Ideas for Great Class Discussions from Our Active Learning Fellows

Many courses are based on course discussions, where we want students to be engaged, to learn and to make connections.  A good course discussion is both a great learning experience and an exciting, energizing, and even fun course activity.

There are many techniques for making class discussions a more vital and exciting part of your course. The keys to success with discussions are preparing and motivating your students for class, setting expectations for discussion behavior, using activities to deepen and focus discussions, and assessing discussions to improve them over time.

Below is a list of ideas for preparing and running course discussions.  Perhaps one or more will make your good course discussions great.

Prepare students

  • Outline your expectations for discussions in the syllabus.
  • Tell students why discussions are a vital part of the class and how they can use these skills later.
  • Set a tone for conduct with discussion guidelines and reference them often in early class sessions.
  • Have students participate in forming discussion guidelines or “contract” to give them a stake in course conduct.
  • Prepare some questions and points to consider about the materials before the class session and share them with students.  Encourage students to your questions bring their own preparatory notes to class.
  • Build questions and prompts that require students to use what they learned in their readings, but also requires them to learn and apply something new.
  • Have students generate the questions prior to class and submit them (to you or to each other, where they gather and summarize the other students’ questions).

Facilitating discussions

  • Start with an active learning activity to get students thinking about the topic.
  • Have students brainstorm topics and questions based on their pre-class notes to frame the discussion outline.
  • Move around the room and watch the dynamics between students during the discussions.  Monitor who is and isn’t speaking and encourage everyone to participate.
  • Ask open-ended, difficult questions to prompt deeper discussion.
  • Use humor, drama, or controversy to engage students with the discussion.
  • Counter groupthink by adopting opposing viewpoints.
  • Break down or rephrase questions back to the students to create deeper dialogue.
  • Encourage students to talk to each other, rather than directing comments to the instructor.
  • Require students to connect their comments to the larger ideas as the discussion progresses to keep the discussion on track.
  • Break students into smaller groups to consider some questions and have all the groups report out to the larger class.
  • Use a different assigned notetaker in each class session to track the discussion and provide reference notes for the class.
  • Use bulleted guideposts and timed reminders to keep on track during the class.
  • Pause to have students write down new questions they have that were prompted by the discussion so far.
  • Have students role play to understand other points of view.
  • Since students may be a different levels in the class, consider the expertise level of students when responding and prompting the discussions.

Assessing discussions

  • Have handouts or slides of key concepts you want to see used in discussions.  Have students turn in notecards with ideas about these concepts brought up during the discussions.
  • Use a short writing assignment after the discussion to see if students achieved your goals for the class session.
  • Have students prepare a longer writing assignment, such as a blog post, after the class session where they explore new ideas prompted by the discussion and connect key ideas to larger topics in the course.
  • Have students fill out a short self-evaluation at the end of the class session to think about their own behaviors during and contributions to the discussions.
  • Make discussion participation part of your grade.  For example, you might give a point for showing up, more points for participating, and bonus points for particularly helpful or profound contributions.
  • If appropriate for the demographics of your class, make the discussion session more competitive.  For example, you might give points to students or teams of students that have their questions chosen by the class for discussion during the session.
  • Review comments and feedback from class sessions to refine and improve your techniques for discussions.

Quiet students

During class discussions, you may find that some students are particularly quiet during class discussions.  There may be many personal reasons for this – students might have anxiety about public speaking, need more time to gather their thoughts during discussions, or may have other factors that influence their preparation for the class sessions.

  • Suggest help and campus resources for students experiencing anxiety about speaking in public.
  • Include activities that give students time to gather his/her thoughts before having to speak and respond.
  • Help students gain confidence by having initial discussions in small groups.
  • Clearly communicate to students what will be discussed next in class so they can prepare.
  • Suggest help and resources for unprepared students on time management

Confrontational discussions

Some class discussions may wind up being confrontational or make you and the students feel uneasy.  Keep in mind that individual students may have different perspectives and perceptions of what is said or intentions behind remarks in class or be unaware how their remarks might be offensive or unhelpful to the discussions.

Encouraging all students in the class to talk with you during office hours about how they feel about the class discussions can be helpful to begin solving these problems.

  • Encourage students who feel they being “forced” to speak out to say they don’t have an opinion and why neither side convinces them.
  • If students appear frustrated, or as though they are not able to participate well, have them meet with you to discuss strategies for participation, which may include  preparing differently and/or writing a brief reflection after the discussion.
  • Examine the class culture and what you can do to encourage guidelines for respect.
  • Conduct an anonymous survey for feedback on how the students feel about the discussions and offer their suggestions.
  • Remind students that communication and participation skills practiced in the discussion will be useful in other classes and, perhaps more importantly, in their future career.
  • Reach out to diversity units on campus for ideas on improving difficult conversations about controversial subjects and dealing with direct racism, homophobia, or bigotry or “microaggressions” in class sessions.

The ideas for class discussions in this post were generated by  Duke Learning Innovation’s 2018 Active Learning Fellows.  The Fellows are participating in a series of Summer Roundtables.  These sessions, with topics chosen by the faculty Fellows, follow-up on issues and interests they expressed during our Kick-Off Week.  The ideas in the post were generated in our Summer Roundtable on creating great class discussions held on June 6th through a focused listing exercise and two unfolding case studies.