples of taste aversion.Students feel like experts. We all went to school for several years and have a ton of book knowledge, but is my reading about PTSD the same as a veteran who experiences it? Is my studying substance abuse the same as my student who is a recovering addict? Yes, I am still an expert in my classroom, but through the sharing of their life experiences adult students especially feel empowered and like they’re experts too. Students see you as human. I have found that the fact that I share my sometimes-embarrassing stories causes students to see me as down to earth. Many students feel like they can relate to me. And because they feel that way, they are more comfortable sharing their life experiences in the classroom.

How to Use Discussion as a Way of Teaching

In some courses, especially introductory courses, our students have to learn several definitions and theories. Here are two ways you can get away from the lecture and even the PowerPoint slides.

1)    Share a personal story as an example of a term or theory then ask students to share their thoughts, opinions, or similar experiences. And just so you know, I like to share a real wacky yet true story. The kind of story everyone will have an opinion about.

2)    Break students into small groups and give each group a discussion question to answer. The discussion question should require them to use their textbook, creativity, and personal opinions (sometimes I’ll allow them to research on their cell phones/laptops with parameters). Then when they have completed their questions, have each group present their question with responses then allow the larger group to comment. You can break up an entire chapter into several discussion questions and chime in to the discussion to clarify concepts when necessary.

If you choose to use discussion as a way of teaching, you may want to set some ground rules early on in the semester or possibly add some to your syllabus. I encourage honest, respectful, and open discussion. Some days the discussion may make you want to cry, while other days you will find yourself laughing even after the class has already ended. If only for one class session-- toss out the slides, skip the lecture, and just let your students talk about life.


Brookfield, S. D. (2013). Powerful techniques for teaching adults. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Clapper, T. C. (2010). Beyond Knowles: What those conducting simulation need to know about adult learning theory. Clinical Simulation in Nursing, 6(1), e7-e14. doi:10.1016/j.ecns.2009.07.003

Knowles, M. S. (1980). My farewell address…andragogy--No panacea, no ideology. Training & Development Journal, 34(8), 48. Retrieved from

Merriam, S. B. (2001). Andragogy and self-directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, (89), 3-14. doi:10.1002/ace.3

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