“Discussions in class are always relevant to the exams.”
“The instructor creates a comfortable class atmosphere.”
“She’s inclusive and accepts all answers; there aren’t wrong answers. Makes a comfortable atmosphere/environment.”
Based on these comments, you can see that instructors who facilitate discussion well are those who set clear expectations, value student contributions, relate the purpose of the discussion to graded assessments or other work in class, and create a comfortable atmosphere in which students are willing to participate.
Many instructors love the spontaneity and energy of a good class discussion. Occasionally, it is possible to get a discussion going on the spur of the moment by asking a question that has just come to mind. But more often than not, such questions elicit an answer or two — and then the discussion grinds to a halt.
Whether face-to-face or online, effective discussions take forethought and preparation. What steps do you take to thoughtfully plan and facilitate discussion in your courses?
Discussions are a popular way to introduce active learning into a class. When students actively engage with material, they learn more deeply (Prince, 2004). In one study, students who were asked to spend most of their class periods participating in structured discussions scored higher on their exams than students who took the same class by lecture only (Johnson & Mighten, 2005).
Discussions allow students the opportunity to practice formulating their ideas and explaining them to others. They learn how to listen to multiple perspectives and to grapple with complexity and ambiguity as their views are challenged (Barkley et al., 2005). For instructors, discussions provide the chance to hear students think out loud, to understand their perspectives, and to informally assess their learning.
Let’s dive into the specific strategies you can use to foster meaningful discussion in your courses, whether you're teaching in person or online.
Determine Learning Outcomes
The learning outcomes of a discussion should always align to the learning outcomes for your course. To determine discussion outcomes, ask yourself:
What should students be able to do as a result of participating in this discussion? For example, should they be able to describe the functions of the membrane systems of a cell? Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different political systems? Argue for or against a particular theory?
What skills do you want students to practice as they engage in this discussion? Should they apply a single analysis to compare different sets of data? Explore the motives of a character in history or in a work of fiction? Should they be generating several different possible diagnoses, given a set of symptoms?
Sharing discussion outcomes with students can help them understand what your expectations are, why you are asking them to engage with the topics at hand, and how the discussion connects to the bigger picture of your course.
Design Discussion Questions
Discussions should spur students to go beyond facts and easy answers. The questions or problems you pose should be open-ended and complex enough that students have something to work with.
Develop interpretive questions, or those that have more than one acceptable answer. The questions should be focused but broad enough that there is room for varying perspectives and interpretation.
Use clear and direct language so questions are easy to comprehend.
Ask students to support their contributions with evidence, such as from a text, set of data, or real-world experience.
It is also helpful to plan follow-up questions to prevent a discussion from coming to a premature close.
Create a Respectful Learning Environment
A set of community norms or ground rules that members of a class agree to are essential to keeping interactions productive. The best community norms are those that students create together because they will be more invested in them.
Some common community norms are:
Listen to understand, not to respond.
Allow individuals the time they need to express their ideas fully.
Assume positive intent.
Own your impact on others.
Criticize ideas, not people.
Especially in courses that cover challenging or potentially divisive topics, community norms are essential. Part of your role as instructor is to act as a moderator who reminds students of these norms when they diverge from them.
Encourage and Balance Participation
We all know what it feels like when one or two people dominate a discussion. To have effective class discussions, create a space where all students feel welcome and comfortable contributing.
Get to know each other
On the first day of class, set the expectation that students will be interacting regularly and make time for them to get to know each other—and you. A structured discussion or icebreaker activity can build community and help students feel more comfortable participating. In a large class, you might stretch this over the first few sessions so each student can meet a few new classmates. Explore more guidance about “classroom agreements,” icebreakers, and setting a positive and inclusive tone for interaction in Shaping a Positive Learning Environment.
Pair and small-group conversations are one way to help students feel confident participating—it is easier to talk with one, two, or three people than it is with 20, 30 or 70. Think-Pair-Shares are a quick and easy option for inserting sharing opportunities into lecture or throughout a class period. For more in-depth discussions, consider using a jigsaw structure, in which pairs or trios join to become larger groups of four or six. This exposes students to more perspectives during the course of the activity.
Provide time to prepare
Giving students adequate time to prepare can promote participation. Some discussions are more productive if students have the questions to ponder before class; this is useful when interpreting lengthy readings, for example. But you can also allow students time to gather their thoughts during class. Pose a question and then set aside a minute or two for silent note making or freewriting. This strategy is particularly beneficial for non-native English speakers and introverted students, but it can help all students formulate their responses more clearly.
Get used to silence
Though it may feel uncomfortable, silence is an important part of any discussion and crucial to encouraging participation. Not many students will generate a thoughtful answer in a few seconds. Making intentional space for silence—called “wait time” in teaching literature—allows students to reflect and respond confidently. In U.S. culture, where white males are more likely to speak up, wait time also supports the participation of women and marginalized students. Count to yourself for several seconds, even up to 30 seconds, before you reframe, follow up, or scaffold student responses.
You can plan an alternate activity in case students are totally unresponsive and the discussion flops. But don’t be discouraged. With practice and guidance, students will become more comfortable with discussion over time.
Foster a culture that embraces risk
If many students are reluctant to speak up on a regular basis, it may be that they are afraid of being embarrassed, feeling judged, or saying something “wrong.” José Bowen (2012) suggests creating a class culture that supports risk and failure and normalizes mistakes as part of the learning process. For instance, you can encourage students to brainstorm multiple responses to a question without worrying whether they are “good” or not. Guide students to support each other in risk-taking by relating new contributions to previous ones, beginning a response with a compliment (“What I like about your point is…”), or asking follow-up questions of their peers (Bowen, 2012).
How can you measure whether students have learned what you hoped they would from a discussion? Return to your learning outcomes and connect the ideas students have generated in the discussion back to them. What conclusions can students draw? What additional perspectives or questions have been raised? Consider summarizing key takeaways from the discussion to make the connections to important course goals and content transparent to students.
Additional Considerations for Online Discussions
These best practices for planning and managing discussions apply no matter what your delivery mode. But discussions in Carmen do not often happen inside of an hour the way they do in a face-to-face classroom. Rather they can unfold over several hours or even days. Thus, there are some special considerations for fostering effective discourse online.
A common approach to online discussion is to ask each student to post as well as to respond to posts. To promote a true exchange of ideas, rather than disconnected comments from individuals, it’s important to establish clear expectations. Consider your aims. Should participation in discussion be required or voluntary? How should students engage with one another?
Establish guidelines for the number, frequency, or preferred length of discussion posts. Consider allowing students to choose which discussions they engage with during the term.
Provide a framework or simple rubric that makes clear how students should post and respond. For example, you might require that each post respond to or build upon a prior statement to move discussion forward or ask students to support their ideas with evidence from a text. You can also provide guidance around formality and tone.
If appropriate for your subject, encourage students to incorporate links, video, concept maps, diagrams, and other media to make their posts more engaging.
Set deadlines for initial posts and follow-up posts.
Model or provide exemplars of effective discussion posts.
Post a code of conduct for online discussion that covers these expectations ad community norms in your course. Establishing clear guidelines will enable you to grade based on the quality, rather than quantity, of students’ posts (Liberman, 2019).
Manage discussion groups
It is best to keep online discussions small and manageable (15-20 students at most). The Discussions tool in Carmen lets you organize group discussions using subgroups of students in your course. When creating a new discussion, click the option This is a Group Discussion and set up Discussion topics for each group. You can also use this function to incorporate small-group discussions into your course, as you would in an in-person setting. For synchronous online sessions, you can divide students into breakout rooms in CarmenZoom.
As with face-to-face discussions, it’s important that you do not dominate online discussion threads. Think of yourself as a facilitator or moderator—keep the conversation moving, promote adherence to community norms, redirect off-task comments, reframe questions when needed, and summarize important ideas. Remain present and engaged throughout the discussion, but refrain from responding to every post as that tends to stifle the flow of student discussion. If some students are reluctant to participate, contact them privately to address the issue (Pappas, 2016).