Four Ways to Spark Engaging Classroom Discussions


Dr. Stephen Brookfield recently explained why he likes to give lectures from the back row. The conversation is continuing here on The Q Blog.

One topic that has come up repeatedly is how to get students engaged and participating in lively classroom discussions. The latest to join the conversation is reader Jamie Parmese, who asked a series of questions from a unique perspective:

Are there any strategies, tips, or advice you can give to beginner professors with class discussions? To be more specific, how can you creatively and engagingly start one, and when should one close? When you are in the middle of a discussion, how do you know when to turn it in a different direction?

Students are most engaged in learning when they’re verbally interacting with course material, the professor, and their classmates, research shows. Yet pulling off a great classroom discussion that involves all students is such a complex and challenging topic that we’ve broken it down into two-course modules: one focused on planning effective classroom discussions and another focused on facilitating them.

Fortunately, there are research-based techniques that are known to work. We asked Dr. Brookfield and ACUE Director of Content Development Laurie Pendleton to help us get started on answering Jamie’s questions. Below are four tips to keep students focused and engaged in meaningful classroom discussions.

1. Start your discussion on the right foot with sentence completion exercises. Using a sentence completion exercise at the start of a discussion session is an excellent way to get students to focus and connect to the topic at hand. First, ask students to complete a thought-provoking sentence related to the discussion topic. Second, have them share their responses with one another, either in small groups (for large classes) or as a whole-class (for smaller classes). Make sure students are jotting down responses that they’d like to hear more about. After all, responses have been read, have students begin the discussion by asking about the responses they wanted to hear more about.

Here are a few examples of sentences that you can ask your students to complete:

  • “What most struck me about the text we read to prepare for the discussion today is…”
  • “The question that I’d most like to ask the author of the text is…”
  • “The idea I most take issue with in the text is…”

2. Set clear expectations. “I grade students for participation in class, and I give them a participation rubric, which lists the behavior I’m looking for from them as evidence of good participation. In those behaviors are a lot of questioning items:

  • “Good participation is when you ask another student to elaborate on something they’ve already said.”
  • “Good participation is when you ask another student to explain or give an example of something that they’re talking about.”
  • “Good participation is asking the question that opens up a new area of exploration for us.”

“So I’m trying to train the students as they’re thinking about how they can get their participation marks in this class, trying to train them in the skills of asking different kinds of questions for different purposes.” (From ACUE’s interview with Dr. Brookfield)

3. Encouraging student-to-student interaction is the best way to keep a discussion going. It ensures a lively discussion as opposed to a back-and-forth between you and one or two students. Here are a few prompts that may help guide your responses:

  • “Sandra has shared an interesting viewpoint on our reading. Who else shares a similar viewpoint?”
  • “Who would like to play devil’s advocate here? Who sees something we’re all missing?”
  • “Dave, when you heard Roberto make that comment, what were you thinking?”
  • If a student asks you a question, you can always respond with, “That’s a good question. What do the rest of you think about that?”
  • “We haven’t heard much from this side of the room. What would you like to add?”

4. Be a leader in discussions by guiding students appropriately.“Students are not always looking for you to be quiet and to let them take over, which is actually a threatening and challenging prospect for certain students. They want you to model what you’re asking them to do. They want you to give them some directions on how the process should go. They’ll often look for you to bring the discussion back on track if someone is taking it in an irrelevant direction. They’re looking for you to make sure that people don’t dominate. Despite all the ground rules that you have, people will dominate, and it’s your responsibility to say, ‘Well I think we need to open this up. I’d like to hear what other people think about this.'” (From ACUE’s interview with Dr. Brookfield)

What techniques do you use to plan for or facilitate discussions in your classrooms? Be sure to share your experiences in the comments section below.

9 thoughts on “Four Ways to Spark Engaging Classroom Discussions”

  1. Great information in that I teach Marketing and all the students already have a vast knowledge of the subject as “consumers”. They already have purchased a car, a lap top, a house or any other PRODUCT. Getting them to express their experiences is hard to get them to open up on their purchases. But getting them to start thinking from the administration point, as a marketing manager, a sales manager, a public relations director, an advertising manager or any other business manager. It gives me the opportunity to open up a discussion for any prior purchases and look for the Four P’s.

  2. I find these tips very useful as well.
    For me the biggest challenge is getting those quiet students to jump in.
    I have learned that providing a “starter” question as homework works well for introverts– no writing involved, just a heads up for people who like to process ideas in privacy. “Next week I will be starting the class by asking you to tell me how this chapter relates to the one before it” or “I feel like the reading material this week has some significant biases that impact its conclusions– I’ll ask you next week to explain why you agree or disagree.”

  3. Thank you very much for these tips, these are extremely helpful. What I find particularly useful is the sentence completion exercise. It is very similar to the “five-minute paper” technique I learned in ACUE’s module on “Checking for Student Understanding.” In various ways, both ask students to identify key points and/or points that will provoke discussion, which in turn, then promotes development of higher-order thinking skills as reflected in ACUE’s action verb chart; very useful, as well. I am grateful that there will be additional modules developed to help us navigate and facilitate discussions. I also like the participation rubric very much; the more specific expectations we set, the more likely they will meet and exceed them. Besides other techniques, I would also love to hear if anyone has other great “starter” discussion questions?

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