Leading Discussions

Want to have a thoughtful discussion in your class? Discussions can be an excellent way to stimulate students’ thoughts on a subject. The trouble is, sometimes it’s hard to get such a discussion going in classes. Students don’t participate, and it can be hard to keep the conversation going. But there are a few things you can do to smooth it over.

  • It’s important to prepare the students for the discussion by assigning readings with 4-6 thought-provoking questions.i
  • Explain the purpose of having a discussion to the students so that they understand what they are meant to get out of it.ii
  • Try to get the students interested in the discussion by connecting the topic to a real world issue or case study that the students are aware of.iii
  • Encourage students to take opposing sides on an issue. Controversies make the best discussion fodder, because students will become passionate about their side of the issue.iv
  • Don’t answer your own question. Unless a student directly asks you something during the discussion, try to limit the discussion participants to the students only.v
  • Encourage students to elaborate and explain their ideas and have other students comment on them.vi
  • If possible, try to call on students by name. This can be difficult, especially in large classes. Arm yourself with a class roster with student card ID photos and try to learn their names as you go.vii
  • Praise students who come up with interesting ideas. This gives them confidence and encourage them to participate again.viii
  • Do not let your personal views show through to the students. If they feel that you are against their opinions, or are disrespectful of their ideas they will not participate again.ix
  • At the end of the discussion, sum up key points and concepts that you’ve covered.x
  • Inform the students of if or how you will be evaluating the discussions. Should you choose to evaluate the discussion, consider using a rubric.xi

Starting off the discussion can be the hardest part. There are several ways to deal with this.

  • Try to formulate three or four ways to begin the discussion, so that if the first one fails, you can try a different tactic.xii
  • When formulating your first few discussion questions, try to keep them as broad and accessible as possible. The more possible views on the subject, the more potential answers your students can get the courage to reply with.xiii
  • Try not to use unnecessarily complicated words when a simple word will perform the same function.xiv
  • When you pose your first question, give students a moment to write down their initial thoughts and ideas on the subject.xv
  • Refer to study questions or readings that you have previously assigned.xvi
  • List any key points on the board or on an overhead. xvii
  • Divide students into groups to discuss the questions amongst themselves. They may find it easier to express controversial ideas to their peers.xviii

While these techniques will help make students more comfortable speaking up in your classroom, the majority of students will probably still be silent. A good way to get all the students participating is to have an online discussion board, a feature available on e-class.

  • An online discussion board allows students time to think through their answers, and to post at their leisure.xix
  • If you make participating in the discussion board a part of their final mark, students will participate a great deal more in online discussions, more so than they would in the classroom if you did the same thing.xx

If you wish to learn more about leading discussions in your classes, contact the Centre for Teaching and Learning at ctl@ualberta.ca


  1. Davis, B. G. (1993) Tools for Teaching. SF: Jossey-Bass. 
  2. Ewans, W. (1986) Teaching Using Discussion. Journal of Management Education, 10(3), 77-80.
  3. King, K. M. (1994). Leading Classroom Discussions: Using Computers for A new Approach. Teaching Sociology, 22(2), 174-182.
  4. Nunn, C. E. (1996). Discussion in the College Classroom. The Journal of Higher Education, 67(3), 243-266.
iDavis, 1993, pg 65.
iiDavis, 1993, pg 63.
iiiEwans, 1986, pg 78.
ivEwans, 1986, pg 78.
vEwans, 1986, pg 78.
viNunn, 1996, pg 289.
viiNunn, 1996, pg 285.
viiiNunn, 1996, pg 285.
ixEwans, 1986, pg 78.
xEwans, 1986, pg 80.
xiDavis, 1993, pg 63-64.
xiiDavis, 1993, pg 63.
xiiiEwans, 1986, pg 78.
xivEwans, 1986, pg 78.
xvDavis, 1993, pg 67.
xviDavis, 1993, pg 66.
xviiDavis, 1993, pg 67.
xviiiDavis, 1993, pg 68.
xixKing, 1994, pg 176.
xxKing, 1994, pg 176.

-Rebecca Schaeffer, June 2011