Discussion Strategies

Why is discussion so important in the classroom?

(Adapted from Davis, 1993; Brookfield and Preskill, 1999)

Discussions can be an excellent strategy for enhancing student motivation, fostering intellectual agility, and encouraging democratic habits. They create opportunities for students to practice and sharpen a number of skills, including the ability to articulate and defend positions, consider different points of view, and enlist and evaluate evidence.

What are the benefits to classroom discussion?

  • Enhances student motivation
  • Fosters intellectual agility
  • Encourages critical thinking
  • Promotes active listening
  • Encourages democratic habits
  • Helps students learn to articulate and defend a position
  • Helps students learn to evaluate evidence
  • Fosters the exchange of ideas
  • Help people understand each other’s positions/viewpoints
  • Communicate information
  • Group think
  • Clear up confusions, generate questions

Develop Habits of Discussion Early

Start discussions in your class from day one. Promote a classroom environment where students are comfortable taking intellectual risks and where students respond to one another’s comments respectfully. Explicitly point out the kinds of discussion skills that you would like to see in your class and make sure students know what distinguishes high-quality contributions (e.g. claims that are substantiated with evidence, comments which effectively build on other student comments) from lower-quality contributions (e.g. unsubstantiated claims, opinions based purely on personal taste, etc.)

Create Discussion Ground Rules

Explicit ground rules or guidelines can help to ensure a respectful environment for discussion. The ground rules you use will depend on your class size and goals, but may include some of the following:

  • speak respectfully to one another, even when disagreeing
  • avoid using put-downs (even humorous ones)
  • avoid disrupting the flow of thought by introducing new issues before the discussion of the previous issue has come to its natural end
  • keep in confidence any information shared by a student in class

Preparing for Discussions in Advance

What do you want students to learn from the discussion? Before a discussion takes place, clarify your goals for the discussion.

• Plan guiding questions for the discussion.

• Design activities that will prepare students to discuss. For example:

-provide focused study questions before class

-Post guiding questions prior to the discussion

-Ask students to respond to the guiding questions, in writing or in small groups, prior to the discussion

Helping students develop discussion skills:

 Express interest in someone’s comments
 Encourage someone to elaborate on his or her comments
 Explain a link between the comments of two people
 Make a contribution that builds on someone’s comment
 Paraphrase someone’s comment
 Summarize several comments
 Ask a cause and effect question
 Ask for time to think about a comment
 Express appreciation for what you’ve gained from the discussion
 Disagree with a comment in a respectful and constructive way


Post-discussion Evaluation

Following a discussion, take time to ask your students to:


  • write briefly about what they learned, how their thinking changed, or how the discussion relates to what you are working on in class
  • reflect on the quality of the discussion, answering questions such as: What kinds of contributions were and were not helpful?  When were and weren’t digressions productive? Did everyone who wanted to get a chance to speak?  If not, why not?
  • Think about how the discussion might lead to another future discussion

Setting up an online discussion website


 This  9 minute youtube video by Jacob Sanchez will walk you through the steps to set up a google website discussion forum for your students.

Strategies for Promoting Class Discussions:

Discussion Leader

Require each student to take a turn as class discussion leader (you must “train” them)

Bring a question

Have students bring in a question or reaction to an assigned reading, then let the class vote on ones to discuss.

Contentious Statement

Begin class discussion by quoting a contentious statement and allowing students to challenge or argue the merits of the statement.

Circle of Voices

Create a “circles of voices,” in which students form groups of five, and each person speaks for three minutes on the topic. Then the discussion opens into a free-flow format; however, students are only able to expand upon ideas presented in the circle of voices.

Hatful of Quotation

Bring in a “hatful of quotations” related to the designated topic, and have students pull a quotation from the hat, then offer a short response to the quotation.

Pass The Folder

Use the “pass the folder” discussion format: a) divide class into small groups; each group gets a folder, b) give 5 minutes for each group to choose an issue from the reading to discuss, then 5-10 minutes to discuss it, c) they write that issue on the front of their folder and their ideas in the folder and pass folders to next group, d) give that group 5-10 minutes to discuss the issue, e) repeat as you wish. During the final time, the group has 10 minutes to read all the responses to the issue on the folder they have at that time and to respond and share).

Think, Pair, Share

The teacher poses questions to the class, where students are sitting in pairs. Students silently think of a response individually for a given period of time, then pair with their partners to discuss the question and reach consensus. The teacher then asks students to share their agreed-upon  answers with the rest of the class.

Three-step interview:

Divide four-member groups into two pairs: A and B, C and D. In step 1, A interviews B while C interviews D. In step 2, reverse roles: B interviews A while D interviews C. In step 3, share-around: each person shares information about his/her partners in the group of 4.

The jigsaw technique

The jigsaw technique can be a useful, well-structured template for carrying out effective in-class group work. The class is divided into several teams, with each team preparing separate but related assignments. When all team members are prepared, the class is re-divided into mixed groups, with one member from each team in each group. Each person in the group teaches the rest of the group what he/she knows, and the group then tackles an assignment together that pulls all of the pieces together to form the full picture (hence the name “jigsaw”).


A symposium consists of prepared comments by several speakers on a single topic or reading. When all of the speakers have finished their presentations, the speakers initate and lead discussion. They might invite the audience to respond to questions, ask questions, contribute additional information, or express agreement or disagreement with the speakers’ views. Symposium speakers and audience members are responsible for being familiar with the assigned reading; speakers/leaders are also responsible for preparing to lead the discussion (details will be covered in class), and audience members for raising questions and participating actively in the discussion.

 Syndicates, Poster Tours, and Fishbowls

“Syndicates” are small groups of students who work together on a task. They then share their results with the whole group.

“Posters” are one way to share the results. Each syndicate creates a “poster” with their thoughts, ideas, or suggestions. The posters are then “toured” by the whole group.

“Fishbowls” are another way to discuss results. Students form two circles – an inner one (with a representative from each syndicate group) and an outer one. The inner group has a discussion, surrounded by larger group, who listens. Students in the outside circle must “tap out” someone in the fishbowl in order to change places with that person and contribute to the discussion.

The gallery walk

The gallery walk is a cooperative learning strategy in which the instructor devises several questions/problems and posts each question/problem at a different table or at a different place on the walls (hence the name “gallery”). Students form as many groups as there are questions, and each group moves from question to question (hence the name “walk”). After writing the group’s response to the first question, the group rotates to the next position, adding to what is already there. At the last question, it is the group’s responsibility to summarize and report to the class.

Concept sketches

Concept sketches (different from concept maps) are sketches or diagrams that are concisely annotated with short statements that describe the processes, concepts, and interrelationships shown in the sketch. Having students generate their own concept sketches is a powerful way for students to process concepts and convey them to others. Concept sketches can be used as preparation for class, as an in-class activity, in the field or lab, or as an assessment tool.

Using case studies

Case studies have been used successfully for many years in business school and in medical school for actively engaging students in problem-solving relevant to the discipline. The primary hallmark of a case study is presentation of students with a problem to solve that revolves around a story (the “case”). In medical school case studies, the “story” typically involves a sick patient. In science case studies, “stories” can range from public policy issues to science research questions. Good case studies give the students considerable latitude in deciding how to solve the problem, rather than leading them through the problem by the nose, and provide excellent opportunities to engage students in the classroom.


Debates can be a very useful strategy for engaging students in their own learning. Debates force students to deal with complexity and “gray areas”, and they are rich in imbedded content. Debates can also help provide relevancy of course material to everyday issues, which can improve student learning. Debates also improve student’s oral communication skills.

Critical debate:

Source: http://drscavanaugh.org/discussion/inclass/discussion_formats.htm

Find a contentious issue on which opinion is divided amongst participants. Frame the issue as a debate motion. Propose the motion to participants. By a show of hands ask people either to volunteer to work on a team that is preparing arguments to support the motion or to volunteer to work on a team that is preparing arguments to oppose the motion. Announce that all those who have prepared to work on the team to draft arguments to support the motion will now comprise the team to draft arguments to oppose the motion. Similarly, all those who have prepared to work on the team to draft arguments to oppose the motion will now comprise the team to draft arguments to support the motion. Conduct the debate. Each team chooses one person to present their arguments. After initial presentations the teams reconvene to draft rebuttal arguments and choose one person to present these.

Debrief the debate. Discuss with participants their experience of this exercise. Focus on how it felt to argue against positions you were committed to. Ask participants to write a follow up reflection paper on the debate

Just-in-Time Teaching

Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT) was developed as a way of engaging students in course material before class and preparing them to come to class and participate actively during class. Clicking “more information” below will take you to a discussion, at the Starting Point site, of using Just-in-Time teaching.

Role playing

Role-playing and simulations in class can be an excellent way to engage students. A well-constructed role-playing or simulation exercise can emphasize the real world and require students to become deeply involved in a topic. Clicking “more information” below will take you to a discussion, at the Starting Point site, of teaching with role playing.

What is Author’s Chair?

This strategy provides a way for readers to share with each other the excitement of a particular moment in relation to a book or to their own writing. Author’s Chair is the final step in the writing process. A special time and place is allotted to writers who wish to share their final products with an audience. Because the writing has already gone through revising and editing based on constructive criticism, Author’s Chair is an opportunity for the writer to receive positive feedback from their classmates. The student in the author’s chair reads aloud a selected piece of text or a piece of their own writing. Peers then have an opportunity to respond to what is read aloud.

What is its purpose?

  • to develop students’ concept of authorship
  • to emphasize that students’ ideas and experiences are worthy of preservation and sharing
  • to develop collaborative learning abilities and peer editing skills
  • provide an audience for hard work done well is a motivating force for children to write more in the future.
  • as an active-listening audience member, students develop listening and attention span skills.
  • analyze written work requires reflection and critical thinking abilities. Giving and receiving feedback is beneficial for both parties. Both the presenter and the audience member’s own writing improves as a result of the critique.

How can I do it?

  • Facing the audience, an individual reads a personal draft or polished composition.
  • The author shares accompanying illustrations with the audience.
  • The audience is respectful and accepting of the author’s efforts.
  • The author requests comments from audience members.
  • First responses are positive.
  • Comments focus upon favourite events and characters or particularly interesting and impressive uses of language.
  • The author or audience direct questions about the clarity and the effectiveness of passages, or about the language structures or specific vocabulary.
  • The audience offers suggestions.
  • Initially teachers model and guide audience responses.

How can I adapt it?

  • Beginning writers can share drawings with captions or limited text.
  • Students could share their writing with younger students.
  • An “author of the week” could be chosen regularly. The individual’s work could be put on display and peers could post their comments about particular compositions. Items for display should be chosen by the author.
  • Allow children time to share their reasoning at the ‘math author’s chair,’ a special chair for students to explain to their classmates their own solution to a problem.
  • This procedure should apply to writing efforts in all subject areas. Examples of narrative and expository writing should be shared.

Assessment & Evaluation Considerations

  • Students’ interest and participation as authors and listeners is observed and recorded.
  • Note comments posed and questions asked about drafts which identify needs for instruction.
  • Sessions could be audio or video taped

What are Book Talks?

During book talks, students discuss with classmates books they have read, heard or “discovered.” The shared selections may be ones read to them by a librarian, babysitter, parent, Elder, relative or older student, or they may be books students have read themselves. Book talks can be scheduled during daily shared language sessions.

What is its purpose?

  • to focus students’ attention on enjoyable and informative print
  • to provide opportunities for students to share responses to a book, and to exchange ideas with peers
  • to entice students to read peer-recommended selections
  • to develop personal interpretations and responses to literature by reflecting upon, discussing and evaluating selections

How can I do it?

  • The teacher demonstrates book talks before asking students to participate.
  • Students prepare in advance to talk about books of their choosing.
  • Students talk about the book or briefly summarize it, read an interesting or exciting part, show illustrations, dress like one of the book’s characters, talk and/or act like one character, or answer questions about the book.
  • Listeners are encouraged to ask questions.
  • Short sessions should be scheduled daily, with only a few participants sharing.
  • Initial participation should be voluntary.

How can I adapt it?

  • Students can participate in class or school book fairs.
  • Older students can read to and talk about books with younger students.
  • Teacher-student conferencing about books can occur.
  • Teachers and teacher-librarians could use this activity to introduce selections for literature study or to introduce recently acquired resources.
  • Teachers and students could collaboratively critique books for bias in print and in illustrations.

Assessment & Evaluation Considerations

  • Monitor students’ interest in books.
  • Note students who do not participate — they may not be familiar with books or may not have sufficient access to books and resources.
  • Conference students about their participation if they are reluctant to share comments and questions with the class.

What is Categorizing?

Categorizing involves grouping objects or ideas according to criteria that describe common features or the relationships among all members of that group. This procedure enables students to see patterns and connections; it develops students’ abilities to manage or organize information.

What is its purpose?

  • to provide an opportunity to share existing knowledge and understanding
  • to extend students’ thinking and understanding by requiring them to organize ideas and incorporate new ones
  • to encourage students to practice acceptance and understanding of diverse ideas and viewpoints
  • to demonstrate that information can be grouped or classified in more than one way

How can I do it?

  • Introductory categorization procedures should focus on concrete objects such as toys or materials readily available in the classroom.
  • Initially, the teacher will provide the criteria by which objects are to be grouped such as size, colour, shape or use. Students will later develop their own classification guidelines.
  • Encourage students to explain their reasons for placing items in particular categories.
  • Ensure that all students see and understand the relationships.
  • Encourage students to question each other’s categorizations.
  • Provide opportunities for students to categorize their objects according to criteria of their choosing.
  • Demonstrate this strategy with the whole class, then progress to small group and individual categorizing activities.
  • Students should move from concrete objects to categorizing pictures, labels, words and information.

How can I adapt it?

  • In kindergarten and grade 1 classrooms, categorize students’ names, their preferences, objects and classroom labels .
  • Categorizing activities should be used in all subject areas.
  • Categorizing can follow listening and brainstorming sessions. After a quantity of ideas has been shared, students can categorize those ideas.
  • Story grammar, story mapping, and webbing are forms of categorizing information.
  • Categorize books by
    drawing attention to the similarities and differences of formats, language use, authors’ styles, and
    comparing characters and events in various selections.
  • Categorize related ideas for writing paragraphs.

Assessment & Evaluation Considerations

  • Monitor students’ ability to understand relationships among items.
  • Observe students’ ability to categorize items using more than one criteria or category.
  • Note students’ ability to categorize items independently.

What is Cooperative Learning?

Cooperative learning is an instructional strategy that simultaneously addresses academic and social skill learning by students. It is a well-researched instructional strategy and has been reported to be highly successful in the classroom. For a more in depth explanation of this strategy, follow this link to the self-guided tutorial.

What is its purpose?

There is an every increasing need for interdependence in all levels of our society. Providing students with the tools to effectively work in a collaborative environment should be a priority. Cooperative Learning is one way of providing students with a well defined framework from which to learn from each other. Students work towards fulfilling academic and social skill goals that are clearly stated. It is a team approach where the success of the group depends upon everyone pulling his or her weight.

How can I do it?

Five Basic Elements of Cooperative Learning
1. Positive Interdependence
2. Face-To-Face Interaction
3. Individual Accountability
4. Social Skills
5. Group Processing

The basic elements of cooperative learning can be considered essential to all interactive methods. Student groups are small, usually consisting of two to six members. Grouping is heterogeneous with respect to student characteristics. Group members share the various roles and are interdependent in achieving the group learning goal. While the academic task is of primary importance, students also learn the importance of maintaining group health and harmony, and respecting individual views.

How can I adapt it?

Cooperative learning can take place in a variety of circumstances. For example, brainstorming and tutorial groups, when employed as instructional strategies, provide opportunities to develop cooperative learning skills and attitudes.

Assessment and Evaluation Considerations

Observing cooperative learning groups in action allows you to effectively assess students’ work and understanding. Cooperative learning groups also offer a unique opportunity for feedback from peers and for self-reflection.



From Maxwell, R.J., & Meiser, M.J. (2001). Teaching English in middle and secondary schools (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.


Everyone sits or stands in a circle and responds to the same question. They think or write it out for a minute and then have 30 seconds to respond. This is a good way to get all students to participate in a discussion.

Buzz groups

Students discuss a particular topic or question in small groups (2-3 people). The discussion is continued in the large group. Students who normally would not contribute will feel confident giving their opinion out loud once they have had it validated by a few peers.


Brainstorming is a good way to generate ideas for discussion. Students contribute ideas without any discussion, elaboration, or criticism. After the brainstorming exercise, students go through the various ideas and choose the ones they would like to pursue.

Pyramid & Cross-overs

In the “pyramid” activity, students work alone first, then in pairs, then in fours or sixes, and finally as whole group. They work on a particular task – for example, a case study or an article.

“Cross-overs” could be used if each group is working on a different task (for example, each group could define a new concept). After the small groups have completed their task, divide up the groups once again. Assign a member from each first group to each new group. Members of the new group teach each other what they learned in their previous group.


Students stand in a line. Each end of the line represents a particular stance on a given topic or question. All participants stand on the part of the line that represents their views.

To find your position, talk to the person on either side of you in the line-up to find out if you are in the right place in relation to others.

This strategy is useful for “hot” discussion topics where people often have very strong opinions. It lets students feel confident about their own position – because they NEED to find a place in the line. It shows that all viewpoints are respected.

Three minutes each way (or active listening)

This activity encourages students to reason more clearly and to push the limits of their reasoning as far as possible by thinking through a topic out loud, without interruption.

Students work in pairs. Try to pair up students with opposing or differing views.

One person speaks and one person listens until time is called, then speaker and listener switch roles. Listener ONLY listens — the listener may bring speaker back to topic if necessary, but does NOT offer suggestions, or opinions, and does NOT bale the speaker out.

Students could write a “one-minute paper” after this exercise in which they discuss how their opinions differed from their partner’s, why they seemed to differ, what they learned from their partner’s perspective, etc.

Adapted from Learning to Teach: Running Tutorials and Seminars (David Baume and Carole Baume, The Oxford Centre for Staff Development, 1996)

Discussion Questions generated by students

Ask students to form small groups and come up with several questions they would like addressed in class discussion. Put them on the board or ask students to write them down. Questions might be grouped around common themes and then discussed or picked at random for discussion. Since the questions they come from students, students will likely be interested in discussing them.


Devil’s Advocate


Allow and encourage students to play devil’s advocate. By announcing that they are playing devil’s advocate, students can safely challenge someone else’s opinion without seeming to criticize.


Asking Good Questions

Good questions are the key to a productive discussion. These include not only the questions you use to jump-start discussion but also the questions you use to probe for deeper analysis, ask for clarification or examples, explore implications, etc. It is helpful to think about the various kinds of questions you might ask and the cognitive skills they require to answer. Davis (1993) lists a range of question types, including:

  • Exploratory questions: probe facts and basic knowledge
  • Challenge questions: interrogate assumptions, conclusions or interpretations
  • Relational questions: ask for comparisons of themes, ideas, or issues
  • Diagnostic questions: probe motives or causes
  • Action questions: call for a conclusion or action
  • Cause-and-effect questions: ask for causal relationships between ideas, actions, or events
  • Extension questions: expand the discussion
  • Hypothetical questions: pose a change in the facts or issues
  • Priority questions: seek to identify the most important issue(s)
  • Summary questions: elicit synthesis

Pre-reading to stimulate discussion

Brookfield and Preskill (1999), recommend “structured, critical pre-reading” to promote discussion focused on these kinds of questions:

  • Epistemological questions probe how an author comes to know or believe something to be true
  • Experiential questions help the student review the text through the lens of his/her relevant personal experiences
  • Communicative questions ask how the author conveys meaning and whether the forms clarify or confuse
  • Political questions ask how the work serves to represent certain interests and challenge others

Panel Discussion

Source: http://otal.umd.edu/amst/mini-center/resources/discussion/outline.html

A panel discussion consists of a chairperson and from four to eight participants. The participants speak in conversational style, generally not longer than a few minutes at a time. They express opinions, disagree with, and question one another. The chairperson acts as a moderator, stimulating, directing, and summarizing the discussion. After a while, the audience joins in the discussion. Audience members may question the panel; in addition, panel members may address general or specific questions to the audience. The chairperson summarizes the discussion before bringing it to an end. The procedure is as follows:


a. A chairperson introduces and serves as the moderator.

b. The speakers take turns in presenting ideas gained from their investigation of a subject. Each participant, limited by prior agreement to a particular phase of the subject, covers his part as thoroughly as possible in the time allotted.

c. After opening presentations of a few minutes each, the chairperson permits each participant to question on or comment on the views of any of the other speakers.

d. Panelists may refer to prepared notes in presenting their initial talks. Afterwards they speak extemporaneously.

e. After a reasonable time, the chairperson opens the discussion to the audience.

f. The chairperson summarizes the discussion.


Duties of the Chairperson (usually the teacher):

1. Arranges a preliminary meeting (s) of the speakers

2. Defines the issue or problem

3. Keeps the discussion focused

4. Draws timid panelists into the discussion and prevents more vocal panelists from dominating

5. Clarifies different points of view

6. Moderates the discussion with the audience

7. Summarizes/concludes


Duties of a Participant:

1. Knows the subject thoroughly

2. Gathers data by doing research

3. Participates actively in discussion/listens intelligently

4. Speaks clearly and audibly

5. Is always courteous. Sarcasm and ridicule are out of place. Disagree reasonably and with reason.


Duties of an Audience Member:

1. Listens and watches courteously and intelligently

2. Considers each point of view presented; develops specific questions or comments to ask panelists

3. Participates actively in latter part of discussion

Leading A Discussion Using the Nominal Group Technique

Source: http://tep.uoregon.edu/services/newsletter/year95-96/issue30/nominal.html

Students are often anxious about contributing to discussion because they don’t want to look stupid in front of the class. The beauty of the nominal group technique is that it short-circuits that fear by soliciting anonymous contributions from everyone. This makes it an effective technique to use early in the quarter before the ice is broken in class.

The core of the technique is the use of “anonymous cards.” These can be 3 x 5 index cards, small pieces of paper, or whatever is convenient for you. When you want to generate contributions to a discussion, pass out these cards to the class. Give everyone a minute or two to write down questions, issues, or ideas, then collect and redistribute the cards randomly. Finally, have everyone read what is written on the cards. Presto — everyone in class has contributed to the discussion and no one looks stupid!

It is often useful to write the responses that you get up on the board, and cluster them according to topic. This gives everyone a visual display of what opinions and priorities are held by the class as a whole.

There are two ways you can use anonymous cards:

  • If you want to focus the discussion on course material, have the students respond on their cards to a strategic question you have posed. For example: “Tell me why Medea was or was not justified in killing her children.” Or “Write down all the variables you can think of that might affect the reaction between these two compounds.”
  • If you simply want the discussion to clarify a concept covered earlier (in lecture, reading, or discussion), then have the students pose questions to you. For example, “Write down any questions you have about yesterday’s lecture — anything you don’t understand or have a hard time connecting to the homework.”

As students read their cards aloud, use the blackboard to cluster what they say, putting hash marks on the board next to questions that are repeated. When you are done, the blackboard will contain a prioritized agenda for the day.

The advantage of the nominal group technique is that it solicits contributions from everyone, no matter what the class climate is like. Whether your class is shy or over-active, the use of anonymous cards gets everyone’s ideas — even those from the guy in the back reading the Emerald — heard and thought about by everyone. This is a wonderful technique, but it is important not to use nominal group technique to the exclusion of other techniques.

Ten Tips To Faciltiate Discussion


1. Paraphrase. Paraphrase what a student has said so that he or she feels understood and so that the other students can hear a concise summary of what has been said.


2. Check for Meaning. Check your understanding of a student’s statement or ask the student to clarify what he or she is saying.


3. Give Positive Feedback. Compliment an interesting or insightful comment.

4. Expand. Elaborate on a student’s contribution to the discussion with examples, or suggest a new way to view the problem.


5. Increase the Pace. Energize a discussion by quickening the pace, using humor, or, if necessary, prodding the group for more contributions.


6. Devil’s Advocate. Disagree (gently) with a student’s comments to stimulate further discussion.


7. Relieve Tension. Mediate differences of opinion between students and relieve any tensions that may be brewing.


8. Consolidate. Pull together ideas, showing their relationship to each other.


9. Change the Process. Alter the method for obtaining participation or by having the group evaluate ideas that have been presented.


10. Summarize. Summarize what’s been said.

Source: Active Training, 26 Linden Lane, Princeton, NJ 08540 (800-924-8157) mel@activetraining.com


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Discussion Strategies

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