Talk amongst yourselves: critical thinking in group discussions

Meditation exercises often use the idea of a ‘happy place’ as a tool for reflection. My professional happy place: a group discussion among my students that ‘hums’. Students are engaged, challenging each other, using examples and having fun while they do it.

Adversely, for many educators a stalled group discussion is a nightmare. No matter how much you prompt and encourage, it remains stuck. Many teachers feel this is even harder to navigate online. At least in real life you could do a lap around the room. In an online classroom you are stuck in your chair watching a discussion suffer!

As intuitive educators we know good collaboration when we see it and we certainly know unproductive collaboration when we see (and feel!) it. But explaining and specifying the difference – and therefore assessing this crucial skill – is much harder.

There are studies that identify and quantify critical thinking in collaboration (De Wever, Schellens, Valcke, & Van Keer, 2006; Newman, Webb, & Cochrane, 1995; Pena-Schaff & Nicholls, 2004; Weinberger & Fischer, 2006). These studies, however, are not easy to apply in situ as they were not intended as a how-to but rather to start the conversation on making critical thinking visible. Subsequent work, my own Ph.D. included, have explored and applied these principles to make them more accessible and applicable to teachers (Barron, 2003; le Roux, 2019).

Before we get into it, just a quick note pertaining to the online learning environment that is our current normal: all the principles I refer to have been proven to apply in face-to-face, synchronous online as well as asynchronous online discussions. Here are my key takeaways from many teaching hours and a thesis on the topic:

The burger bun is important for holding things together!

Creating connectedness is the one competency to rule them all when it comes to collaborative problem-solving and decision-making. Connectedness is the bun that keeps the burger together. You can have the best ingredients in the world but without a solid bun, things will get messy. Students from non-English speaking backgrounds often over prepare for their group discussions to the point where they are reading from a script – with no regard for the contributions of their group members. The problem is that once everyone has delivered their monologue the discussion often stalls because students find it hard to refer to ideas from the initial monologues. Cue awkward silence.

Productive group discussions have many characteristics. The six I discuss below can be seen as a starter pack. When students display these conversational acts, or when educators can facilitate them, you are well on your way to the group discussion happy place!


Comparing concepts requires students to apply critical thinking using a few different steps. The group must identify comparable concepts (such as business strategies, ethical frameworks or stakeholders), decide on criteria to evaluate the concepts and then apply the selected criteria. This process leads to deep learning because it enables and encourages different perspectives.

Examples or analogies

When an unfamiliar or complex idea is introduced into the discussion, the use of an example or an analogy can help the group to collectively make sense of the idea. For example, if transformational leadership is being discussed as a theoretical concept, mentioning an individual who displays the characteristics can clarify the concept and create a shared understanding amongst group members.


The words “what if” can rescue almost any group discussion that is on life support. Asking students to forecast the results of a decision or the outcome of an event is a powerful way to stimulate critical thinking. As forecasts by definition deal in hypotheticals, students often find engaging in forecasting and “what if” analysis less threatening than other types of analysis where a right or wrong answer might exist.

Justification and probing

Encourage students to use the words “why” and “because” frequently. Asking for and providing justifications for ideas and contributions leads to higher levels of connectedness and deeper critical thinking. In discussions around ethics, having to provide a justification for one’s opinion has also been shown to expose biases and increase self-awareness (Goldberg, Schwarz, & Porat, 2011).

Problem identification

Many of the learning activities we ask our students to engage in focus on solving a problem. However, group discussions often become undone because the problem itself – the causes, effects, and stakeholders – are not clearly understood or outlined. Groups that spend more time on framing the problem demonstrate better problem-solving skills.

Respectful disagreement

Exploring conflicting opinions and ideas allow the students to extract the best of both ideas.

If connectedness is the burger bun, then respectful disagreement is the patty! Ideas are productively challenged through respectful disagreement. It allows for a level of critical thinking that is hard to achieve through any of the other strategies and tools outlined so far (Schwarz, 2018; Schwarz & Baker, 2017). Challenging the ideas or contributions of others requires a thorough understanding of their contribution to the discussion. Engaging in respectful disagreement increases the time groups spent on negotiating. But it also increases the overall quality of problem solving and the learning gains – for both the challengers and those being asked to justify or defend their positions.

Knowing what constitutes a productive discussion has many applications for us as learning designers and educators. It can help us design more robust assessment rubrics and give more detailed feedback. It can equip us to intervene on the spot when a group is struggling with their discussion. It can also enable us to make critical thinking visible to our students and provide them with practical ways to structure their group discussions.

So, next time a group discussion makes you feel less than happy, encourage your students to try one of these strategies for critical thinking and see if they can make your classroom or cloudroom a happier place!

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Sanri le Roux joined The University of Sydney Business School in 2012. She has more than a decade of experience in designing and delivering courses in higher education. Sanri is especially interested in the use of technology to support pedagogy and supporting her students in learning complicated concepts such as ethics and leadership.

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