By Joela Jacobs, Department of Germanic Studies and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching 

Below are a few suggestions on how to initiate a discussion or approach a discussion topic. Varying activities and approaches helps keep students engaged; and by involving them in generating the discussion you ensure that they are prepared and participating.

General Discussion Prompts

  • Start with a question
  • Ask whether there were questions about the last lecture
  • Ask for muddiest point/clearest point
  • Present a controversy (make sure the discussion remains friendly, see “Participation Issues”)
  • Begin with a shared experience like a demonstration, a film clip, mini-lecture or role-playing
  • Bring a case study, a picture, music, an object, an example, or a quote

See also “Leading Effective Discussions,” and “Asking Effective Questions.”

Students as Discussion Facilitators

  • Assign students to introduce material as experts
  • Begin your discussion via email or discussion board in Chalk: ask students to respond to a question, or take a stand on an issue and come prepared to support it in class
  • Start with a question prepared by a student (this could be an assigned discussion leadership that is prepared under your guidance, or a question selected by you or by popular vote from student submissions)
  • Ask a student to prepare a summary of the main thesis of a text or the last lecture
  • Ask students to write a minute paper: jot down a response or thoughts quickly and share
  • Start with a round-robin or twice-around: students present a prepared response to a text, question, or controversy, everyone has two minutes to present, and in the twice-around, students get the opportunity for a rebuttal
  • Break students into pairs or groups to help them brain-storm, work through ideas and solve problems (make sure you explain the entire activity, and are explicit about its goals, its follow-up, and your expectations beforehand; also state a time limit and walk around to listen in on your groups)

See also “Planning for Small Groups,” and “Sample Small Group Exercises.”

Common Discussion Problems and Some Solutions

Below are some of the most common problems that occur during discussions and some suggestions how to solve them.

Participation Issues

  • Dominant students: give them specific roles that require some work in the background (keeping a speaker list, taking notes on board, listening task), or express that you reward quality not quantity
  • Quiet students,  silence, or participation imbalance: ask if there are questions (perhaps your questions are too difficult, or students have not prepared the materials); if the problem persists: call on students, give quiet students expert roles (with a chance to prepare for it) or other tasks (like taking notes on the board); talk to students about their participation during office hours
  • Unfriendly atmosphere (interrupting each other, not listening): have a conversation about discussion culture, come up with a collective set of ground rules
  • Veering off track or emotions getting out of hand: intervene and remind students of the communal goal you want to achieve, assign ways of settling questions or conflicts outside of class

Technical Issues

  • Persistent question-and-answer structure: de-centralize the discussion to encourage student-to-student conversation by limiting your contributions (if possible, even physically remove yourself from the front and center of the class, maybe walk around)
  • Frequently answering your own questions: give students plenty of time to respond and bear the silence, ask whether there are questions, rephrase and start with smaller/lower-stakes components
  • Not ending discussions properly: help students evaluate what has been accomplished, assess what students are taking home, and provide closure, e.g. through a student summary of the main points, with the help of key terms or the day’s agenda on the blackboard, by asking if there are questions, etc.; situate the achievements within the learning goals of the course

Assessment Issues

  • Forgetting to assess learning: find out whether your students learned what you intended by asking (follow-up) questions, assigning minute or response papers, testing, active listening, reading student responses, talking to students in office hours, etc.
  • Neglecting other ways of (reinforcing) learning: for instance, use the blackboard as a visual aid to jot down the class’s agenda, clarify terms, provide overview (\+  vs. \-), take notes of the discussion to indicate the direction or structure of the discussion, or jot down terms of group work
  • Grading participation: take notes of student participation during class, note quality and quantity of contributions separately; have students grade each other in a specific exercise within a point system anonymously and tally the results; give students feedback on how they are doing so they can improve their participation, e.g. by giving them access to their grade tally

See also “Characteristics of Effective Listening,” “How Students Learn,” “Assessment of Student Learning,” “Using Visual Aids in the Classroom,” and “Technology in the Classroom.”

References and Further Reading