A panel discussion is one of several approaches to teaching about specific subject. Other methods include lectures, group discussions, media presentations, including slides and films, and role playing. Each method has distinct advantages and disadvantages depending on the subject matter, the size and composition of the audience or class and the resources available.

Planning a Panel

Panels are usually made up of people with extensive knowledge of a particular subject. Typically, they are organized so each panelist has a set amount of time to make introductory remarks, followed by a question-and-answer session. A moderator is responsible for introducing the panelists and controlling the process by keeping track of the time allotted while assuring an orderly discussion. Panels are not easy to organize. Finding suitable experts and bringing them to the venue can involve a great deal of logistical coordination that includes making arrangements for travel and lodging. Often participants are paid a small fee or "honoraria" for their participation.

Multiple Viewpoints

Panel discussions often present audience members with variant points of view on the topic selected. If the audience members are well-versed in the subject, they can weigh the merits of each perspective offered. As such, a diversity of opinion is an advantage. However, If the audience includes people unfamiliar with the subject -- an introductory college course, for example -- the panel discussion may present information beyond their grasp. They may come away from the discussion feeling more confused than informed.

Panel Dynamics

When participants are knowledgeable and engaging, the panel discussion is an effective way to expose an audience to complex subject matter. Still, the risk associated with a lively session is that one personality may dominate the discussion. Also, every expert is not necessarily an effective speaker. Someone who has the most insight on a topic may find himself being overshadowed by a panel member who is charming and humorous, even if that panel member has questionable views.

Diverse Views Draw Diverse Audiences

If the objective is public education, a panel offering divergent points of view can be advantageous. If the topic is foreign military intervention, for example, it is a good idea to have one panelist who believes such a course of action is never appropriate, another panel member who supports intervention only in limited circumstances, and a member who is more hawkish on the issue. As a result, audience members are likely to feel the panel has someone who represents their point of view on the topic.