Having students discuss class material and concepts is an excellent way to engage them in their learning and create an active learning space (Howard, 2015). However, setting up class discussions is often more difficult than simply posing a question to the class (Frederick, 1982). This resource looks at ways to get class discussion going.
Setting up the Scene:
The first aspect of discussion that you will want to consider is how you want the classroom arranged. Do you want small groups, one large group, circles, pods, pairs? Each formation allows for students to interact in different ways. The research suggests that small, thoughtfully formed groups are often favored over one large group (Howard, 2015). Once you choose your group formation, encourage students to get into their groups before class begins so that you can start on time. If possible, get to class early to set up your preferred discussion arrangement. Be willing to change up the group formations if discussion seems to stall.
Setting up a Community for Discussion:
Creating student-centered, compelling discussions takes time and requires students to get to know one another and form trusting relationships. As the instructor, you can start to form this learning community by:
Getting Discussion Going:
The best discussions are based on rich questions that do not have a yes or no answer. Use a taxonomy to create questions that encourage students to move to higher order thinking. You can also try these strategies:
Encouraging students to listen and respond to one another:
Students have the tendency to think that the instructor is the one with the knowledge and often see class discussions as a way to prove to the instructor that they understand the material. This results in students not wanting to listen to one another or competing for the instructor’s attention (Tompkins, 1996). It also creates an environment where quieter students do not feel as comfortable participating (Schupak, 2019). Beyond explicating your values on listening and talking early on, as the instructor you may also want to use different strategies to ensure that students are listening to each other. Here are a few that may help:
General “Discussion Dos” from Roehling et. al., 2010:
General “Discussion Don’ts” from Roehling et. al., 2010:
Andersen, K. (2013). Discussion Technique: The Twice-Around. College Teaching, 61: 83.
Frederick, P. (1982). The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start. To Improve the Academy, 10. 205-215.
Gravett, E. (2018). Note-taking During Discussion: Using a Weekly Reflection Assignment to Motivate Students to Learn from Their Peers, College Teaching, 66:2, 75-83.
Henning, J.E. (2005). Leading Discussions: Opening Up The Conversation, College Teaching, 53:3, 90-94.
Howard, J.R. (2015). Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Medaille, A., Usinger, J. (2019). Engaging Quiet Students in the College Classroom, College Teaching, 67:2, 130-137.
Roehling, P.V., Vander Kooi, T.L., Dykema, S., Quisenberry, B., Vandlen, C. (2010). Engaging the Millennial Generation in Class Discussions, College Teaching, 59:1, 1-6.
Schupak, E.B. (2019). Listening Rhetoric in the Diverse Classroom: Suggestions for Praxis, College Teaching, 67:3, 196-204.