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Why Use Discussions?

Discussion is a teaching strategy that goes beyond the basic provision of knowledge characteristic of lectures. Discussions attempt to engage students with course material in such a way as to promote critical thinking and analysis. It moves students up in Bloom’s taxonomy from having some knowledge to being able to synthesize and evaluate it. Discussion helps students engage in groups and in collaborations. It provides them with practice in articulating their opinions and understandings of course material.

A survey of 246 students (Dallimore, Hertenstein, & Platt, 2016) revealed a number of ways students learn from discussion, including:

  • Being more fully engaged
  • Helping students retain and remember information
  • Confirmation of what students had already learned
  • Providing clarification of prior learning
  • Deepening students understanding

Discussions are more than conversations or dialogues. We don’t have to rely on magical chemistry arising from our students to engage in a discussion. Instead, we can carefully prepare ourselves and our students for a successful discussion.

Preparing for Discussions

Learning Objectives

Just as with any instructional strategy, it is important to begin planning for a discussion by working backwards from your overall learning objectives for the day. What knowledge or skills or attitudes do you want students to acquire or exercise in the day’s discussion? From that penultimate learning objective, think of several high level questions or issues to address that should lead to that learning objective. Continue working backwards, considering more basic knowledge that needs to be assessed before the higher level questions can be tackled.

Style of Discussion

Next, select a style of discussion you think would work well for your learning objectives. There are many different styles to choose from, for example in Brookfield & Preskill (2016). Different styles address different issues in creating discussions. It is important to use a variety of styles across the course so that students don’t become used to and tired of typical routines. See below for a sampling of different styles.

Creating Questions

Good discussions don’t just happen. We have to plan for them, carefully. A great deal of the success of a discussion rests on the quality of the questions we ask. Good questions go beyond simple statements of facts and require students to analyze, compare, evaluate, and engage in other high level thinking strategies. Major et al. (2016) suggest some of the types of questions that you could ask to include:

  • Exploratory questions that ask about basic facts, concepts or themes; these provide a sense of students’ basic preparation for higher level questions
  • Interrogation questions that ask about assumptions, conclusions, debates
  • Comparison questions that compare facts, concepts, or themes
  • Causal questions that ask about causes or motivations
  • Relational questions that ask about relationships among facts, concepts, or themes
  • Diagnostic questions that lead to a conclusion or plan of action
  • Cause-and-effect questions that ask for relationships among facts, concepts, or themes
  • Expansion questions look for extensions from facts, concepts or themes
  • Hypothetical questions look for expansions to new situations
  • Priority questions ask for analysis of the importance of facts, concepts, or themes
  • Summary questions ask for synthesis of ideas brought up in discussion

After we prepare our instructional plan, it is also important to prepare our students for participation in the discussion. Sometimes this may include having students prepare a reading before class. Additionally, giving students a Preparation Guide helps students improve their learning from the discussion. This may involve as much detail as giving the students the actual Discussion Questions beforehand.

You can set the mood for what you expect from discussions through what you do in your lectures. Do things in lecture to encourage discussion attributes. For example, you can teach your students that silence is an important part of discussions by modeling moments of silence and contemplation in your lectures. During discussions you should also model protocols so that students know you are doing what you are asking of them.

Comfort with the discussion and a sense of community within the class improves the level of student learning. Having students learn each other’s names, such as with name-tents, can increase community.

Initiating Discussions

Arrange the classroom. Consider the size of the groups that will be engaged and, if possible, move chairs around to encourage discussion. This is helpful, but not necessary. Classes in large, immovable chair lecture-halls can also engage in fruitful discussions if the style is chosen correctly.

You should also arrange yourself. Get away from the front of the room. Sit within the circle, or move to the back of the room so that students get the idea that they should be talking to each other, not to you. If a summary of the discussion should be kept on the board, have a student do the writing while you hang back.

You can also give the students a few minutes to gather their thoughts before you expect communication among them. This is especially helpful for shy or introverted students who need time to formulate their opinions or reactions.

Start with a question or statement that really provokes discussion. It should be something that students want to talk about and have different viewpoints on. There should be multiple ways to answer the question or address the statement. Sometimes playing the devil’s advocate can be provocative (Finn & Schrodt, 2016).

Maintaining the Discussion

Keep momentum going. Keep students energized and engaged. Encourage new questions and perspectives. Spur creativity. Increase genuine collaboration and teamwork.

Affirm students’ perspectives. Give feedback that acknowledges every student’s contributions. Demonstrate patience and positively encourage participation (Finn & Schrodt, 2016).

Equalize participation; have everyone participate; no one dominates by force of personality or eagerness to have the floor.

Students may need to be motivated to pay attention. Explicitly explain the positive results of a good discussion so that students see the value of it. You might train students in how to take notes during discussion. Having test items about the discussions can increase attention. A student can write the main points on the board during the discussion.

Handling Silence: wait it out or call on someone? Allow sufficient time for students to think before calling on someone; introverted students need to feel there is time to formulate their contributions. If students are allowed to think before joining a discussion they usually have at least one comment to add to the group. If no one seems ready to talk, ask someone to read aloud from the text. That can grease the wheels.

Keep the group focused on the topics. Bring tangents back to topic. Avoid trivia and avoidance of the issues. Discussions can go astray when they dissolve into excessive nitpicking, repetitions, private conversations, refusal to compromise and apathetic participation. When these things happen, bring in a fresh approach, such as a question with a different focus, or breaking into small-group discussions. Students appreciate an instructor organizing discussion without being overly controlling.

Encourage peer to peer interaction. When questions are raised, encourage students to answer the questions rather than doing it yourself. After a comment has been made, encourage other students to comment on it, rather than doing it yourself.

Cold call vs volunteers: research suggests that cold calling on students increases voluntary participation, comfort with discussion, and learning (Major et al., 2016). If everyone writes out their ideas before beginning, everyone will have something to say if they are called upon. It is also helpful to have an escape hatch, such as “I don’t have anything to say right now.”

Closing the Discussion

Create a summary of the discussion for the students. These can come from notes you’ve written during the discussion. You may use this to interject summary statements as the discussion continues, or wait until the end of the discussion to summarize. You can also have students provide the summaries as a way of improving attention during the discussion.

Be sure to provide corrections for anything that occurred in the discussion that was in error in some way. Students want to know that they leave the discussion with a correct interpretation of what they learned (Finn & Schrodt, 2016).

Provide an evaluation of the discussion for the students. Students don’t always see the benefits of discussion. This is an opportunity to explain how the discussion added to their course experience and their level of knowledge as a result of it.

Evaluating discussion participation: Grading participation improves learning (Major et al. 2016). Not grading leads to lack of investment in the discussion. If grading, it is good to have an explicit statement in the syllabus about course participation. It can also be good to practice discussion and expectations on the first day of class.

Discussion Styles


Students first take a few moments to consider the discussion prompt on their own. Next, students share in a dyad. After a bit, 2 dyads form a group of 4 who share together. After a bit, 2 groups of 4 become groups of 8 who share together. After that, a whole class discussion can ensue by asking a member of each group to share their progress. This is a good style for getting shy, introverted students to engage and for equalizing participation.

What If?

The discussion question relates to something from course content that had a definitive outcome. What if (this one variable) had happened? What effect would that have on the outcome? This style is good for taking students beyond critical thinking to creative thinking and analysis.


Half the students get in a circle. The other half forms a circle around the inner circle. The inner circle has a discussion while the outer circle somehow scores the inner circle (did they use eye contact? Did they encourage others to contribute? Did they acknowledge each other’s contributions?) Roles can then be reversed for second half of class.

In the News

Students bring in examples from the news that relate to course material, and these examples serve as fodder for discussion. This helps make sure students are prepared for the discussion.

Formal Argument

In teams, students take on opposite sides of an argument and engage in a debate discussion. When done in smaller groups, this helps shy, introverted students contribute.

Circle of Voices

Students raise their hands to address the discussion topic. Once the student is finished, he or she chooses another student to contribute. This style helps equalize participation.

Seeded Discussion

The instructor provides a series of questions ahead of time so that students have time to reflect and prepare for the questions before discussion. This deals with the problem of student preparedness.


Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussions as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2016). The discussion book: 50 great ways to get people talking. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dallimore, E. J., Hertenstein, J. H., & Platt, M. B. (2016). Creating a community of learning through classroom discussion: Student perceptions of the relationships among participation, learning, comfort and preparation. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching, 27(3), 137-171.

Finn, A. N., & Schrodt, P. (2016). Teacher discussion facilitation: A new measure and its associations with students’ perceived understanding, interest and engagement. Communication Education, 65, 445-462.

Major, C. H., Harris, M. S., & Zakrajsek, T. (2016). Teaching for learning: 101 intentionally designed educational activities to put students on the path to success. New York, NY: Routledge.

Nilson, L. B. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. 4th Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer, M. (2017). Facilitating discussion: Five factors that boost student engagement. Faculty Focus, July 27.

Structuring Discussion to Engage Students

Facilitating Discussion: Five Factors that Boost Student Engagement

Additional Resources

Crafting an Engaging Lecture – Inside Higher Ed.
Solutions to Improve Teaching and Learning – idea
How Learning Works - UC Berkeley
Leading Dynamic Discussions - University of Washington

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