Using Classroom Discussions as a Pedagogic Tool

High-quality classroom discussions don’t just happen: they are the product of thoughtful planning and preparation. The best classroom discussions involve all students working cooperatively to compare, present, and examine diverse perspectives with each other.

The following suggestions are just a few things to think about as you plan, run, and assess discussions in your classroom.

Preparing for Discussion

  • Understand why you want to use discussion for this particular content. What is the purpose? Different purposes necessitate different types of discussions. For example, if your goal is to help students understand a text on a deeper level, you may want to consider using a Socratic seminar. On the other hand, if you want your students to develop group participation skills and observation skills while also learning course content, a fishbowl discussion might be appropriate. Understanding your purpose will also inform the size and make-up of discussion groups.

Discussion models:

Fishbowl Discussion
A fishbowl discussion is a type of discussion that helps students develop group participation and observation skills while simultaneously learning course content.

  Further reading:

Plan Classroom Discussions at Least as Carefully as Lectures (UW-Whitewater, n.d.)  Why should we use discussion in the classroom?  And how do we do this effectively?  Read this article for a few answers.

Discussing Controversial Issues: Using Discussion Models (Center for Education and Law in Democracy, n.d.)
This website is one module of an online series that explores why and how to engage students in discussions, particularly discussions about controversial issues.  This specific module contains in-depth information on a number of best-practice discussion models.

  • Develop discussion questions that elicit higher-order thinking. Robust discussions that push students to understand the material at a deeper level go deeper than asking relatively simple factual questions. To engage critical thinking skills, ask open-ended questions that have multiple answers. For instance, instead of asking “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?” ask, “How might the Declaration of Independence be different if a woman (or African-American or poor person, etc.) wrote it?”

                    Further reading:

Using Discussion Questions Effectively (University of Michigan CRLT, 2009)
We use questioning in the classroom for all sorts of reasons:  to probe student understanding, to develop critical thinking skills, to clarify the meaning, and more.  This link provides a range of strategies to use while developing questions to ask.

  • Prepare students for discussion. Be sure students have access to the materials they need (readings, etc.) so that they can prepare themselves. If you haven’t already, on the day of the discussion explain the purpose and process of the discussion you have planned. Establish ground rules so that students understand what is expected. This might be a collaborative effort, or you might come with a predetermined list. In either case, students should be given the chance to talk about the list so that everyone understands the rationale behind each rule. Here is one example list of ground rules:
      • Do not raise your hand to speak.
      • Listen carefully to what others are saying.
      • Refer to the text whenever possible.
      • Address one another.
      • It is okay to “pass” if called upon.
      • Do not monopolize the airwaves.
      • If you disagree, do so respectfully.

During the Discussion

  • Arrange the classroom in a way that promotes discussion. Students should be able to give easy and direct eye-contact to those with whom they will be discussing. For instance, in large group situations, put the tables/chairs in a circle or “U.” For smaller discussions, pull tables together in “pods.”
  • Be comfortable with silence. After asking a thought-provoking question, we should expect students to take a moment to gather their thoughts. That being said, if you recognize puzzlement on most students’ faces, rephrase your question. Coincidentally, doing a think-pair-share after asking the opening question is sometimes a good way to break the ice after posing a question because it helps students think about the prompt and allows all students a chance to practice verbalizing their thoughts before talking in front of the whole group.
  • Find ways to help everyone speak. Recognize that there are “talkers” and “listeners” in every classroom. Be mindful of patterns that develop regarding who speaks, and encourage students to be proactive in inviting voices into the discussion. Consider using a think-pair-share activity at the beginning of a discussion to help those students who struggle with participation formulate their ideas and “practice” speaking to a partner. Ideally the discussion should be decentralized in that it doesn’t flow through any one individual (including the teacher).
  • Use follow up questions to probe for understanding and drive the discussion forward. For example, “Can you tell me more?”, “How did you reach that conclusion?”, “How does that relate to what (someone else) said?”, or “Who has a different perspective?”
  • Model exceptional discussion skills. Practice active listening, don’t dominate, be civil, seek to understand others’ perspectives, drive the discussion forward when necessary.

Concluding the Discussion

  • Summarize the progress made and/or the three or four main points that came from the discussion.
  • Offer students the last word. Most of us like having the last word. One way of ensuring that everyone has a chance to speak their mind (and simultaneously helping the quiet students share their thoughts) is to have students turn to a partner and each take one minute to share their concluding thoughts with each other.
  • Debrief the discussion process. This is step is often overlooked, but it is vital to any discussion. Review the goals of the discussion and draw an explicit connection to how it relates to the course content. Next, ask the group to reflect on the discussion process. How did it go? What went well and what could have gone better? How did they personally contribute to the discussion and how could they improve for future discussions?

Assessing the Discussion

  • The goal of assessment is to check for student learning; therefore, keep in mind the goals of the discussion when determining the criteria you will use to assess students. In most cases, the quality of participation should trump quantity of participation. Rubrics are one tool that you can use to assess discussions in a relatively objective manner.  In addition to the example rubrics below, there are a wide variety of discussion rubrics available online.
  • Alternatively, consider using assessment tools beyond a rubric. Just because a student is quiet during discussion, don’t assume that they haven’t learned. There is an endless number of strategies to check for students’ understanding. For example, consider having students write a paragraph (or page) about how their thinking has been refined due to the discussion. Have students create a mind map of the discussion and try to make connections among the nodes. Have students work in teams to recreate the main points of the discussion using the format of a Twitter conversation.

Online Discussion

Online discussion boards are a vital piece of any online course.  The following links are useful for helping one think through what makes for a high-quality online discussion.

                    Further reading:

Evaluating Online Discussion Forums (Craig, 2015)
This article published in Faculty Focus discusses some of the essential characteristics of a quality online discussion board.

Online Discussion Boards (DePaul University, 2014)
DePaul University’s resource page for online discussions has a section on effective online discussions as well as references to find out more information.

                    Rubrics for online discussion boards:

Online Discussion Board rubric (UW-Stout, 2014)

Assessing Forums with Rubrics Handout (Oregon Health and Science University, n.d.)


For more about using discussions as a pedagogic tool, check out the following resources: