Leading Effective Discussions

Getting students to participate in a productive discussion can be a challenge, even for seasoned professors. Students often seem unprepared or simply shy. You pose a question and no one responds, as everyone stares at the floor or ceiling, avoiding eye contact. Or the two students who are always interested in speaking once again want the floor (to the relief or disapproval of everyone else). Not only can it be difficult to get students to talk, it can take a good amount of class time, and it can be difficult for students to know what they have learned from the discussion.

Why bother?

Discussion allows the instructor to see immediately whether or not students are understanding the material. It also gives students the opportunity to practice evaluation and applying concepts and to force them to think critically. Also, as a form of active learning, discussion can be highly motivational for students.

Prepare for Discussions | Ask Good Questions | Leverage Technology | Resources

Prepare Students for Discussion

  • Identify the goals for the discussion for yourself and for the students
  • Explain the ground rules and expectations for discussion early in the semester
  • Listen carefully and be prepared to teach students how to listen to each other
  • Paraphrase student comments and offer positive feedback
  • Give students time to think—get comfortable with silences
  • Start class with a short writing exercise that students then exchange and discuss
  • Summarize class discussion (or assign this task to specific students), highlighting what’s been accomplished and what still needs to be clarified
  • Ask students to respond to the discussion by posting to a discussion group or through a reflective paper that synthesizes what they’ve learned

Ask Good Questions

Good Questions for Discussion

  • Comparative Questions – Ask students to compare and contrast different theories, research studies and so on.
  • Evaluative Questions – Extend comparisons to judgments of the relative validity, effectiveness or strength of what is being compared.
  • Connective and Causal Effect Questions – Challenge students to link facts, concepts, relationships, authors, theories and so on.
  • Critical Questions – Invite students to examine the validity of a particular argument, research claim, or interpretation.
  • Questions requesting more evidence – Asks a student to defend his or her position using evidence – data, facts, passages from a text, etc.
  • Clarification Questions – Invites the student to rephrase or elaborate on an answer (“That was interesting. Can you tell us a little more about what you mean by X?”).
  • Cause-­and-­Effect Questions – Like Connective Questions above, but here students are asked to generate a hypothesis on the causal relationship.
  • Hypothetical Questions – “What-­‐if” inquiries that require students to think creatively, make up plausible scenarios, and explore how changing parameters or circumstances might alter results (e.g. “A college degree correlates to higher income, but what if everyone had a college degree?”).
  • Open Questions – Questions with multiple respectable answers. The key is that the instructor must genuinely welcome all answers. Weaker answers can be followed up with clarification or extending questions.
  • Linking or Extension Questions – Ask students to think about the connections between their answers and those of their peers. Encourages active listening and responding and builds a sense that discussion is a collaborative enterprise.
  • Brainstorming Questions – Ask students to come up with as many solutions as possible. All answers are recorded on the board at first and are eventually winnowed down.
  • Focal Questions – Ask students to choose a particular viewpoint or position from several possible ones and to support their opinion with evidence (debate).
  • Playground Questions – Challenge students to select or develop their own themes and concepts for exploring, interpreting and analyzing a piece of material. (e.g. “What do you think this author is saying in this particular passage?” “What underlying assumptions about human nature must this theorist have?”)

Questions Not Useful for Discussion

  • Recitation or Quiz Show Questions – Usually have only one short answer. Good for factual recall and review.
  • Analytical Convergent Questions – Asks students to bring together several ideas and can require complex thought. Seem open but actually have only one answer. Good for large concept review.

Questions to Avoid Altogether

  • Fuzzy Questions – Vague and unfocused, often worded in a confusing way (e.g. “Who else knows what doesn’t fall into this category?”)
  • Shotgun or Chameleon Questions – Questions that come in rapid succession. Often the last question is unconnected to the first. Students do not know what is being asked of them.
  • Programmed-­Answer Questions – Sounds open-­ended and can have more than one appropriate answer, but the instructor somehow conveys that there is one right answer.

Adapted from Linda Nilson’s “Teaching at Its Best.” Available from the FDC Lending Library.

Leverage Technology

There are lots of web-based tools that can help jump-start in-class discussion and or give students a space for expanding discussion outside of class. Blackboard offers several easy-to-use solutions. The key is choosing the right one for the kind of discussion you want to have:

Blogs – A blog (short for weblog) is a space that a student can use to offer an extended discourse on a particular subject. Other students can leave comments to which anyone in class can respond.

Discussion Boards / Forums – Discussion boards, or forums as they are sometimes called, offer students the chance to leave short comments on a particular question or to ask questions of the whole class. Everyone has equal opportunity to participate.

Journals – A journal is like a blog except that it is private: only the journaler and the instructor have access to it. Other students cannot comment. As such, it does not encourage whole class discussion.

Wiki – A wiki is a webpage that anyone in the class can edit. In Blackboard, anyone in the class can also add more webpages. These pages are meant to be truly collaborative spaces.

For more information on the best uses of these tools and to see what the FDC and DoIT recommend, download the Conversation Grid & Definitions (PDF).


Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2001).

Brookfield, Stephen D. and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1999.

Davis, Barbara Gross, Tools for Teaching, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Nilson, Linda B. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-­Based Resource for College Instructors, 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-­Bass, 2010.

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