Learning Through Discussion
Discussions can be meaningful and engaging learning experiences: dynamic, eye-opening, and generative. However, like any class activity, they require planning and preparation. Without that, discussion challenges can arise in the form of unequal participation, unclear learning outcomes, or low engagement. This resource presents key considerations in class discussions and offers strategies for how instructors can prepare and engage in effective classroom discussions.
The What and Why of Class Discussion
Class discussion can take many forms, from structured prompts and assignments to more casual or informal conversations. Regardless of class context (e.g.: a seminar, large lecture, or lab course) or the form (e.g.: in-person or asynchronous) discussion takes, it offers a number of benefits to students’ learning. As an active learning technique, class discussion requires students to be co-constructors of their learning. Research shows that students learn more when they actively participate in their learning, rather than passively listen. Furthermore, studies have also shown that “student participation, encouragement, and peer-to-peer interaction was consistently and positively related to the development of critical thinking skills” (Howard, 2015, pp. 6). Class discussion has also been linked to greater student motivation, improved communication skills, and higher grades (Howard, 2015). But just like effective lectures or assignments require planning and preparation, so too does class discussion.
The following sections offer a framework and strategies for learning through discussion. These strategies are organized around four key phases: planning for classroom discussion, warming up for classroom discussion, engaging in classroom discussion, and wrapping up classroom discussion.
Identifying your Course Context
While the strategies and considerations provided throughout this resource are adaptable across course contexts, it is important to recognize instructors’ varied course formats, and how discussion might differ across them. This section identifies a few of these contexts, and reviews how these contexts might shape instructors’ engagement with both this resource and class discussion more broadly.
I teach a discussion-based course
Small classes and seminars use discussion-based pedagogies, though it can be challenging to get every student to contribute to discussions. It is important to create multiple opportunities for engagement and not just rely on whole group discussion. Pair and small group discussions can create trust among students and give them the confidence to speak up in the larger group. Instructors of discussion-based courses can extend in-class discussions into the asynchronous space. These inclusive moves allow students to contribute to discussions in multiple ways.
I do not teach a discussion-based course
Whether teaching a large lecture course, a lab course, or other non-discussion based course, students will still benefit from interacting with each other and learning through discussion. Small group or pair discussion can be less intimidating for students regardless of class size and help create a sense of community that impacts learning.
I teach a course that may have some Hybrid/HyFlex meetings.
In-person classes might sometimes offer hybrid or HyFlex opportunities for students to accommodate extenuating circumstances. In a hybrid/HyFlex course session, students participating in-person and remotely should have equal opportunities to contribute to discussions. To make this a reality, advanced preparation involves thinking through the logistics using discussion activities, roles and responsibilities (if working with TA(s)), classroom technologies (e.g., ceiling microphones available in the classroom; asking in-person students to bring a mobile device and headset if possible to engage with their remote peers), and determining the configurations if using discussion groups or paired work (both in a socially distanced classroom, and if asking both in-person and remote students to discuss together in breakout groups).
Planning for Classroom Discussion
Regardless of your course context, there are some general considerations for planning a class discussion; these considerations include: the goals and expectations, the modality of discussion, and the questions you might use to prompt discussion. The following section offers some questions for reflection, alongside ideas and strategies to address these considerations.
Goals & Expectations
What is the goal of the discussion? How will it support student learning? What are your expectations of student participation and contributions to the discussion? How will you communicate the goals and expectations to students?
Articulate the goals of discussion: Consider both the content you want your students to learn and the skills you want them to apply and develop. These goals will inform the learner-centered strategies and digital tools you use during discussion.
Communicate the purpose (not just the topic) of discussion: Sharing learning goals will help students understand why discussion is being used and how it will contribute to their learning.
Specify what you expect of student contributions to the discussion and how they will be assessed: Be explicit about what students should include in their contributions to make them substantive, and model possible ways of responding. Guide students in how they can contribute substantively to their peers’ live responses or online posts. You might consider asking students to use the 3CQ model:
- Compliment—I like that ___ because…;
- Comment—I agree/disagree with (specific point/idea) because…;
- Connection—I also thought that…;
- Question—I wonder why…
Establish discussion guidelines: Communicate expectations for class discussion. Be sure to include desired behaviours/etiquette and how technologies and tools for discussion will be used. Students in all classes can benefit from discussion guidelines as they help to clearly identify and establish expectations for student success. While there are some shared general discussion guidelines, there are also some specific considerations for asynchronous discussions:
Sample Discussion Guidelines:
- Refer to classmates by name.
- Allow everyone the chance to speak (“Take Space, Make Space”).
- Constructively critique ideas, not individuals.
- Listen actively without interrupting.
- Contribute questions, ideas, or resources.
Sample Asynchronous Discussion Guidelines:
- Respond to discussion posts within # of hours or days.
- Review one’s own writing for clarity before posting, being mindful of how it may be interpreted by others.
- Prioritize building upon or challenging the strongest ideas presented in a post instead of only focusing on the weakest aspects.
- Follow the ABCs:
- Acknowledge something someone else said.
- Build on their comment by connecting with course content, adding an example or observation.
- Conclude with critical thinking or socratic questions.
Invite students to revise, contribute to, or co-create the guidelines. One way to do this is to facilitate a discussion about discussions, asking students to identify what the characteristics of an effective discussion are. This will encourage their ownership of the guidelines. Post the guidelines in CourseWorks and refer to them as needed.
In what modality/modalities will the discussion take place (in-person/live, asynchronous, or a blend of both)?
The modality of your class discussion may determine the tools and technologies that you ask students to engage with. Thus, it is important to determine early on how you would like students to engage in discussion and what tools you will use to support their engagement. Consider leveraging your asynchronous course spaces (e.g., CourseWorks), which can help students both prepare for an in-class discussion, as well expand upon and continue in-class discussions. For support with setting up asynchronous discussions, see the Leveraging Asynchronous Discussion Spaces section below.
What prompts will be used for discussion? Who will come up with those prompts (e.g.: instructor, TA, or students)?
The questions you ask and how you ask them are important for leading an effective discussion. Discussion questions do not have to be instructor-generated; asking students to generate discussion prompts is a great way to engage them in their learning.
Draft open-ended questions that advance student learning and inspire a range of answers (avoiding closed-ended, vague, or leading questions). Vary question complexity over the course of a discussion. If there’s one right answer, ask students about their process to get to the right answer.
The following table features sample questions that increase in cognitive complexity and is based on the six categories of the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy.
|Question Type and Purpose||Sample Questions|
Questions that assess basic knowledge or recollection of subject matter.
|“What is the purpose of X?”
“What happened after X?”
“Why did X happen?”
Questions that ask students to explain, interpret, or give examples.
|“What was the contribution of X?”
“What was the main idea?”
“Give an example of X…”
Questions that ask students to use their knowledge/skills in new ways.
|“How is X an example of Y?”
“How is X related to Y?”
“Can you apply this method to…?”
Questions that ask students to draw connections.
|“Compare/contrast X and Y.”
“What’s the importance of X?”
“How is this similar to X?”
Questions that ask students to make judgements and assessments.
|“How would you assess X?”
“Is there a better solution to X?”
“How effective is X?”
Questions that ask students to combine ideas and knowledge.
|“How would you design X?”
“What’s a new use for X?”
“Other ways to achieve X?”
Warming up for Classroom Discussion
Get students comfortable talking with their peers, you, and the TA(s) (as applicable) from the start of the course. Create opportunities for students to have pair or small group conversations to get to know one another and connect as a community. Regardless of your class size or context (i.e.: seminars, large-lecture classes, labs), for discussions to become a norm in your course, you will need to build community early on in the course.
Get students talking early and often to foster community
How will you make peer-to-peer engagement an integral part of your class? How can you get students talking to each other?
To encourage student participation and peer-to-peer interaction, create early and frequent opportunities for students to share and talk with each other. These opportunities can help make students more comfortable with participating in discussion, as well as help build rapport and foster trust amongst class members. Icebreakers and small group discussion opportunities provide great ways to get students talking, especially in large-enrollment classes where students may feel less connection with their peers (see sample icebreakers below). For additional support with building community in your course, see the CTL’s Community Building in Online and Hybrid (HyFlex) Courses resource. (Although this resource emphasizes online and hybrid/HyFlex modalities, the strategies provided are applicable across all course modalities.)
Establish class norms around discussion and participation
How can you communicate class norms around discussion and participation on day one?
The first class meeting is an opportunity to warm students up to class discussion and participation from the outset. Rather than letting norms of passivity establish over the first couple of weeks, you can use the first class meeting to signal to students they will be expected to participate or interact with their peers regularly. You might ask students to do a welcoming icebreaker on the first day, or you might invite questions and syllabus discussion. No matter the activity, establishing a norm around discussion and participation at the outset will help warm students up to participating and contributing to later discussions; these norms can also be further supported by your discussion guidelines.
Icebreakers: Icebreakers are a great way to establish a positive course climate and encourage student-student, as well as instructor-student, interactions. Some ideas for icebreaker activities related to discussion include:
- (Meta)Discussion about Discussions: In small groups during class, or using a CourseWorks discussion board, students introduce themselves to each other, and share their thoughts on what are the qualities of good and bad discussions.
- Course Content: Ask students to share their thoughts about a big question that the course addresses or ask students what comes to mind when they think of an important course concept. You could even ask students to scan the syllabus and share about a particular topic or reading they are most excited about.
Engaging in Classroom Discussion
With all of your preparation and planning complete, there are some important considerations you will need to make with both your students and yourself in mind. This section offers some strategies for engaging in classroom discussion.
Involve students in discussion
How will you engage all of your students in the discussion? How will you make discussion and your expectations about student participation explicit and integral to the class?
Involving your students in class discussion will allow for more student voices and perspectives to be contributed to the conversation. You might consider leveraging the time before and after class or office hours to have informal conversations and build rapport with students. Additionally, having students rotate roles and responsibilities can keep them focused and engaged.
Student roles: Engage all students by asking them to volunteer for and rotate through roles such as facilitator, summarizer, challenger, etc. In large-enrollment courses, these roles can be assigned in small group or pair discussions. For an asynchronous discussion, roles might include: discussion starter / original poster, connector to research, connector to theory. Additional roles might include: timekeeper, notetaker, discussion starter, wrapper, and student monitor:
- Discussion starter / original poster: Involve students in initiating the discussion. Designate 2–3 students per discussion to spark the conversation with a question, quotation, an example, or link to previous course content.
- Discussion wrapper: Engage students in facilitating the discussion. Help students grasp take-aways. Designate 2-3 students per discussion to wrap up the discussion by identifying themes, extracting key ideas, or listing questions to explore further.
- Student monitor: Ask a student (on a rotating basis) or TA(s) if applicable, to monitor the Zoom chat (in hybrid/HyFlex courses) or the CourseWorks Discussion Boards (when leveraging asynchronous discussion spaces). The monitors can then flag important points for the class or read off the questions that are being posed.
Student-generated questions: Prepare students for discussion and involve them in asking and answering peer questions about the topic. Invite students to post questions to a CourseWorks Discussion before class, or share their questions during the discussion. If students are expected to respond to their peer’s questions, they need to be told and guided how to do so. Highlight and use insightful student questions to prime or further the discussion.
Student-led presentations: In smaller seminar-style classes or labs, invite students to give informal presentations. You might ask them to share examples that relate to the topic or concept being discussed, or respond to a targeted prompt.
Determine your role in discussion
How will you facilitate discussion? What will your presence be in asynchronous discussion spaces? What can students expect of your role in the discussion?
Make your role (or that of your co-instructor(s) and/or TA(s)) in the discussion explicit so that students know what to expect of your presence, reinforcement of the discussion guidelines, and receipt of feedback.
Actively guide the discussion to make it easy for students to do most of the talking and/or posting. This includes being present, modeling contributions, asking questions, using students’ names, giving timely feedback, affirming student contributions, and making inclusive moves such as including as many voices and perspectives and addressing issues that may arise during a conversation.
- For in-class discussions, additional strategies include actively listening, giving students time to think before responding, repeating questions, and warm calling. (Unlike cold calling, warm calling is when students do pre-work and are told in advance that they will be asked to share their or their group’s response. This technique can minimize student anxiety, as well as produce higher quality responses.)
- For asynchronous discussions, additional strategies include having parallel discussions in small groups on CourseWorks, and inviting students to post videos, audio clips, or images such as drawings, maps, charts, etc.
Manage the discussion and intervene when necessary: Manage dynamics, recognizing that your classroom is influenced by societal norms and expectations that may be inherently inequitable. Moderate the ongoing discussion to make sure all students have the opportunity to contribute. Ask students to explain or provide evidence to support their contributions, connect their contributions to specific course concepts and readings, redirect or keep the conversation on track, and revisit discussion guidelines as needed.
For large-enrollment courses, you might ask TAs or course assistants to join small groups or monitor discussion board posting. While it’s important for students to do most of the talking and posting, TAs can support students in the discussion, and their presence can help keep the discussion on track. If you have TAs who lead discussion sections, you might consider sharing some of these discussion management strategies and considerations with them, and discuss how the discussion sections can and will expand upon discussions from the larger class.
Give students time to think before, during, and after the discussion
Thinking time will allow students to prepare more meaningful contributions to the discussion and creates opportunities for more students, not just the ones that are the quickest to respond, to contribute to the conversation. Comfort with silence is important following a posed question. Some thinking time activities include:
- “Silent meeting” (Armstrong, 2020): Devote class time to students silently engaging with course materials and commenting in a shared document. You can follow this “silent meeting” with small group discussions. In a large enrollment class, this strategy can allow students to engage more deeply and collaboratively with material and their peers.
- Think-Pair-Share: Give students time to think before participating. In response to an open-ended question, ask students to first think on their own for a few minutes, then pair up to discuss their ideas with their partner. Finally, ask a few pairs to share their main takeaways with the whole class.
- Discussion pause: Give students time to think and reflect on the discussion so far. Pause the discussion for a few minutes for students to independently restate the question, issue, or problem, and summarize the points made. Encourage students to write down new insights, unanswered questions, etc.
- Extend the discussion: Encourage students to continue the class discussion by leveraging asynchronous course spaces (e.g.: CourseWorks discussion board). You may ask students to summarize the discussion, extend the discussion by contributing new ideas, or pose follow-up questions that will be discussed asynchronously or used to begin the next in-class discussion.
- Polls to launch the discussion: Pose a poll closed-ended question and give students time to think and respond individually. See responses in real time and ask students to discuss the results. This can be a great warm up activity for a pair, small group, or whole class discussion, especially in large classes in which it may be more challenging to engage all students.
Wrapping up Classroom Discussion
Ensure that the discussion meets the learning objectives of the course or class session, and that students are leaving the discussion with the knowledge and skills that you want them to acquire. Give students an opportunity to reflect on and share what they have learned. This will help them make connections between other class material and previous class discussions. It is also an opportunity for you to gauge how the discussion went and consider what you might need to clarify or shift for future discussions.
Debrief the Discussion
How will you know the discussion has met the learning objectives of the course or class session? How will you ensure students make connections between broader course concepts and the discussion?
Set aside time to debrief the discussion. This might be groups sharing out their discussion take-aways, designated students summarizing the key points made and questions raised, or asking students to reflect and share what they learned. Rather than summarizing the discussion yourself, partner with your students; see the section on Student Roles above for strategies.
- Closing Reflection: Ask students to reflect on and process their learning by identifying key takeaways. Carve out 2-5 minutes at the end of class for students to reflect on the discussion, either in writing or orally. You might consider collecting written reflections from students at the end of class, or after class through a Google Form or CourseWorks post. Consider asking students to not only reflect on what they learned from the discussion, but to also summarize key ideas or insights and/or pose new questions.
Collect Feedback, Reflect, Iterate
How will you determine the effectiveness of class discussion? How can you invite students into creating the learning space?
Feedback: Student feedback is a great way to gauge the effectiveness and success of class discussion. It’s important to include opportunities for feedback regularly and frequently throughout the semester; for feedback collection prompts and strategies, see the CTL’s resource on Early and Mid-Semester Student Feedback. You might collect this through PollEverywhere, a Google Form, or CourseWorks Survey. Classes of all sizes and modalities can benefit from collecting this type of feedback from students.
Reflect: Before you engage with your students’ feedback, it’s important to take time and reflect for yourself: How do you think the discussion went? Did your students achieve the learning goals that you had hoped? If not, what might you do differently? You can then couple your own reflection with your students’ feedback to determine what is working well, as well as what might need to change for discussions to be more effective.
Iterate: Not all class discussions will go according to plan, but feedback and reflection can help you identify those key areas for improvement. Share aggregate feedback data with your students, as well as what you hope will go differently in future discussions.
Leveraging Asynchronous Discussion Spaces
Asynchronous discussion spaces are an effective way for students to prepare for in-class discussion, as well as expand upon what they have already discussed in class. Asynchronous discussion boards also offer a great space for students to reflect upon the discussion, and provide informal feedback.
Columbia Tools to Support Asynchronous Discussion
There are a number of Columbia tools that can support asynchronous discussion spaces. Some options that instructors might consider include:
- CourseWorks Discussion boards: CourseWorks discussion boards offer instructors a number of customizable options including: threaded or focused discussions, post “like” functionality, graded discussion posts, group discussions, and more. For further support with your CourseWorks discussion board, see the CTL’s CourseWorks Support Page or contact the CTL at ColumbiaCTL@columbia.edu to set up a consultation.
- Ed Discussion (via CourseWorks): Starting in Fall 2021, instructors will have access to Ed Discussion within their CourseWorks site. For support on getting started with Ed Discussion, see their Quick Start Guide, or contact the CTL at ColumbiaCTL@columbia.edu.
References and Further Reading
Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.
Armstrong, B. (2020). To Spark Discussion in a Zoom Class, Try a ‘Silent Meeting.’ The Chronicle of Higher Education. November 18, 2020.
Barkley, E.F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Jossey-Bass.
Barkley, E.F.; Major, C.H.; and Cross, K.P. (2014). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass.
Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2016). The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking. Wiley.
Cashin, W.E. (2011). Effective Classroom Discussions. IDEA Paper #49. Retrieved from www.ideaedu.org
Center for Research on Teaching and Learning. Guidelines For Classroom Interactions. Retrieved from http://www.crlt.umich.edu/examples-discussion-guidelines
Davis, B.G. (2009). Tools for Teaching, 2nd Edition.
Hancock, C., & Rowland, B. (2017). Online and out of synch: Using discussion roles in online asynchronous discussions. Cogent Education, 4(1).
Howard, J.R. (2015). Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online. Wiley.
Howard, J.R. (2019) How to Hold a Better Class Discussion: Advice Guide. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190523-ClassDiscussion
The K. Patricia Cross Academy. Making Good Use of Online Discussion Boards. Retrieved from https://kpcrossacademy.org/making-good-use-of-online-discussion-boards/
For assistance with discussion pedagogy, please request a Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) consultation by emailing CTLFaculty@columbia.edu.
For assistance with the instructional technologies mentioned (CourseWorks, Poll Everywhere, Zoom), please contact the CTL Learning Designer assigned to your school or department, or email the CTL at ColumbiaCTL@columbia.edu.
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The Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning provides an array of resources and tools for instructional activities.