Why Discussion?

Most instructors are attracted to all forms of in-class discussion because it allows students to engage in the process of discovery, critique and application. If you are interested in modeling a procedure, explaining a concept or discussing the background of a text, then discussion is not an appropriate pedagogical format. Questions, rather than answers or conclusions, are what animate discussions and, ideally, they should be questions that are ‘true’ to the discipline and that allow students to explore appropriate ways for responding. For many faculty, discussions are an opportunity for students to practice developing skills required for a writing assignment and to learn from the exchanges with their classmates.

There are many other forms of active engagement that allow students to become involved in the learning, but the traditional discussion allows teachers to monitor, guide, and motivate students and to give feedback as they observe the flow of the intellectual engagement. Secondly, using this technique provides teachers with the assurance that, given the right approach, all students can and will participate. In short, in-class discussions, when properly managed, produce greater engagement by students and greater interactivity between student and teacher and between students than the traditional lecture method.

In-class discussions, whether as a single group conversation or as a series of small group discussions, are based on the assumption that student learning is enhanced by opportunities to practice their learning in relatively ‘low-stakes’ environments. Practice entails student attempts to produce work orally that will then be graded in a written or other form subsequent to the discussion. For the teacher, listening to the ways students understand a problem or text allows them to devise new plans for instruction to address any uncovered misconceptions. Instructors can connect such ‘practice sessions’ to other assignments and graded or ‘high stakes’ work as a way of sequencing learning exercises. Explicit directions from the instructor on how to use these in-class conversations to help them produce written work allows students to take advantage of discussions as valuable opportunities for learning during which teachers provide immediate feedback.

Traditionally, the instructor initiates and sustains the discussion through questioning and commentary but participant or student-led discussions are techniques increasingly deployed in the college classroom. In the traditional discussion method, the instructor sets the agenda and produces a frame for the conversation either by referring to an agenda already established in a previous class or establishing a new one. The instructor’s job is to prepare students for the discussion, initiate and sustain the conversation, provide a continuous overview regarding progress toward an articulated goal, improvise new directions and reflections when necessary, and provide a summary of what has transpired at the end of the discussion. Linking the discussion explicitly to written work and overarching course objectives makes transparent for students the purpose and value of discussions.

Student-led discussion sessions provide students an opportunity to perform the analytical work of the course in the form of a series of questions prepared in advance. Typically, a student or group of students rotate this responsibility as part of the learning exercises of the course. This may take the form of a ‘low-stakes’ assignment where feedback is given without a grade, or alternatively, a ‘high-stakes’ graded assignment.

In either the case of instructor-led or student-led discussions, preparing students for these activities is an important part of the work. Again, the choice of what role both teacher and student have in this preparatory phase is a matter of choice.

Preparing Students for Discussion:

  1. Instructor issues guidelines in the form of questions posed about the text to be read or problems to engage
  2. Students are assigned rotating responsibilities for preparing discussion questions prior to the beginning of class, either for a teacher or student-led discussion
  3. Students prepare and deliver digitally short ‘response’ papers based on readings and answer questions or other tasks outlined by the instructor prior to the reading assignment. Warning: open-ended response papers are viewed by students as a way of checking on whether they did the reading. If you want them to think about the reading, orient them to that thinking through questions or problems.


Across departments and disciplines, classroom instructors use discussion in small groups of students to support learning through peer instruction. In other words, giving students the opportunity to share ideas and explain troublesome concepts to each other can greatly aid learning in a course. Small groups put them in a position to listen and respond to the questions of peers, strengthen their ability to produce clear explanations of their own thinking, and to listen carefully to learn other ways of thinking. These activities can take place during class or as part of a group assignment.

The key to group work is the proper preparation of the assignment. The research on small group work emphasizes the importance of the helping students with collaborative behaviors, since their prior experiences in school has either emphasized individual achievement over collaboration or has engaged them in collaborations that have been poorly structured and have failed. Our shorthand for these guidelines are the ’3 P’s’ for small group work:

  1. The work assigned to the small groups needs to focus on a PURPOSE significant enough to motivate student’s attention to the task. If they don’t see the connection between that work and other work in the course that is rewarded explicitly by grades, then the task may not be regarded with the seriousness required to produce quality effort and results
  2. PROCESS: College students lack the sufficient experience in organizing their efforts in a group to succeed at collaboration. They need either explicit structures (roles, tasks, reporting strategy) that they will be held responsible for or guidelines for equal participation.
  3. PRODUCT: Requiring a concrete outcome from group work allows groups to focus their energies on a given task or set of tasks, makes coordination easier, and allows them to experience the application of their labor to a result that rewards their efforts and reinforces the collaborative skills entailed in finishing.

Recommended Reading

  1. Discussion as a Way of Teaching, Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill
  2. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, Elizabeth Barkley, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major 


  1. “Leading Effective Discussions,” by Santiago Mejia, Department of Philosophy and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching
  2. “Discussion Strategies and troubleshooting,” by Joela Jacobs, Department of Germanic Studies and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching
  3. “Leading Discussion sections,” by Joela Jacobs, Department of Germanic Studies and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching
  4. “Planning for small groups,” by Emily Remus, Department of History and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching
  5. “Small group work,” by Nicole Tuttle, Department of Chemistry and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching