Department of Communication

Tips for Classroom Discussions

As an alternative or supplement to lecture, classroom discussions offer students the opportunity to actively participate in the education process. Studies and experience suggest that when students are more involved in class, they retain more information and hone their critical thinking skills. Although many instructors wish to increase classroom discussion, integrating and evaluating student discussions can be difficult, but need not be as time consuming as some may suggest.

Suggestions for increased classroom discussion:

1. Learn students' names: Students are more willing to speak openly when they feel comfortable in the classroom, and when they feel a personal connection to their instructor.

2. Have students respond to your questions, not comments: A question allows for a number of different possible responses, whereas a comment possesses a definitive quality, especially coming from the professor, which discourages creative student responses.

3. Keep discussion focused: There is always the risk for the conversation to move off-topic. It is important to have educational "goals" for any discussion (i.e. what you wish to accomplish by the end of the conversation). When you feel the discussion moves beyond your stated goals, steer the conversation back by introducing new questions and restating previous questions and topics.

4. Include as many students as possible in the discussion: Most classes have a few students that dominate class discussions and conversations. It is important to discourage talkative students from monopolizing the discussion. Use low-ball questions (questions anyone—whether they have done the assigned reading or not—can answer) to engage less vocal students in discussions. Once you involve the student in the discussion with a low-ball question, you can work from their up to higher-order/level questions.

5. Maintain an environment of positive reinforcement: There are numerous occasions when students are incorrect in their answers or their contributions. However, to keep those students active in discussion, you must always demonstrate the importance of their contributions and correct them in a tactful manner. Explain how their answer would be right in a different context, or how you can see how they arrived at that conclusion, but how it’s not optimum for the case at hand.

6. Add incentives for classroom participation: Adding incentives to student contributions encourages them to participate in classroom discussions. Evaluating students' contributions, however, may present possible difficulties. There are many remedies to evaluating contributions, which include a tally sheet that records when students contribute or assigning students to lead classroom discussions. Many instructors simply build a participation component into their syllabi.

7. Use written discussion questions to spur thinking:  Students feel more comfortable expressing ideas and answering questions if they have some time to think about them first. So, give students five minutes or so to write answers to discussion questions, and maybe another five minutes to share and reflect on them with one or more of their classmates, before coming together as a class to discuss. This will alleviate most of the intimidation factor that contributes to low participation in class discussions. Discussion questions can also be posted online the night before, or distributed at the end of class in preparation for your next meeting. 

8. Place responsibility on students themselves:  Toward the beginning of the semester, ask students to write about and discuss what qualities mark good and bad discussions. Use their papers and discussion to draft a set of goals for classroom discussion. Write these goals up and distribute them to the class.

9. Solicit Student Evaluations: Have students evaluate the quality of the overall class discussion mid-semester. Share with students the results of this informal survey, as well as how you plan to augment discussion in the latter half of the course by taking into consideration their comments.

10. Develop Sense of Community: Put chairs in a semi-circle; leave room for announcements at the beginning of class; interact with students outside of class; send class links to articles you find on the web that relate to the material you are currently covering; encourage online discussions and group meetings outside of class. And, always remember that laughter aids learning. Asking students about their other courses, their summer/holiday plans, and their mental state during midterms and finals is an effective method for showing students that you care about them as human beings, and that you are concerned with their development as students.     

11. Ask different kinds or levels of questions: Solicit input from students with different abilities and learning styles (e.g. requests for description, analysis, comparison, prediction, justification, generalization, application, and simple information).

12. Stick with it: The first attempt to promote classroom discussion may be a bit rocky. If so, that is not a reason to abandon the pedagogical effort. It will take time for a rapport to develop and for students to feel comfortable in the classroom environment.

Some additional methods for improving discussion:

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