Classroom discussions are important for student learning and the development of various knowledge and skills such as increased learning and performance and the ability to structure arguments.12 This section of the module identifies several considerations for engaging students in a classroom discussion. 

Select a Topic

When you are a planning for a classroom discussion, identify an appropriate topic. For instance, examine the big ideas or core concepts of the course. The topic you select for discussion is important.


  • Pick a topic that will allow for only a “yes” or “no” responses from students


  • Pick open-ended questions that will elicit different responses and explanations from students from different perspectives. This will enable students to benefit from multiple viewpoints among their classmates.3 For example, in a sociology class, rather than asking students whether they think socioeconomic status (SES) impacts individuals’ access to employment opportunities (yes/no answer), ask them explain how SES would influence access to employment opportunities.
  • Employ ethical questions to engage students in your class discussions.

a UT engineering professor uses ethical issues: How to select good cases for your students to analyze, evaluate, and integrate.

Provide Context

Students’ prior knowledge can lead to engaging, productive discussions. If your goal is to assess students’ prior knowledge, ask questions that test their understanding of core course concepts. If they have little prior knowledge or experiences with the topic, provide them with sufficient background information to participate.

For example, if students are unfamiliar with photosynthesis as a biological process, they may be unable to participate in a discussion about photosynthesis or may develop misconceptions without a formal background. To address this issue, a brief lecture, assigned reading, or animated graphic can provide students with sufficient background information. To ensure that students complete the outside reading or view the videos you have assigned, consider using informal writing strategies such as discussion papers or think sheets prior to coming to class.

There are also times you may choose discussions to motivate students to acquire new knowledge. Begin by asking them a question to spark their interest and introduce diverse perspectives. The question can ask students their views on a debatable or controversial topic, or how the subject relates to their lives.

For example, in a psychology course, the instructor might ask students to describe a time when they attributed another person’s behavior to that person’s personality, rather than to the situational circumstances. Or in a environmental science course, the instructor might ask the students on what data they base their opinions about global warming, or what data would be sufficient to them to indicate that climate change is or is not occurring. The answers can give you insight to how students’ think and how they are relating to the lesson. 

Promote a Positive Environment

As an instructor, you are responsible for fostering a classroom climate in which students feel free and comfortable to contribute and debate ideas. On the first day of class, use the table tent activity, and provide time for students to introduce themselves, share their interests, and personal backgrounds. These activities will promote openness and collegiality among the students.4 Ask students to contribute ideas early in the course (see a Chemistry professor's explanation for why it is important to engage students from the first day of class). Communicate the class expectations and guidelines for respectful and nonjudgmental communication to facilitate student participation (see how a Mathematics professor sets the expectations for communication in her class).

By establishing these norms and sense of community, you can get students engaged in productive conversations from the beginning of the course. Within the first few weeks of class, ask students to take a side on a controversial or challenging topic through a debate. Have students stand up and arrange themselves in the classroom according to the stance with which they agree. For example, you could have all those students who believe that we have conclusive scientific evidence of climate change move to the right side of the classroom, and all of the students who believe that the evidence is inconclusive move to the left. This process requires that students talk with each other to compare their points of view, reinforcing the class norm for participation.

Some other strategies for fostering a positive learning environment include:

  • Set expectations early by clearly delineating classroom participation and guidelines for interaction. Discuss these the first day of class.
  • Arrange your classroom to facilitate interaction between instructor and students and among students. If possible within your classroom setting, arrange desks in a circle or semi-circle to promote discussion. Students will make eye contact with each other as they contribute to the discussions.
  • “Move” from student to student during the class discussion. Accomplish this by physically moving in the classroom, by shifting your eye contact from one student to the next, or simply by calling different students’ names.
  • Create flow by establishing transitions between course activities (such as between small-group discussions and whole-group discussions). Use a PowerPoint slide to outline the day’s agenda and refer to this outline to indicate transitions from one activity to the next. Additionally, move back to the front of the room to signal that the class discussion has concluded and the next activity will begin.
  • Promote a sense of belonging by getting to know your students - students want their instructors to know who they are by learning their name and calling them by name. Also, provide time for student interaction. The first day of class, you can use the table tent activity to accomplish both of these objectives simultaneously. Regardless of the question you have students answer about their table tents, this activity will help you build rapport with them, enable you to call them by name in the first class, and help you remember their name in the long-run.
  • Seek student input on course content and assignments and by using constructive feedback for instructional improvement. Administer a mid-semester course feedback to obtain and respond to student feedback.
  • Create activities that engage students. This includes activities that require active student involvement such as small group discussions or group work. Integrating students’ interests is another technique for engaging students in course content. Allow students to write about topics that interest them or chose projects that interest them.

Preparing Students

Discussions can be more effective when students are provided modeling and training on how to participate.5 Remind students of the guidelines for class discussion: make eye contact with and listen actively to the person speaking and allow everyone an opportunity to participate.6 Instruct students to clearly state their ideas and identify their source of knowledge, such as the course text, published research, personal observations, or other examples. Finally, to support active listening during the discussions, encourage students to refer to previous student comments and ask them questions about other students’ statements.

If students will maintain membership in their small group across the semester, ask students to establish their own set of guidelines for group participation and discussion. Assign students roles within their discussion groups or have them self-select. For example, have a group facilitator to manage the conversation, keeps the discussion on topic, summarize important points, and poses new questions for consideration. Students may want to have persons assigned in the group to take notes, monitor time, and present results to the whole class. Have each student take on a different role each time that the small groups meet.


(1) Terenzini, P. T., Cabrera, A. F., Colbeck, C. L., Parente, J. M., Bjorklund, S. A. (2001). Collaborative learning vs. lecture/discussion: Students’ reported learning gains. Journal of Engineering Education, 90(1), 123-130.

(2) Anderson, R. C., Nguyen-Jahiel, K., McNurlen, B., Archodidou, A., Kim, S., Reznitskaya, A., et al. (2001). The snowball phenomenon: Spread of ways of talking and ways of thinking across groups of children. Cognition and Instruction, 19, 1–46.

(3) Hulan, N. (2010). What the students will say while the teacher is away: An investigation into student-led and teacher-led discussion within guided reading groups. Literacy Teaching and Learning, 14(1 & 2), 41-64.

(4) Tiberius, R. G. (1990). Small Group Teaching: A Trouble-Shooting Guide. Toronto: Ontario.

(5) Bennett, J., Hogarth, S., Lubber, F., Campbell, B., & Robinson, A. (2010). Talking science: The research evidence on the use of small group discussions in science teaching. International Journal of Science Education, 32(1), 69-95.

(6) Gritter, K. (2011). Promoting lively literature discussion. The Reading Teacher, 64(6), 445-449.