Saturday, 12 October 2013

Strategies for Fostering Effective Class Discussions

1) Set clear expectations for student participation in discussion sessions.

image credits: Critical Thinking
Let students know the first day of class that a significant portion of their final grade for the course will be based on how effectively they participate in class discussion sessions, both in terms of the number of times they comment and in the quality of those comments. Keep your class roster handy during discussion sessions and mark who speaks and who doesn’t. During conferences, ask those students who do not participate enough to "help you out" by speaking more in class.

You might even specify a class rule: "You are not allowed to say ‘I don’t know’ in this class when asked a question. You are not required to know, but you are expected to think. So if I ask you a question and you don’t know the answer, you are responsible to think of an answer, to guess, to speculate, to wonder aloud."

You can also foster effective discussions by helping students move out of the narrow, reductive agree/disagree formula that constitutes so much of the public and civic discourse that they are exposed to and have internalized. You can begin the course by expanding their notions of how to productively respond to comments in class, by asking them what they do when they talk to their friends over lunch, for instance, and filling the board with options outside simply agreeing and disagreeing with what the previous speaker said, such as adding new ideas, wondering, compromising, telling jokes, questioning, complaining, telling stories, challenging, and analyzing.

Be sure to "prime the pump" for discussion days. Require students to demonstrate that they have already begun processing the material before you discuss it in class. For instance, you could make students hand you an "entrance ticket" as they enter class, a homework assignment which guarantees that they are prepared to engage in a productive discussion. This ticket could consist of their answers to a set of questions on a reading, for example, or a list of questions they have about the reading, or a paragraph that discusses the three most surprising things they found in the reading, etc.

2) Control and use classroom space strategically.

Karl Krahnke (English Department, Colorado State University) notes that situating students equidistant from each other breaks down their protective space, gives the teacher access to them, and sets the stage for communication. In other words, having the students put their desks in a circle or horseshoe shape prevents them from hiding in corners or behind other students’ bodies. The circle improves communication by allowing them to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s responses without straining. And having them move their desks from rows and columns into a circle explicitly and concretely signals that a particular kind of class participation will soon be expected of them.

The circle or horseshoe shape also allows the teacher easier physical access to students than does the narrow passages of the row/column grid. This is important, because as Krahnke points out, moving toward a speaker, lessening the physical distance between yourself and the student, establishes and narrows a communication channel. Think, for example, about how talk show hosts move out into the audience. Moving toward the speaker is a physical and unmistakable indication that you are interested in what he or she is saying and that others should be listening too.

Conversely, Krahnke says, moving away from a speaker, increasing the distance between yourself and a student, widens a communication channel. As we back up, in other words, the audience grows as more people move into the speaker’s gaze.

Krahnke also suggests that working from among or even behind the students can lessen the threat from the teacher. That is, moving out from behind the "Big Desk" and sitting instead in a normal student desk as part of the circle is a concrete, physical signal that you want to be a part of the community rather than apart from it.

In like manner, he notes, lowering the communication channel decreases the teacher’s authoritative role. Sitting down among your students lets you look at and talk to them across an even plane, rather than literally talking down to them. Remember that old nugget from your biology classes: there is a "fight or flight" mechanism that kicks in from the reptile part of our brain when we have to look up too far to see what is coming at us.

3) Use eye contact purposefully and strategically.

Krahnke suggests that establishing eye contact opens a communication channel and selects the student for a turn to speak.

Breaking eye contact during a student’s turn and scanning the class, he notes, can distribute the student’s communication throughout the class. That is, when the teacher breaks eye contact with the speaking student, he or she will follow the teacher’s gaze and seek out someone else to talk to. The teacher’s scanning eye also signals other students that they should be paying attention to the speaker.

Finally, Krahnke maintains, regular scanning can keep students engaged and can provide important feedback to the teacher. This is, in short, a surveillance function. If we are making eye contact with all the students in class, they are more likely to stay involved—and if they are not involved, we will know it immediately.

4) Avoid open questions; call on individual students.

Krahnke urges us to direct our questions to specific students and distribute turns around the room. This will increase the level of attentiveness on the part of the students, he says, and increase the number of students who participate. In other words, consistently asking questions that are open to anyone in the class to answer allows the hyper-verbal students to dominate and allows others to hide.

5) Ask good questions.

The kinds of questions we ask can make all the difference between an engaging and fruitful discussion and the verbal equivalent of pulling teeth. It is a good idea to write down a skeleton script of questions you want to ask during a class discussion, being open, of course, to follow a productive thread should it move away from your plan.

Here are some hints at the kinds of questions that make for effective class discussion:

a) Analysis and Interpretation Questions—in which students are asked to talk about how or why. "Why do you think people want to appear as guests on the Jerry Springer Show?" "How might Roger rework his thesis so that it presents a clearer stance on his subject?"

b) Reader Response Questions—in which students are asked to discuss what they thought and how they felt in response to a text—and why they thought and felt these ways. "What did you think when O’Brien insisted that we sometimes need to lie in order to tell the truth?" "How did you feel when you read that one out of every three women in America will be the victim of a sexual assault?"

c) Evaluative Questions—in which students are asked to compare the relative merits of something or to consider how well something fulfills its function. "How effective is the author’s supporting evidence in paragraph four?" "How well does Elbow’s metaphor of writing as cooking work for you?"

d) Sincere Questions—in which the teacher asks a question he or she really doesn’t know the answer to. This truly invokes students as fellow explorers, collaborators in the construction of knowledge. "What do you think we can do to curb gun violence in America?" "What do you think it means in the Bible when it says ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’?"

e) The Students’ Own Questions—in which the students bring their own list of questions to class for discussion, rather than the teacher supplying them. This encourages the students to take more responsibility for their own learning and for the success of class discussion periods. Having students articulate what they want to know—or what they think they need to know—about the subject matter at hand lets them create a meaningful context for their own learning. Just as we have supplied some information here about the nature of good questions, though, teachers will have to train their students on what makes for effective (and ineffective) questions and give them preliminary practice and feedback on formulating good ones.

5) Resist responding to student comments yourself.

The first thing to learn in this regard is how to be comfortable with silences during class discussion,
how to wait while a student formulates an answer. All too often, teachers race to fill the void left in the wake of their own questions, supplying the very responses they want from their students. Stay calm; be patient. Wait while the students are thinking. Remember that good discussion is based more on responses than on reactions. The difference between a reaction—which is intuitive, instinctual, instantaneous, gut-level—and a response—which is well-considered, thoughtful, deliberative, analytical—is a matter of seconds, a pause which can make all the difference between mindlessness and thoughtfulness, chaotic cacophony and productive conversation.

Moreover, if we want students to talk to each other, we need to help them move out of their well-worn grooves, their normal and culturally conditioned ways of responding to the teacher. They will want to respond to you. You need to help them respond to one another.

To help students get used to talking to each other, rather than addressing you, the teacher, you might also require that each new speaker first respond to what the last person has said—agreeing with it, disagreeing with it, wondering about it, compromising with it, telling a related joke or story about it, questioning it, complaining about it, challenging it, analyzing it, and so on—before being allowed to add his or her own new contribution.

Finally, the best way for a teacher to avoid responding to student comments is to ask students to run the class discussions themselves. Part of the course requirements could be that each student will act as teacher for the day at some point in the term. As many instructors realize, teaching material can be the best way to learn. To decrease the pressure level, students could work in groups of two, as long as both students take an equal role in leading the discussion. The instructor would sit among the other students, preferably in a less conspicuous place, so the presenters do not revert to making eye contact only with the teacher. Of course, teachers can always use the last minutes of a class period to augment the conversation with their own thoughts, to summarize the currents of the preceding discussion, or to synthesize various threads and look ahead to the homework or the next class meeting.


As the old saying goes, trying to improve class discussion is like trying to eat an elephant: if you try to do it all at once, you’ll kill yourself. But you can eat an elephant one bite at a time. Trying to enact all these suggestions for improving class discussion at the same time would be foolish and counter-productive. Instead, peruse the lists to find some specific strategy you really want to implement, like physically moving toward the speaking student or checking, for example, and work with that one technique until it feels comfortable. Once you feel it has become a natural part of your repertoire, then determine which technique you want to incorporate next!

Source: Fostering Effective Classroom Discussions, by Barton, Heilker and Rutkowski. (slightly abridged)


  1. Is this approach limited to a specific audience age?

  2. No at all, Ricardo. But, of course, oral skills are easier to work with advanced students! Last week I promoted a class discussion with the 11th form about a possible "water crisis situation"... it was a success.