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Talk Among Yourselves: Leading Discussions to Foster Active Learning


By: Janet Mizrahi, Guffey Author Team



Remember the iconic SNL bit in which Mike Meyers, dressed as Linda Richman, assigns a topic and says, “Discuss among yourselves”? As funny as the skit was, it’s no primer for leading discussions in the college classroom. That approach usually just doesn't work.





Classroom discussions have many beneficial learning outcomes such as students sharing perspectives by phrasing responses in ways their peers can understand. Good discussions can trigger critical thinking and the understanding that people experience events differently. Likewise, classroom interaction can be a great way to model civil discourse.


But just what does it take to encourage students to actively engage and participate in class discussions?


Experts agree that much of the responsibility lies with instructors. Research has shown that the discussion leader should be a moderator who guides but who does not control, who challenges but who does not direct. Therefore, it makes sense that instructors should plan discussions around learning outcomes to guarantee that the topic is adequately covered. When the discussion is in full force, the instructor should continually monitor its effectiveness by gently steering students toward addressing specific ideas and ensuring that all students contribute.


These pointers can help you become a more effective discussion facilitator.


Clarify when necessary. Sometimes students have trouble verbalizing what they mean. Echo the student’s comment and subtly reword it for clarity.


Consider group dynamics. Make sure no one student dominates the discussion, and invite non-participators to join in.


Correct faulty information. Students want to leave a discussion knowing they have obtained correct information relevant to course content. If a student makes an incorrect statement, elicit the help of others in the class to correct it before you step in… but if no good response is made, step in you must!


Foster participation. Students appreciate discussions more when their contributions are affirmed. Thank speakers for their input.


Listen more, speak less. Encourage student participation by listening more than talking.


Pose clear questions. Avoid long, complex phrasing and jargon students may not understand. Ask open-ended questions that encourage students to think.


Sequence questions. Prepare questions that build toward the lesson’s objectives. Good discussions need to stay on track and focus on the topic.


Show respect. Students need to feel they can trust the instructor to be open during discussions. Never be condescending; on the other hand, do not praise where none is deserved.


Spark discussion. Insert an occasional controversial statement that will stimulate debate. Playing the devil’s advocate can be a useful strategy.


How do you foster lively discussion?


Thank you Bethany ~


The list provided is great food for thought.  This is what I try to do but I'm not always successful.


I do have a number of activities where the students work in small groups for a class period or part of a second then they present on their findings. 


For example: I assign them to be a Tech Advisor for a student thinking about taking our class.  They have to create a student profile, do the research, make a recommendation and present their findings to the class.  I ask the groups to pay close attention to what is required to be successful in this class. 


  • Software is given, Office 2016
  • Hardware I ask for information about the specific CPU, why they chose that one.  RAM, how much is required to run the software (consider each application and the OS) and what type do they choose.  Hard Drive, how much room do they need?  Often the class members will ask about using Cloud.  I leave that to them to discuss; pros and cons.
  • They have to calculate the cost to include tax and shipping (I provide the tax rate for our area)
  • They have to provide links to where they recommend the purchase and show a picture of the system

I could improve this project by setting a cost limit but I want to see where this takes them.  We often learn about new websites like NewEgg and PCPartsPicker. 


Other than small group/class projects I'm concerned about class discussions as often students won't prepare on their own.


Great ideas, Bethany!


I present the first half of a lecture covering material that I think students may have difficulty with and then have the students get in groups, give them a topic/section of the material we are covering for the day and then each group has to present on one assigned topic/section of the remaining material. To keep the students active and interested, I have the groups not presenting come up with at least one comment/question concerning the material just covered that they have to ask the group presenting. This gets everyone involved and the students actually pay attention to the material presented.


@Terry_Weideman I really like this idea you mention in your community:


I have the groups not presenting come up with at least one comment/question concerning the material just covered that they have to ask the group presenting.

Why didn't I think of this? So often, after a group of students have presented their ideas, they just tune out while the other groups are presenting.  I can understand this - "Hey - I've done my part.  Now it's time to just sit back" (or worse, "Now it's time to check my social media feeds...".


I'm going to do this from now on.





Thank you, Michael! It really does make a difference. The entire class becomes engaged.