Class discussions can motivate students while also helping them retain knowledge and develop effective problem-solving abilities. This page offers resources and strategies for facilitating productive discussions in face-to-face classrooms and online discussion boards.
Teaching Without a Net: Effective Use of Discussions
Classroom Discussion as a Skill, Not a Technique
In January 2010, Jane Baxter (Anthropology) and Ruth Ter Bush (Computing and Digital Media) presented a Teaching Commons workshop titled "Classroom Discussion as a Skill, Not a Technique."
In this workshop, Jane Baxter presented a case for students to understand discussion as a skill that must be learned like any other. Jane added that good class discussions often start with the instructor communicating the purpose of discussion and what constitutes a valuable addition to a discussion. Jane does this early in the quarter by communicating tips and standards for discussion (as seen in slides 7-18 of her presentation) and in her handout “Standards for Discussion,” which she also gives to students.
Ruth Ter Bush added considerations and ideas for creating engaging discussions in a multicultural group (slides).
Getting Students to Participate
Jane Baxter recommends a few tips for getting students to participate in discussion:
- Make it clear from the first day that participation from all students is expected. (This could be done in the syllabus or verbally in class.)
- Next, make participation in discussion a part of the students’ grade.
explain to students that discussion is a skill that will be useful in
their careers, and that learning it now will serve them well into the
In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (1999), McKeachie
offers some reasons why students don’t participate, “boredom, lack of
knowledge, general habits of passivity, cultural norms-but most
compelling is a fear of being embarrassed” (p. 54). McKeachie offers the
following tips for alleviating this fear:
- Help students get acquainted with one another.
- Create an inclusive and welcoming classroom environment.
- Give students time to write down an answer before opening up discussion to the whole class.
- Call students by name.
- Ask questions that have no clear wrong answer.
- Have students respond to a discussion prompt before the class begins.
- Arrange the room so that students are sitting in a circle.
- Get to know non-participants so that it is easier to understand why they are not participating. (p. 55)
Asking Good Questions
- In general, we should engage our students with discussion questions that are higher on bloom's taxonomy (e.g., application, analysis, synthesis). This will help students organize their thoughts and formulate well supported arguments rather than merely recite facts, figures, or phrases.
- In The Socratic method: What is it and how to use it in the classroom, Stanford University's Center for Teaching and Learning Newsletter (Fall 2003) focuses on articulating the usefulness of the Socratic method, a question-based way of structuring class discussion.
- Linda Nilson (2003) suggests creating questions by working backward from course objectives. To do this, think of a few key points that students should know by the end of a class. Then write a discussion question that address each of those key points. Finally, write a few questions that will guide students towards answering those bigger/more involved/challenging questions (p. 114).
Brookfield, S.D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for a Democratic Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
"Effective Classroom Discussions." The IDEA Center's Paper No. 49 offers detailed recommendations on how to improve classroom discussions.
"Leading Dynamic Discussions." University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning.
"Leading Effective Classroom Discussions on Controversial Issues." ProfHacker Blog, Chronicle of Higher Education.
Knight, C. Teaching Critical Thinking Through Online Discussions. EDUCAUSE Quarterly 4, 38-41.
McKeachie, W. (1999). McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (10th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Nilson, L. (2003). "Leading Effective Discussions." Chapter in Teaching at its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. Second Edition. Bolton, MA. (Available for loan from the Office for Teaching, Learning and Assessment)
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.
"Ten Strategies for Effective Discussion Leading." Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University.