Engaging Discussions

Class discussion is as standard as the lecture, but class discussion can be hard to do well.  Often questions fall flat, or just a few students dominate.  In the drawers below we offer some specific discussion techniques.

See also Political discussions in the classroom if you have are looking for election, policy, or other political discussions.

Socratic Dialogue
  • Socratic dialogue is critical questioning to guide discussions and deep learning. Ginsberg & Wlodkowski argue that “critical questioning fosters discussions that are exploratory, unpredictable, risky, and exciting. It is fundamental to critical reflection and democratic discussions that foster growth in one’s capacity for learning and sensitivity to the same capacity in others” (2009; see also Brookfield & Preskill, 2005).
  • Questions that engage students in Socratic dialogue:
    • To clarify – “What do you mean by…? Could you give me an example?”
    • To probe for assumptions – “What are you assuming when you say…? What is underlying what you say?”
    • To probe for reasons and evidence – “How do you know that…? What are your reasons for saying…?”
    • To elicit other perspectives – “What might someone say who believed that…? What is an alternative for…?”
    • To probe for implications as consequences – “What are you implying by…? Because of…, what might happen?”

Fish Bowl
  • In a fish bowl discussion, one-third of a class sits in a circle and discusses a relevant (debatable/contestable) topic using teacher-provided or class-generated questions as prompts. The rest of the class, forming a second circle around first circle, listens carefully to the discussion and takes extensive notes. After the initial “fish bowl” group finishes their discussion, usually within a certain time frame, the rest of the class on the discussion, creating dialogue about the topic but ALSO about the discussion they heard.
Snow ball or Snow balling
  • Snow Ball discussions allow students to slowly build perspective by building upon their discussion groups incrementally (snowballing). Beginning in pairs, students discuss a prompt or question and share ideas to create an initial response. They then pair up with another twosome to create a foursome and build upon their answers with the new group. Once they’ve shared their ideas as a foursome, they then add another foursome, to make eight in their group, and once again they share ideas and respond to questions. Eventually the whole class discusses the responses.
  • Another Snow Ball technique to start discussions is to have students respond to a prompt or question in writing. They might respond to something contestable (do you believe people should be able to use laptops in class? why or why not?), identify common myths (what are some common myths or misconceptions our culture has about climate change?), or list everything they already know about a topic (using just memory, write down everything you know about the rules of writing). Once they’ve responded on the paper, have them crumple the paper up and toss it into the middle/front of the room. Select any piece at random to use the response to begin your lecture, start a discussion, or build upon what is known and not known about the topic.
Critical Debate
  • In critical debate students are asked to assume positions on a topic that they may be opposed to, unfamiliar with, unsympathetic to, or even find objectionable. Working in teams can be helpful in focusing students on constructing an argument, rather than defending a position from a stance of personal value or mores.
    • Introduce a contentious or debatable issue. Identify the divided or various opinions or perspectives around the issue.
    • Survey the class on their opinions on the issue (index cards, show of hands, Padlet or other polling software).
    • Assign students to prepare arguments for the side of the issue opposite of their personal opinion.
    • Conduct the debate. Each team chooses one person to present its arguments. After initial presentations, the teams reconvene to draft rebuttal arguments. A different person presents these.
    • Debrief the debate. What new ways of seeing or perspective-building were enabled? What new understandings of an issue were developed? Did students change their positions?
    • Ask students to write a reflective paper on the debate. Have students respond or be guided by the following questions:
      • What assumptions about the issue were clarified or confirmed for you?
      • Which of these assumptions surprised you? Were you made aware of assumptions that you didn’t know you held?
      • How could you investigate these assumptions?
      • What sources would you consult?
      • What new perspective on the issue suggested themselves during the debate?
      • How were you challenged or changed by the debate?
Where shall we start?
  • In this discussion-prompting activity, students prepare by reading a common text and posing a series of original response questions. Class begins with students offering their questions for discussion and one student volunteer writing all questions on the board. Once all questions have been posed (not allowing answers yet!), the instructors asks “where do you want to start?” and the next phase is debating which question is the best starting point on the text. This portion of the discussion should analyze the questions themselves, helping to pair connected/similar/related questions, eliminate others, and winnow the questions down to three or four central questions. The class itself then picks from the remaining questions, and then the person who posed the question begins the discussion by saying more about why they asked it and where it connects to the text.
  • Class Discussion as Reflection. The open-ended seminar discussed in Chapter 3 (“Let the Students Do the Talking” excerpt is above with “Where do you want to start”) allows students to learn directly from each other, while still under the guidance of a teacher. In Dewey’s terms, the entire process of the open-ended seminar is a sustained means of provoking reflection on the experience of reading a book. All the particulars outlined in Chapter 3, from the opening ritual to the many forms of teacher intervention, serve this single purpose. In getting her students to read the book, the teacher provides an experience for them; in offering them the opportunity for extended discussion of the book’s meaning via the open-ended seminar, she provokes them to reflect on that experience.
    • Source: Finkel, D.L. (2000) Teaching with your mouth shut. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers. 
Guiding Thought-Provoking Questioning
  • Exhibit 4.1 Guiding Thought-Provoking Questioning
    Generic Questions Specific Thinking-Skills Induced
    What is a new example of…?  Application
    How could… be used to …?  Application
    What would happen if…?  Prediction/hypothesizing
    What are the implications of…?  Analysis/inference
    What are the strengths and weaknesses of…? Analysis/inference
    What is… analogous to? Identification and creation of analogies and metaphors
    What do we already know about…?  Activation of prior knowledge
    How does… affect…?  Analysis of relationship (cause and effect)
    How does…tie in with what we learned before?  Activation of prior knowledge
    Explain why… Analysis
    Explain how… Analysis
    What is the meaning of…? Analysis
    Why is… important? Analysis of significance 
    What is the difference between… and…?  Comparison-contrast
    How are… and… similar?  Comparison-contrast
    How does… apply to everyday life? Application to the real world
    What is the counterargument for…?  Rebuttal argument 
    What is the best…, and why? Evaluation and provision of evidence
    What are some possible solutions to the problem of…?  Synthesis of ideas
    Compare… and… with regard to… Comparison-contrast
    What do you think causes…? Why? Analysis of relationship (cause-effect)
    Do you agree or disagree with this statement:…? What evidence or research is there to support your answer? Evaluation and provision
    How do you think… would see the issue of…?  Taking other perspectives

    (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2009, 205-206)

Evaluating or Assessing Discussions

We recommend that you adapt rubrics to suit your own learning goals and objectives, and consider building rubrics with your students so they know ahead of time how they will be assessed. The following rubrics provide useful language and guidelines for creating an assessment rubric to evaluate your class discussions.

Discussion Guidelines

Providing discussion guidelines at the outset of class is at once a tool to establish strategies for productive discussion and set expectations, and also a means to address challenges and tense moments that may occur during a discussion. When a discussion goes awry, an instructor or student can remind others of the discussion guidelines.

Ideally an instructor works with students to establish discussion guidelines, perhaps beginning with a draft to which students respond and offer suggestions. Beyond the content value of the revisions, the exercise ensures that students become familiar with the guidelines that are designed to keep discussion educational.

Below are some sample guidelines, though we advise that you create a unique set of guidelines with your students to involve them in the process. Brookfield & Preskill encourage a “rules” discussion that asks the students to think about their past experiences with discussions.

  • Generating Ground Rules for Discussion (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005)
    • Ask students to think about the best group discussions they have been involved in. What happened that made these discussions so satisfying? Have each student make some notes responding to the question.
    • Next ask the students to think about the worst group discussion in which they have been involved. What happened that made these discussions so unsatisfactory? Have each student make some notes responding to the question.
    • Next form groups of at least three students to share their experiences, and instruct them to note common themes, experiences, and conversation features that they’d like to see present, and to make suggestions as to what the group could do to make discussions more productive. Encourage students to be as specific and concrete as you can.
    • Use the students’ suggestions to draft a set of ground rules , which you then share with students for comment and agreement..
    • Periodically, have the class take a moment to evaluate whether the guidelines established at the beginning of the semester are being followed and whether they work.
      • Adapted from: Brookfield, S. and Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Sample guideline for a university class.
  1. Confidentiality is expected  We want to create an atmosphere for open, honest exchange.
  2. Our primary commitment is to learn from each other. We will listen to each other and not talk at each other. We acknowledge differences among us in experiences, backgrounds, skills, interests, and values.  We realize that it is these very differences that will increase our awareness and understanding through this process.
  3. We will not demean, devalue, or “put down” people for their experiences, lack of experiences, or differences in interpreting their experiences.
  4. We will trust that people are always doing the best they can.
  5. We will challenge the idea and not the person.  If we wish to challenge something that has been said, we will challenge the idea or the practice referred to, not the individual sharing this idea or practice.
  6. We will speak our discomfort.  If something is bothering us, we will this with the group.  A lot of learning comes from discomfort — sharing our own and also listening to others express theirs.
  7. We will follow the strategy of Step Up, Step Back. That is, we will be mindful of taking up much more space than others. On the same note, we will speak up when others are dominating the conversation.
  8. We will avoid inflammatory language, including name-calling.
  9. We will ask questions when we don’t understand; we won’t assume we know others’ thinking or motivations.
  10. We do not expect individuals to speak on behalf of their gender, ethnic group, class, status, etc. (or the groups we perceive them to be a part of).
    1. Sources: Indiana University at Bloomington, Managing Difficult Classroom Discussions.; University of Michigan, Discussion Guidelines for Inclusive Teaching and Hot Moments; Creating Discussion Guidelines from Berkeley Graduate Division Teaching and Learning Resource Center. 
  • Fostering Motivation and Culturally Inclusive Participation
    • Participation guidelines are appreciated when professional development is challenging, controversial, and interactive. By clearly identifying the kinds of interactions and discussion that will be encouraged and discouraged, the instructor and learners create a climate of safety, ensuring that everyone will be respected. The first meeting is an appropriate time to establish these guidelines and to request cooperation in following them. The guidelines listed here are
      widely used and usually acceptable (Griffin, 1997):

      • Listen carefully, especially to perspectives different from yours.
      • Keep personal information shared in the group confidential.
      • Speak from your own experience, saying, for example, “I think” or “In my experience I
        have found,” rather than generalizing your experience to others by saying, for example, “People
        say,” or “We believe.”
      • Do no blame or scapegoat.
      • Avoid generalizing about groups of people.
      • Share airtime.
      • Focus on your own learning.
    • Instructors who use participation guidelines usually have a few that are non-negotiable (Tatum, 1992). Participation guidelines prevent and reduce feelings of fear, awkwardness, embarrassment, and shame. They also provide a safety net for critical discourse. They may be left open for further additions as the program proceeds.