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Engaging Students Using Discussions

Class discussions can motivate students while also helping them retain knowledge and develop effective problem-solving abilities. This page offers resources and strategies for facilitating productive discussions in face-to-face classrooms and online discussion boards.

See also: Structuring an online discussion

Teaching Without a Net: Effective Use of Discussions

Classroom Discussion as a Skill, Not a Technique

On January 29th, 2010, Jane Baxter (Anthropology) and Ruth Ter Bush (Computing and Digital Media) presented a Teaching Commons workshop entitled Classroom Discussion as a Skill, Not a Technique.

In this workshop, Jane Baxter presented a case for students to understand discussion as a skill that must be learned like any other. Jane added that good class discussions often start with the instructor communicating the purpose of discussion and what constitutes a valuable addition to a discussion. Jane does this early in the quarter by communicating tips and standards for discussion as seen in slides 7-18 of the following Powerpoint, which offers overall tips for participating in class discussion. The Word document below is Jane's “Standards for Discussion” handout, which she also gives to students in her courses.

Ruth Ter Bush added considerations and ideas for creating engaging discussions in a diverse and/or multicultural group:

Asking Good Questions

  • In general, we should engage our students with discussion questions that are higher on bloom's taxonomy (i.e., analysis or synthesis). This will help them organize their thoughts and formulate well supported arguments rather than recite memorized facts, figures, or phrases.
  • In The Socratic method: What is it and how to use it in the classroom, Stanford University's Center for Teaching and Learning Newsletter (Fall 2003) focuses on articulating the usefulness of the Socratic method, a question-based way of structuring class discussion..
  • Linda Nilson (2003) suggests creating questions by working backward from course or class learning objectives. To do this, think of a few key points that students should know by the end of a class. Then write a discussion question that address each of those key points. Finally, write a few questions that will guide students towards answering those bigger/more involved/challenging questions (p. 114).

Discipline Specific Questions

Getting Students to Participate

Jane Baxter (see the above section Discussion as a Skill, Not a Technique) recommends a few tips for getting students to participate in discussion.

  1. Make it clear from the first day that participation from all students is expected. (This could be done in the syllabus or verbally in class.)
  2. Next, make participation in discussion a part of the students’ grade.
  3. Finally, explain to students that discussion is a skill that will be useful in their careers, and that learning it now will serve them well into the future.

In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (1999), McKeachie offers some reasons why students don’t participate, “boredom, lack of knowledge, general habits of passivity, cultural norms-but most compelling is a fear of being embarrassed” (p. 54). McKeachie offers the following tips for alleviating this fear:

  • Help students get acquainted with one another.
  • Create an inclusive and welcoming classroom environment.
  • Give students time to write down an answer before opening up discussion to the whole class.
  • Call students by name.
  • Ask questions that have no clear wrong answer.
  • Have students respond to a discussion prompt before the class begins.
  • Arrange the room so that students are sitting in a circle.
  • Get to know non-participants so that it is easier to understand why they are not participating. (p. 55)

Publications by DePaul Faculty

Rotenberg, R. (2005). "The discussion classroom." Chapter in The art and craft of college teaching: A guide for new professors and graduate students. Walnut Creek, CA.

Additional Readings and Resources

Teaching Through Discussion (University of Washington Center for Instructional Development and Research)

Improving Discussions. The IDEA Center's Paper No. 15 offers detailed recommendations on how to improve classroom discussions. It also weighs the strengths and weaknesses of incorporating discussion-based approaches to teaching.

Teaching by Discussion (Penn State's Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence)

Harvard's Bok Center for Teaching and Learning offers Ten Strategies for Effective Discussion Leading.

Leading Effective Classroom Discussions on Controversial Issues (ProfHacker/Chronicle of Higher Education)

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

MacKnight, C. B. (2000). Teaching critical thinking through online discussions. EDUCAUSE Quarterly 4, 38-41.

McKeachie, W. (1999). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (10th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Nilson, L. (2003). "Leading effective discussions." Chapter in Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Second Edition. Bolton, MA. (Available at the Office for Teaching, Learning and Assessment)

DePaul Resources

Faculty Instructional Technology Services (FITS)

  • Resources on structuring and assessing discussions online

Office for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment

  • Resources and research on discussion methods