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Discussions can play a valuable role in lecture courses, seminars, quiz sections, labs, studios and a variety of other settings.  A well-planned discussion can encourage and stimulate student learning and add variety to your class.  While “good” discussions can be a powerful tool for encouraging student learning, successful discussions rarely happen spontaneously. Preparing ahead of time will help you define a clear focus by establishing goals and student expectations for the discussion.

Planning ahead

Establish goals for the discussion:

  • Determine goals based on an assessment of what material students already understand and the areas that they need to explore.
  • Decide what  you want students to learn from the discussion. Do you want them to apply newly learned concepts, mull over novel subject matter, learn to analyze arguments critically, or hear each other’s points of view? These goals are not mutually exclusive but they require different types of leadership on your part and different responses on the part of your students (see below for detailed strategies).

Communicate clear expectations to students:

  • Tell students what you expect the discussions to accomplish.
  • Hand out study questions before your discussion, so students can think about concepts or respond in writing.

Clarify and summarize key points during the discussion:

  • Many instructors write out notes to assist them in keeping the discussion on track and they are willing to moderate and intervene. Others prefer to leave enough time for their supplementary comments at the end of the discussion. In either case, a brief summary that highlights the main points of the discussion is a good idea.

Developing a questioning strategy

Deciding on the key questions you want to address ahead of time can help ensure that your discussion stays on track and the learning goals you set for your students are met. One three-step approach to developing questions is:

  • Ask recall and comprehension questions to make sure that the students have grasped the basic data.
  • Ask questions requiring students to explain relationships among the units of information and to form general concepts.
  • Ask questions that require students to apply concepts and principles they have developed to new data and different situations.

For example, suppose you are discussing Plato’s Republic. You might begin by asking questions, such as: What are the basic components of Plato’s ideal state? What are his characteristics of a good ruler? After establishing that students understand the material, you can begin to explore relationships by asking further questions, such as: How does the allegory of the cave fit into the rest of the work? What are Plato’s criticisms of Athenian society? Finally, you can ask students to apply the material to their own lives: How would Plato criticize a contemporary American university?

For more on questioning strategies see: IDEA Paper #31: Answering and Asking Questions (PDF), by William Cashin, IDEA Center, Kansas State University

Choreographing group dynamics

Since discussions depend upon students’ willingness to talk to each other, it’s important to create a classroom atmosphere in which students feel secure in offering their opinions for public scrutiny. Encourage students to learn each other’s names and to respond to each other’s comments, rather than merely responding to you.

A question-answer session is a dialogue; a discussion is a community activity. Asking for “three reasons” makes students feel that you are fishing for pre-conceived answers, and they will respond accordingly: “Well, I don’t know if this is what you want, but…” Asking one question and getting an answer, then asking a second question of a second student and getting an answer is like playing verbal ping pong. Turn ping pong into volleyball: involve as many students as you can and you will have a discussion.

Involving the whole class

Direct your questions to the entire class rather than to one individual and be willing to wait for an answer. Wait at least 30 seconds before repeating or changing your question. This gives students time to think and shows them that you care more about their learning than about the speed of their responses.

Some instructors like to ask students to take a few minutes to write down their individual responses to a question before discussing as a whole class. This gives each student an opportunity to think about and respond to the topic. Then, as discussion begins, each student has at least one idea to offer and feels better prepared to respond.

Standing at the front of the room to lead an instructional discussion often results in a dialogue. It can be helpful to sit so that you represent only one more link in a circle. This diminishes your role as professor and encourages students to look at each other rather than at you. If a circle is not possible, sit in the middle or in the back, or off to the side — anywhere that will suggest that you are no longer lecturing. If it is necessary for someone to be at the front of the room in order to record important points of the discussion, ask a student to take this recording role. Alternately, you can sit in the group and take notes, which you might want to use to summarize the group’s thoughts at the end of discussion.

After a comment has been made, ask another person to comment on it (or offer a different perspective, etc.) rather than commenting on it yourself.

If the class is large, divide it into smaller groups, each dealing with the same or separate questions or problems. Move from group to group, giving guidance and answering questions when needed or, if you like, remaining neutral. At the end of the class period, reassemble the class and have the small groups report and respond to each other.