How to Lead a Discussion

Prof sits on table, students in seminar around tables

Quick Checklist

Be Prepared

  • Carefully consider your objectives for a discussion. Do you want students to apply newly learned skills, mull over new subject matter, learn to analyze arguments critically, practice synthesizing conflicting views, or relate material to their own lives? These goals are not mutually exclusive, but they require different types of direction.
  • Use discussion to help students link concepts to their own lives; to encourage students to evaluate material critically; and to address topics that are open-ended, have no clear resolution, and/or can be effectively addressed through multiple approaches.
  • Provide students opportunities to “warm up” through brief (one- to five-minute) in-class writing exercises on the topic, three- to five-person mini-discussions, or a homework exercise prior to the session that focuses students on the topic(s) to be covered.
  • Consider using a variety of question types such as exploratory, relational, cause and effect, diagnostic, action, and hypothetical.

Setting the Agenda

  • Provide clear guidelines for participation. Discuss them beforehand, stick to them, and enforce them during the discussion.
  • Share your planning decisions with your students. Let them know what your focus is, and why it is important; also invite students to contribute suggestions for discussion topics and formats.
  • Make sure the assigned material is discussed in class; if the students don’t come prepared with questions and responses, do not let the discussion wander. Bringing in specific quotes, problems, or other samples of the assigned material can ensure that even underprepared students will have something to talk about.
  • Distributing study questions in advance demonstrates your own interest and helps focus their preparation. Consider asking students to email you their thoughts to one question. This will also give you insight into the students’ thoughts while you plan the discussion.

Facilitate, Don’t Dominate

  • Use open-ended questions and ask students for clarification, examples, and definitions.
  • Summarize student responses without taking a stand one way or another.
  • Invite students to address one another and not always “go through” you.
  • Pause to give students time to reflect on your summaries or others’ comments.
  • Consider taking notes of main points on a chalkboard or overhead, but, if you do, write everyone’s ideas down.
  • Toward the end of the discussion, review the main ideas, the thread of the discussion, and conclusions.

Creating a Good Climate for Discussion

You can also significantly increase the quantity and quality of participation simply by creating an encouraging environment for discussion.

  • Know and use the students’ names. In addition, make sure that the students know one another’s names.
  • Arrange the room to maximize student- to-student eye contact; e.g., chairs around a table or in a circle. You might vary where you sit from time to time, to break students’ habit of staring at the front of the room.
  • When students ask questions, try to help them find the answers for themselves.
  • If arguments develop, try to resolve the disputes by appeal to objective evidence rather than authority of position. If the dispute is over values, help students clarify their values and respect each others’, even if resolution is not possible. Disputes can often form the basis for interesting writing assignments.

Evaluate

  • Notice how many students participated in the discussion.
  • Notice who did and who did not participate (look for gender and racial biases).
  • Check the tone of the discussion—was it stimulating and respectful?
  • Ask students about their reactions to the discussion session.

More Detailed Information About Leading Discussions

Asking Effective Questions

From Tomorrow's Professor:

References

Barkley, Elizabeth F. Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Brookfield, Stephen D. and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005

Christine M, David M. Donahue, and Associates. Democratic Dilemmas of Teaching Service-Learning: Curricular Strategies for Success. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2011.