Facilitating Class Discussions


Class discussions are an important pedagogical tool. They not only foster active learning but also build an intellectual community. Students learn to develop, articulate, and defend ideas as well as to listen carefully and consider different points of view. They gain experience providing and evaluating evidence and employing and using logic to support their arguments. Student discussions are difficult to facilitate, however, and there is real skill to making them useful and productive class experiences. Below is a list of common mistakes made in facilitating discussions along with suggestions on ways to prevent and/or mitigate them.

Common Mistakes and What to Do About Them:

  1. Failing to plan
    ◆ What to do:Determine the goal of a discussion. What learning objectives will it address? Plan how the discussion will meet these objective. How will you accomplish your goal? Develop a structure with several big picture questions to be answered by the discussion.
  2. Neglecting to frame the discussion
    ◆ What to do:Relate the discussion to other aspects of the course, including course learning objectives, assigned readings, past lectures or discussions, and future assessments. Make your goals for the discussion explicit. ​​​​​​​
  3. Not starting with a shared point of departure
    ◆ What to do:Begin with a shared experience such as an introductory open-ended question, an allusion to or a quotation from an assigned reading, a report on a research study, a cartoon or photo, a video or audio clip, a first-hand account, or a demonstration. If relevant, begin with a summary of the previous class session. Starting with a controversy related to the material can be effective if it elicits multiple perspectives.
  4. Not creating discussion ground rules
    ◆ What to do:In the syllabus, provide a set of ground rules for respectful discussions or create them collaboratively with the students. Allude to them, if necessary, during the discussion, especially when there are heated moments  that may evoke strong feelings and provoke unacceptable behaviors.
  5. Neglecting to clarify expectation
    ◆ What to do:Make expectations regarding participation explicit at the start of the course. Explain grading criteria for discussion participation (i.e., create and share a rubric to evaluate participation).
  6. Talking too much: answering own questions or asking more than one question at once
    ◆ What to do:If there is a pause after a question, do not assume that students are not prepared or motivated to reply. Give them time (usually 5 to 10 seconds but up to 15 to 20 seconds) to think and formulate an answer. If needed, rephrase the question. Additionally, do not confuse or distract students with multiple questions; allow them to focus on one question at a time.
  7. Asking too many questions that are “closed” or have only one correct answer
    ◆ What to do:Ask questions with multiple possible answers, giving students an opportunity to share their perspectives. Questions that require students to guess the one answer you have in mind do not allow students to express their views and can stultify discussion.
  8. Failing to probe the implications of answers
    ◆ What to do: Ask follow-up questions to get students to clarify and elaborate on their answers. Encourage students to think more deeply, substantiate their claims, and consider implications by asking  follow-up questions about reasoning, supporting evidence, and applications.
  9. Asking unconnected questions
    ◆ What to do:Ask questions that follow from each other and lead the discussion in a logical progression. Using Bloom’s taxonomy, questions can progress from simpler (e.g., recall or comprehension) to more complex (e.g., analysis, synthesis, evaluation, or creation) cognitive tasks. Identify the purpose of questions and ask them in the appropriate sequence. Sometimes it is necessary to break them down into a series of simpler questions in order for students to be able to reply.
  10. Ignoring or failing to build on answers
    ◆ What to do:Acknowledge student contributions, praise them when they are insightful, and point out when they are inaccurate. Flesh out good ideas and critique flawed arguments. Connect responses to one another. Ask the rest of the students to respond to comments in order to link contributions. Encourage students to talk and respond to one another, not just you.
  11. Allowing the discussion to turn into an argument
    ◆ What to do:In order to keep the discussion from degenerating into an argument with unsubstantiated claims and emotional attacks (a) ask students to provide bases for claims by referring to text or other authorities, (b) clarify if values, rather than facts, are involved in argument, (c) list points representing all sides of the discussion (d) moderate the discussion, reminding students of the need for civil discourse, and apply the ground rules.
  12. Failing to redirect students back to the ideas at hand when the discussion strays off topic
    ◆ What to do:When a discussion becomes unfocused, keep returning to a list of guiding questions. Also,  pause to summarize key points and refocus attention, emphasizing importance or relevance of topic under discussion.
  13. Not establishing a class climate that  encourages participation in discussions
    ◆ What to do:From the beginning of the course, establish a climate in which students feel comfortable taking intellectual risks by (a) modeling and expecting respectful behavior, (b) establishing the clear expectation that students will prepare for the discussion and giving preparatory assignments that require them to do so,  (c) getting to know students and giving them opportunities to get to know each other, and (d) highlight the importance of hearing diverse perspectives.
  14. Asking students to speak for an entire group
    ◆ What to do: Expect that all students will represent their own perspectives; therefore, pose questions that ask students about their own opinions, experiences, thoughts, or knowledge  – not about those of a group you may believe they represent.
  15. Not modeling exemplary discussion behavior
    ◆ What to do:Use language that demonstrates (a) how to build on another person’s contributions, (b) how to ask for clarification, (c) how to disagree politely, and (d) how to provide evidence to support a position. It is also important to explicitly point out exemplary behavior by students and differentiate between higher and lower quality contributions. Demonstrate active listening skills.
  16. Letting a small number of talkative students dominate the discussion or letting the discussion become a one-on-one conversation or a debate with one student
    ◆ What to do:Redirect discussion to other students or other topics. If necessary, ask students who are monopolizing the conversation to allow others opportunities to contribute and encourage them to continue the discussion after class or during office hours.
  17. Not encouraging participation by quieter students
    ◆ What to do:Strategies for Involving quiet students who may hesitate to participate include (a) breaking down the group into smaller units, even pairs (think -pair-share), (b) asking opinion rather than factual questions, (c) giving students time to think and write out their opinions, either before class or during class, and then asking them to read what they have written, (d) giving students opportunities to answer questions in an alternative format  (e.g., posts on discussion boards) and then alluding to those answers in class, and (e) prior to class giving students a list of concepts, terms, or even questions to think about. Be aware that cultural differences may influence level of class participation.
  18. Not summing up at the end of the discussion
    ​​​​​​​◆ What to do:Summarize the major points (at least three) and relate them to the original goal for the discussion. Ask a closing questions that sets the stage for the next discussion or lecture.