Navigating the Need for Rigor and Engagement: How to Make Fruitful Class Discussions Happen

By Harry Brighouse

Derek Bok’s great book Our Underachieving Colleges contains a passage that, ultimately, transformed my teaching.

Teaching by discussion can also seem forbidding because it makes instructors uncomfortably aware of their shortcomings. Lecturers can delude themselves that their courses are going well, but discussion leaders know when their teaching is failing to rouse the students’ interest by the indifferent quality of responses and the general torpor of the class. Trying to conduct a discussion with apathetic students is much like giving a bad dinner party.

Reading it was like receiving a slap in the face from someone who had been sitting in my classroom, and knew me better than I know myself.

Why do we lecture so much? All teachers experience a tension between the need for engagement and the need for rigor. Without rigor, the students won’t learn what we want them to; without engagement, they won’t learn anything at all. In the classroom, the best way to guarantee rigor is for the professor to do all the talking—this is how they delude themselves that the class is going well. Unfortunately, this is also the best way to ensure complete disengagement, leading to torpor when we do try to stimulate discussion.

Students have to talk and write, because talking and writing are essential for practicing the discursive practices and thinking skills that we are trying to make them learn in the humanities. We can make them write (some) outside the classroom; but in my experience most students have to talk in the classroom if they are going to talk at all.

Realizing that students need to discuss is helpful, but actually knowing how to make them discuss is another matter—it’s a skill that has to be learned. The challenge is not getting them to talk, but doing so without sacrificing too much rigor—how to ensure high-quality thinking and talking which engages the whole class.

Over time, through reading, observing excellent discussion leaders, and practicing what I’ve learned, I’ve become reasonably good at making inclusive and productive—and often rigorous—discussions happen in my smaller classes (of 15 to 25 students), and have even been able to inject some fruitful discussion into each session of my larger lectures.

Like other professors, I know my own discipline, not others. I’m reasonably successful at prompting and managing on-topic rigorous discussions about philosophy. But I don’t know how to discuss a movie, or a novel, or a history book. What follows, then, are some strategies that work for me, with my students, in my classes.

Here are some rules of thumb for smaller classes:

A discussion is not 20 individual dialogues between the professor and 20 individual students. It is a discussion like the discussions you are used to having in meetings and research seminars. Everyone is addressing the whole room. Students find this very difficult at first. So do I.

My students are inclined to deference, and tend to want to look at me, and speak to me, even though I specifically tell them to talk to the whole room. If they’re looking at me too much, I tell them to look at other people (gently, kindly). A less disruptive strategy is to casually walk around the room and regularly stand behind whoever is speaking so that they pretty much have to look at other students.

My dad has been telling me for years that “You’ve got to work on your questions.” What he means is that fruitful discussion depends on the right prompt. TV talk show hosts know which questions will draw out their guests; we need to know the right questions to draw out our students. The ideal discussion prompt is not factual recall or “What do you think?” but a question to which there are different and conflicting reasonable answers, and about which you have good reason to expect different students will respond differently.

A colleague with 40 years of teaching experience told me that he had always struggled to make discussions happen in class until, recently, he observed his TA running a discussion section. She used “think-pair-share” and, he said, “It’s like magic!” It really is, if you have the right prompt. Simply ask students to talk in pairs for a couple of minutes before they discuss things in class. Students have something to say and feel less like they’re being put on the spot, because “We said that…” is less committal and opens up space more than “I think that…”

Most teachers understand that they need to know the names of all the students. Less obvious is that the students need to know each other’s names. If you are trying to get them to discuss with each other, it is easier for them to do that if they know each other. This is especially true if the issues in the class are ones about which they are liable to disagree, and about which they feel passionately.

In discussions of hot button issues, like the morality of abortion, students are very sensitive to how they will be judged by their peers. Assuring students that we are exploring the space of reasons, and that we are thinking—carefully and precisely—out loud, seems to help them feel that they will not be judged and, actually, will not judge each other. The better they come to know each other, the less assurance they need, because the more trust they have built up.

Cold calling is like anything else. If you don’t know how to do it, it won’t work. If you do, it will. For cold calling to work, the question must be good, you should look the student in the eye and use their name, and you should assure students, ahead of time, that if they have nothing to say it really is okay for them to tell you that.

Some of these strategies work in large lecture classes too. Small-group discussions and think-pair-share have to be briefer than in smaller classes, because students go off topic sooner and are harder to monitor. I can’t learn all their names as quickly (or, in very large classes, ever), so I am much more cautious with cold calling. The more students in the room, the harder it is to keep them all engaged in a whole-class discussion in which most of them know they won’t speak. It’s much more work to ensure widespread participation. Remember that a discussion in which three people do all the talking is not a discussion but a series of soliloquies to which nobody listens. But the basic principles—design good prompts, make the students address the whole room, and assure students that we are all engaged in the same activity—seem to work across formats.

I still sometimes find it extremely difficult to resist talking too much myself. I have fostered a gestalt switch in my head, so that when I find myself thinking “I’ll be depriving them of my brilliance, and the truth, if I don’t correct them,” I prompt the thought “Ah, but if I correct them, I’ll be depriving them of the experience of thinking things through themselves.” I still talk more than I should. But things are moving in the right direction.

What to read next: Four Ways to Spark Engaging Classroom Discussions


Bok, D. (2006). Our underachieving colleges: A candid look at how much students learn and why they should be learning more. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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