Leading Discussions

By engaging students in discussion, instructors can help them think about the subject matter in previously unexplored ways, learn to evaluate their own and others' perspectives, articulate what they've learned or what needs to be clarified, and even provide motivation to study the topic further (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2014). The following are some suggestions for effective class discussions:

Create a classroom environment that is conducive to discussions.

Students will participate more readily if they feel accepted by other students and experience a sense of belonging in the class (McGlynn, 2001). You can facilitate this by greeting students each day, helping students get to know each other by doing an icebreaker activity early in the semester, learning your students' names, and calling on them in positive ways. If possible, be available to talk with them before and after class.

Be prepared with a variety of discussion starters in case interaction stalls.

Here are some you may want to try (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2014):

  • Start with a common experience, something all your students can relate to. You can use a demonstration, a film clip, a cartoon, a story or anecdote, a personal experience, or an excerpt from a reading that has been assigned.
  • Start with a controversy; choose an issue that fits with the material you are teaching. Try to use a controversy that will elicit discussion from both viewpoints; when everyone agrees on one position, there is little room for discussion.
  • Open with a question; this is probably the most common technique, but to be effective it needs careful planning.

Keep your discussion moving by using good questioning strategies.

Here are some to consider:
  • Write out key questions before class (often called scripting) that you are going to ask students so that the inquiries are not vague. Prepare effective questions by using Bloom's Taxonomy as a framework. Be prepared to repeat and/or rephrase them. It might be useful to ask yourself, “What kinds of responses am I likely to get from this question?”
  • Be prepared to break your question down into more simple questions in the event that students do not answer the first time. This way you can frequently “bring the students back up” to the complex question you originally asked. It also helps you to build a contextual framework for the students so they can better understand your questions.
  • Incorporate silent (or wait) time to allow students to think about their response. Typically, three to five seconds is sufficient; more complex questions may need a longer time. Interaction increases significantly when students have silent time to formulate an answer.
  • Have a plan to incorporate the nonparticipants; there will always be students who tend to be passive during a discussion. This may be due to boredom, lack of preparation, general habits of passivity, cultural norms, or a fear of being embarrassed in front of their peers (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2014). You can help students become participants by establishing an expectation of participation during the first class meeting and creating an atmosphere of familiarity and acceptance. One technique to encourage participation is to use sub-groups: let students discuss a question in pairs or small groups. They often feel freer to answer a question if they know others share their view.
  • Have students write out an answer to a problem or question. Give them a set time to respond (one to two minutes is usually enough). This technique takes three important learning principles into account: it forces a wait time on your part; it gives the students time to think; and as a result, they feel more comfortable sharing an answer.
  • Become aware of and monitor your facial and body gestures as you ask and answer questions. Nonverbal gestures such as establishing eye contact, listening attentively, smiling, nodding approval, and moving around the room (toward students with whom you want to interact) help you appear more approachable and inviting.
  • Find a reasonable way to disagree and correct students so that you do not alienate them. Students often do not understand cynicism or irony. It may appear that you are having a joke at their expense. By developing a way of asking and answering questions that is encouraging and respectful, you establish a safe environment which is essential for interaction.
  • Provide effective feedback and acknowledge student contributions by highlighting comments that are helpful or insightful.

Be prepared to cut off a discussion if it goes too long or gets off track.

At the same time, don't be afraid to let your students go off topic if you feel it is a “teaching moment.” Use good transitions to bring the discussion back on course.

Expect that some students will not have read the assignment.

Plan out a way to prevent this common situation from becoming a problem. Some strategies include:

  • Giving students questions at the end of one class period and asking them to look for answers in the reading for the next class.
  • Having students read the material and write one or two questions about it (perhaps something they would like clarified). These can be turned in at the beginning of the next class.
  • Using the one-minute paper technique at the beginning of class. Have students write or summarize (in one or two minutes) the main point of the reading, or what one or two points struck them the most.
  • Starting the class with a story, anecdote, or general question that is relevant to and interesting to all students. Then you can segue into the reading or material to be covered in class.

A final word about discussions: With lecturing, you are in full control—you know where you are going and just how much you can cover in the time allowed. But with discussions, you are on less solid ground. This lack of control may make you anxious at first, but with practice you can learn to relax, feel comfortable with your ability to guide the discussion, and enjoy the challenges and opportunities this type of class provides. While you may not cover as much material as one could in a lecture-based class, the organic nature of a discussion can be a powerful learning experience for your students.

Where can I learn more?


  • Davis, B.G. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Frederick, P. (1981). The dreaded discussion: ten ways to start. Improving College and
    University Teaching, 29 (3), 109-114
  • McGlynn, A.P. (2001). Successful beginnings for college teaching. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.
  • McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M. (2014). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.