Teaching Commons > Teaching Guides > Instructional Methods > Facilitating Discussions

Facilitating Discussions

​If you’ve been teaching for any amount of time, you’ve probably encountered a stalled or failed attempt to get students to participate in a class discussion. There are a number of reasons why this happens. Students may come to class unprepared, or you may be too focused on where you want the discussion to go rather than listening and responding to what your students are saying. Perhaps students are participating—but it is the same three students every time.

Setting Expectations

Set Expectations
  • Explain why you are using discussions versus another method of engagement. Be explicit about your goals (and hopes) for class discussions.
  • Tell students how you expect they will prepare for discussions. Consider asking students to prepare beforehand by drafting 2-3 questions or written responses to questions shared beforehand. 
  • Establish ground rules for how discussions should proceed. This is especially important when facilitating difficult discussions

Getting Started

  • Get students to talk to one another from day one. Use icebreakers on the first day of class to help them begin feeling comfortable talking to their peers (and you).
  • Use open-ended questions and don’t be afraid to follow up with “Why?” or “Tell me more about that” if a student’s first attempt at responding could be developed further.
  • Remember to wait for students to have a sufficient amount of time to consider your questions. Ask students to take a minute to write down their thoughts before sharing.
  • Role model civility by demonstrating how you can disagree with someone without disparaging them. Refer to the ground rules you’ve established with students if and when things get heated.

Encourage Students to Talk to One Another

  • Encourage and empower students to respond to one another and not just you as the instructor. Redirect questions addressed solely to you as an authority back to the larger group as appropriate.
  • Enlarge questions to include all students. For example, if you ask a question, or present an opposing viewpoint to one student, open the discussion to the whole group with questions like: “What do you all think of that?” Doing this can help to mitigate student concerns that there is only one correct response.
  • Consider using name tents or mini-icebreakers before each discussion in the first few class sessions so students can confidently refer to one another by name.

Consider Small Groups

  • It can feel less risky for students to share answers or opinions in smaller groups. Divide students into groups and allow time for them to discuss before joining back to the larger group.
  • Assign student leaders for class sessions or modules that involve discussion. Require leaders to share discussion questions in advance of their sessions and have the rest of the class submit written responses to them. 

Face-to-Face Strategies

  • Socratic questioning: Named after the Athenian philosopher Socrates, this approach to discussion asks probing questions and can be useful to examine the depth of thinking by your students. It can also be a powerful method of inquiry that students can adopt themselves. Entire books have been written on this approach (such as Paul & Elder, 2007), but in general the modes of questioning revolve around analyzing thoughts and systems of thinking. 
  • Use a classroom or audience response system such as Poll Everywhere to solicit and share answers to questions that you pose in real time. This approach can be particularly effective in larger classes.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Pose a question or present a problem, then give students 1-5 minutes to think through (or write down) their response. Next, have students turn to a partner and discuss their ideas. Finally, ask students to share what came up in their pair discussions in a whole class discussion.
  • Jigsaw: Break students into small groups. Each group is tasked with solving some aspect of one problem or prompt. After working it out, each group takes turns explaining their piece of the puzzle. 
  • Four Quadrants: Have students get up and out of their seats with this discussion starter strategy. Hang large sticky posters with values ascribed to them, such as a Likert scale responses (strongly agree, agree, etc.) or frequency responses (always, sometimes, etc.), in the four quadrants of the classroom. Then ask students to move to the different quadrants based upon their responses to your questions. You can use their movements to ask probing or clarifying questions.

Online Strategies

  • Revisit the number of discussion forums in your course, with a focus on quality over quantity. Consider the purpose of each forum and whether a forum is the best means of engaging students versus other types of activities such as blogs.
  • Require students to publish their responses first, hiding other students’ responses until they do so. This helps spur original thinking and writing while reducing the temptation to plagiarize.
  • Require students to publish an initial post a few days before a forum’s deadline, in order to encourage the likelihood of conversations beginning prior to just before the deadline.  
  • Ask students to answer questions or respond to posts that have not been addressed yet, even if those questions/posts do not correspond to their preferred topic (this can encourage earlier participation as well).
  • Don’t feel like you need to respond to every single thread; be strategic by replying to threads that do not have any replies or by helping students to identify connections between their threads. 
  • Encourage students to change the subject or title of the post when replying. This makes it easier for everyone to scan the discussion and see where their ideas might fit. 
  • Ask students to compose in or link to other media and formats. For example, students may submit short videos, audio recordings, or narrated PowerPoints. Or they may bolster their arguments by embedding images or videos in their responses. You might ask students to critique one another’s work in the subsequent week. 
  • Consider using Voicethread as a multimedia-rich platform that enables asynchronous discussions.
  • At the end of the discussion, summarize for students or highlight a few key takeaways or lingering questions.

Assessing Discussions

General Strategies

  • Define what a good discussion looks like. You might even do this with your students. Then create a checklist or rubric that maps out the elements of a good discussion and share with your students. You can refer to this rubric if and when things go off track.
  • Assign midterm discussion grades that communicates to students how they are doing in this area. Or you might ask students to assign themselves grades based on criteria you’ve established and shared in advance.

Face-to-Face Strategies

  • Take note of who is participating and who is not participating in class discussions. Avoid only looking at the students who are talking and limit excessive talkers’ contributions. Actively solicit input from quieter students.
  • Reserve five minutes at the end of class and ask students to evaluate the effectiveness of the discussion in small groups or in a free write. You can collect written responses as “exit tickets” when students leave the classroom. 

Online Strategies

  • Provide meaningful, timely feedback: Don’t reply or grade every post. Pick out exemplars, offer private and public appreciation.
  • Provide video recaps or written summaries of patterns in the discussion worthy of attention, and give praise to exemplars.
  • Focus on quality over quantity: Reduce the number of discussions; use smaller groups instead of larger ones; ask them ahead of time about format/timelines.

Further Resources

References

Brookfield, S.D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for a Democratic Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cashin, W. (2011). “Effective Classroom Discussions.” IDEA Paper #49. 

Nilson, L. (2003). "Leading Effective Discussions." Chapter in Teaching at its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. Second Edition. Bolton, MA. 

Paul, R. and Elder, L. (2007). The Thinker’s Guide to Socratic Questioning. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Rotenberg, R. (2005). "The Discussion Classroom." Chapter in The Art and Craft of College Teaching: A Guide for New Professors and Graduate Students. Walnut Creek, CA.

Stella, J. and Corry, M. (2016). “Intervention in Online Writing Instruction: An Action-theoretical Perspective.” Computers and Composition, 40, 164-174.

Svinicki, M. D. and McKeachie, W. J. (2014). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Svoboda, T. (2019). “Stop giving me busy work!” Presentation at Wisconsin Distance Learning Conference. Madison, WI.

Online Discussions

Learn how to use D2L's Discussions tool to facilitate online, asynchronous conversations.

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