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:

  1. Knowing the names of your students and guiding an activity that lets students practice each other’s names. One easy way to do this is to have students play an ice-breaker game the first day. 
  2. Modeling the way you want listening and talking to occur in your classroom. You can do this by:
    1. Being warm, inviting and enthusiastic about the subject you teach 
    2. Showing students what to do when they do not know the answer or they get an answer wrong (e.g. ask a peer, consult the text) 
    3. Providing an opportunity for students to work together on the first day of class with a low-stakes activity that invites them to discuss course material or a related topic 
  3. Being explicit on your goals for interaction. How are students being assessed and what do you value in their responses and work with one another? 
  4. Describing and discussing what respectful dialog looks like and does not look like and then model those expectations as the instructor. 
  5. Moving around the room during discussion by listening in on small group discussions, and noting times when you hear a particularly compelling remark. 
  6. Encouraging students to bring a piece of themselves into discussion by providing opportunities to connect class concepts and texts. For example, you could ask students to bring in a song, movie clip or short personal anecdote that illustrates a class concept. In return, share a piece of yourself by providing short anecdotes that relate to the course. 

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: 

  1. Have them read, think and write before coming to class. Here are some general questions from Esther B. Schupak (2019) to get you started:
    1. “From the reading assignment, quote a sentence or paragraph that you particularly liked or disliked. Respond to it.”
    2. “Did anything about the reading assignment or class material confuse you or make you think further? Explain.”
    3. “Did you enjoy the reading? Did you learn from it? Why or why not?”
    4. “Can you compare or contrast the piece to something else we have read for the course or that you have read on your own?
    5. “Does the reading help you to understand some aspect of [the course material] in a new way? Explain.”
  2. Start the class by establishing what you are going to talk about and summarizing key points of the text. This is a great low-stakes way for everyone to get involved right at the beginning. 
    1. The “twice around” is a technique you can use to create a low stakes mode of discussion. In large or small groups, have each student make one remark about the reading/class content or pose a question. Write these ideas and questions on the board. Then go back around the circle and have students comment on the questions, content and themes and build off of each other’s comments (Andersen, 2013). 
  3. Read excerpts from class texts out loud and do a think aloud. This helps students hear how you as the instructor read and think about the text. Then, read aloud another passage and have students discuss. 
  4. Start by having a silent discussion by posting quotes around the room and having students respond to them in writing. 
  5. Students can also have a silent discussion online in the classroom or outside of the classroom. The online forum can create another space for quieter students to engage. 
  6. Have students write a letter to the authors you are reading and share it with their peers at the beginning of class. 
  7. Start with a narrative that helps students to see and understand the concepts as they are presented in class texts or lectures. Narratives can often help to get students more comfortable and willing to talk about material that can seem dense. 

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:

  1. Have students write a weekly reflection on what they learned from their peers. This reflective process helps students to focus on listening along with talking. 
  2. Have small groups share out on what the whole group said or, if students are discussing in pairs, have them share what the other student said
  3. Have students respond to each other’s writing first 
  4. Have student groups create a shared document that details the points made in discussion. Then, have them describe the themes and ideas that arose from their communal comments. 

General “Discussion Dos” from Roehling et. al., 2010:

  • Do give students a chance to write or think about their thoughts before they are expected to respond
  • Reward listening along with talking 
  • Be open to discussion going in different directions within reason
  • Allow for wait time and silence in the classroom 

General “Discussion Don’ts” from Roehling et. al., 2010: 

  • Let a student feel isolated or unsupported 
  • Argue with a student 
  • Create an atmosphere where the only right answer comes from the instructor 


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.