We all want our students to participate in class discussions in an engaging way and in a way that encourages curiosity about the topic.  But we also know this rarely happens.  Most discussions are really just question and answer sessions where the instructor asks the question and a student answers it.  Not only does this not promote curiosity about the topic, it’s boring for the instructor and the students!

Often times, this lack of discussion can be remedied by merely planning good discussion questions in advance.

PLANNING:

A bit of pre-planning can help your discussions run more smoothly and require more critical thinking and application.
  • Objectives: Think first about the objectives for the discussion.  Ex. acquire new skills, apply existing skills, thinking beyond the facts.  Focussing on these objectives will help you create your questions.
  • Preparation: Have your questions written down fully BEFORE the class.
  • Scaffolding: Sequence your questions.  Start with easy to answer questions to the entire class.  These questions should rely on existing knowledge.  Then ramp up the question difficulty to require more application and critical thinking.

An effective discussion question should be answerable but challenging and inspire analysisthinking, and synthesis.  They should also be questions that are discussable, such as a case or scenario.  A question with a specific answer is not one to be discussed.  They should be openended and require the students to clarify, give examples and provide evidence.

View: Asking Questions That Generate Discussion

This document is a compilation of question types gathered from various university resources on the web.  Please view the resources to dive deeper into the topic further and to find more strategies.

An ineffective discussion question has a definitive answer and therefore does not encourage discussion.
  • Questions that are Yes/No encourage guessing.
  • Elliptical questions, such as “What do you think about the characters values” are too vague and the students aren’t clear what is being asked.
  • Leading questions that start with “Don’t you think…” convey the expected answer.
  • Slanted questions, such as “Why is the character so corrupt,” closes down discussion because they may not agree with the implied assumption.

Logistics

There are several logistical matters to consider that can increase the odds of a good in-class discussion:

  • Student buy-in:  To have good in-class discussions you need to have buy-in from the students.  Share your focus and objectives for the discussion so they understand the purpose.
  • Mix up the format: Begin with individual questions to get the students started then move to pairs or small groups.  Full class discussion allows passivity.
  • Structure: Be sure to provide structure to the discussion.  
    • Break the students into groups and ask the students to move their chairs so the group delineations are visible.
    • Time the parts of the discussion.  For example, the individual questions will be 5 min, group work 15 min, full-class debrief 10 min.
    • Give the groups specific tasks or deliverables that will guide the discussion and give them a focus.
    • Skills building activities: help students engage actively with the material through creative exercises that help them build critical skills.

Body Language

Your body language can encourage or discourage discussion.  Try to be mindful of how you stand and interact with the class to increase the feeling of openness.  This section was taken directly from the Standford Teaching Commons

  • Literally push your chair away from the table (if appropriate) during the discussion, signaling that the forum is now theirs.
  • Nod your head encouragingly, place your hand over your mouth when a student is speaking (this signals that you are not going to interrupt them; it also helps give the impression of open consideration and reserving judgment).
  • Try not to cross your arms or frown when students are speaking; these are discouraging signals.
  • Take notes of what is being said.  It shows the students that you value what is being said.  It also allows you to remain engaged in the conversation without dominating it.
  • If an area of the room is quiet, move to that part of the room to stand and make eye contact with those individuals to encourage them.

Final Tips

Here are some final tips to help you get started;
  • Leave quiet time when starting a discussion.  Waiting for people to start speaking is hard and uncomfortable at times but allowing this space is critical to setting the tone that the discussion is student focused.
  • When a student speaks summarize what they say without taking a stand.  Ask the class what they think about this.
  • Invite students to address one another and not always go through you.  Always redirect a student’s response back to the class.
  • Recap the ideas brought up at the end of the discussion.
  • Set the tone – set the value of participation in the first class.  It’s important students understand what you mean by participation and why it’s important to you and to them.  

Resources:

Thank you to all of these resources.  This is a compilation of their work.

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