Stimulating class discussion

Many of us have attempted to engage our students with course material through discussion, but sometimes we are met with silence, bowed heads, and darting eyes. The problem might be that students are often not prepared to discuss the material because they don’t know how to go about doing so, or are not accustomed to it. Another problem could be that we as teachers are not facilitating class discussions effectively.

Effectively facilitated class discussions help to motivate student interest; promote deeper learning and higher retention of material; develop and practice critical thinking skills; help change attitudes, values, and behaviors; help develop communication skills; and assist  students with general personal development. Group discussion can involve collaborative hypothesis testing, problem solving, exchanging opinions, defending a position or hypothesis, application of knowledge, etc. 

Here are a few suggestions that can work to stimulate discussion in any discipline.

In preparation for discussion:

1.)  Establish ground rules for discussion (conduct, quality of input etc.). Students often do not know what is expected of them during class discussions.

  • Establishing ground rules (with student input) ensures that all participants know what is expected. For example:
    - groups consist of  3 – 5 members & everybody is expected to contribute
    - students can state opinions, hypotheses, etc. (even if group members don’t think they are right). This can help the group address various sides of an issue and consider different issues and perspectives
    - when groups report to the professor and/or class, no individual will be named; rather the spokesperson will say “Our group discussed or Our group feels…”

2.)  Model by starting the lecture with one or two questions you are trying to answer, and closing with questions the lecture raised or left unanswered.

  • Modeling in this way indicates to students that the lecture is not a statement of indisputable truth and that intellectual inquiry is encouraged and expected. To build on this and use it to foster class discussion…
    -take 10 minutes at the end of class and ask students to write down questions the lecture has raised for them.
    -as an exercise at the beginning of the next class, put students into groups and have them exchange questions (assign 2 or 3 questions per group if necessary). Have the groups come up with answers to the questions and then present those answers to the class. This will provide an opportunity for you to facilitate discussion about the answers and provide information to answer questions that are not fully addressed.

3.)  Introduce alternative perspectives in your lecture.

  • Introducing alternative perspectives in your lecture and having students examine their assumptions prior to discussing a particular concept or topic will provide opportunities for students to debate the merits and weaknesses of different perspectives. Staging a class debate is one way to stimulate discussion:
    -Ask for volunteers from the class & assign half to one perspective/side of an issue, or set of assumptions and assign the rest to the alternative. Give each group ten minutes to come up with an arguments to back up their position & then ask each group to appoint a speaker who will outline their argument to the class. Ask the class to evaluate the arguments and take the side of the group they feel has presented the most convincing argument. The instructor’s role is to unpack the information presented by the groups and to enlist help from the remainder of the class in pointing out why some arguments are more credible than others (remember to stress that students are debating the credibility of arguments and that personalities should not enter the discussion). This gives the instructor an opportunity to provide additional information and correct misinformation. Discussion is stimulated, students are actively engaged, and the instructor still gets to cover content.

4.)  Have students use the material they are learning to propose solutions to a problem.  Some examples of ways you might do this as an individual and as a group activity:

  • A chemistry professor is having difficulty with … discuss the steps you would follow and the questions you would ask to help him/her figure out the problem.
  • A volunteer group is having difficulty with the tax implications of …, using the  accounting principles learned in class, discuss the advice your group would give the volunteer group to help rectify the situation.
  • A reporter for the Cape Breton Post has asked to interview your group about…..  What are the three things most important things you would tell the reporter and why?

5.)   Introduce periods where students are asked to reflect on their own assumptions

  • At the beginning of a class poll students to determine their assumptions on a given topic & make note of these assumptions on the board.
    - as information emerges throughout the class, ask students to explain how the new information supports or challenges each assumption.



Brookfield, S. D. & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gross Davis, B. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kustra, E. D. H. & Potter, M. K. (2008). Green Guide # 9:Leading effective discussions. Society for Teaching and Learning Higher Education. London, Ontario.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco: Jossey-bass.