Leading Effective Class Discussions

Recommended Timeline

30 minutes - 1.5 hours prep time

A few days before a course session

In-class discussions are an important part of classes in many different disciplines, but leading good discussions is sometimes a challenge. This guide summarizes principles which can help make discussion time productive as well as engaging for students.

Contact us » Ready to get started, but need some help?

Suggestions

    1. When planning your course, set the tone for discussions by including information in your syllabus and initial class sessions on the role of discussions in your class, your expectations for student behavior, and evaluation (PDF) of the discussions. It is also helpful to note how students will benefit from the communications and participation skills in the class or later in their college career or professional work. Develop and distribute discussion guidelines to create a baseline for mutual respect and a civil tone. You can also see these tips on inclusive teaching and this guide on impactful teaching practices (PDF), both of which offer ways to make all students feel welcome and engaged.
    2. For each discussion session, have an overall learning objective (in other words – what do you want the students to know or be able to do, by the end of the class?) and keep that objective in mind as the class proceeds. This guide from the University of Washington has great suggestions for setting your plan for the class. Mentally review progress toward that objective periodically, and use opportunities presented by relevant student statements (or present your own statements) to steer discussion as necessary toward the outcomes you would like to see. To students, good discussions may appear to be free-flowing and to go where the student comments lead, but that should be due to subtle steering and guidance by the instructor.
    3. Not all students are comfortable speaking out in front of a whole class, as they might be asked to do during an in-class discussion. You can increase their comfort level by varying the types of activities you do during a “discussion” class, such as including paired discussions prior to whole-class discussions, asking students to write about their thoughts before sharing them with the class, or using a variety of active learning techniques to elicit student perspectives. In addition, online discussions can be used instead of or as a followup to in-class discussions to provide wonderful opportunities for less-talkative students to shine. This guide from the University of Oregon has a number of great ideas.
    4. Use techniques to track participation and actively solicit input from those who haven’t spoken much, while recognizing differences in student personalities and out-spokenness. Perhaps use tokens to represent opportunities to speak (everyone has an equal number), or pass an object that one has to hold to “have the floor.” Encourage quieter students by learning their names. Move your own position in the classroom periodically during class or from class session to class session, to avoid having more active students monopolize your attention.
    5. At the end of a discussion, take a few minutes to summarize (or have the students summarize) the key takeaways to make sure you and the students all recognized the same important points and made progress towards the intended learning objective. Highlight any followups and who will do them, and list ideas which will be brought to the next class.

    Additional Resources

    How to Lead a Class Discussion Rachel Seidman, Carleton College
    A guide for students who are asked to lead discussion in a class session, but with useful suggestions for faculty leading discussions as well.

    How to Lead a DiscussionStanford Teaching Commons
    Checklist and references for faculty wishing to lead discussions.

    Ideas for Great Class Discussions from Active Learning FellowsDuke Learning Innovation
    A wide range of ideas and activities suggested by Duke faculty to effectively prepare, lead, and assess class discussions and deal with common issues.

    Making the Most of Assigned ReadingsDuke Learning Innovation
    Best practices and ideas for discussion-based activities to more fully engage students by using readings in class.

Contact us » Ready to get started, but need some help?