How to snowball student discussions

Many students are reluctant to take part in discussions, especially when they’ve just started at university, or on a new course. Students may feel nervous about whether their opinions have values, or a group of students might have one person who takes over and dominates the conversation. To enable students to feel more confident about talking through ideas with their peers, you might ask them to form into pairs to answer a question. However, if students are solely working in pairs, it might mean that they’re not exposed to the full range of experiences and knowledge of the rest of the class. Snowballing is one technique which enables students to initially think about their own response to a question, then converse with just one other person, and then join together with other pairs to enable a wider discussion.

This is how you might run a snowballing activity:

  1. Give learners a task to do individually for one minute. For example:
    “What you think are the three most important points from the last section of the presentation?”, or
    “What two suggestions you would come up with to solve the problem presented?”, or
    “Suggest three responses you could make in the scenario I have just outlined.”
  2. Individuals form pairs and have two minutes to hear what each other has come up with and agree on their joint response.
  3. Pairs form groups of four and have three minutes to agree on their joint response.
  4. Fours form groups of eight and have three minutes to agree and appoint one person ready to announce what they have agreed as a group.
  5. At this point you may want to hear briefly from each group of eight and comment on or record their suggestions. In a sense, what you do at this point is less important than the previous stages because everyone in the group, however large the group is, has had to talk and be actively involved in the task.

Have you tried snowballing? How did it work for you? Have you got any other ideas for engaging students in discussions?


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