Preparing for Engaging Classroom Discussions

Faculty members who regularly engage students in discussion agree: purposeful preparation results in better outcomes. So what are some of the best ways to prepare yourself and your students to successful classroom discussion?

Preparing as the Instructor
Develop clear guidelines for engagement. Thinking about how you want students to engage with you and others will allow you to move into discussions with a constructive and equitable set of ground rules. Your guidelines may be articulated in the syllabus or constructed collaboratively during the first week of class.

Lead a discussion on the first day of class. By engaging students in even a brief discussion early in the course, you signal to the students that this practice is important as part of the course environment. 

Don't "wing it." Many faculty members agree that their own preparation is essential for structuring effective engagement; in other words, “winging it” rarely results in high quality class discussions. Whether soliciting questions from students or developing them yourself, try to identify priority questions ahead of time and think through contingencies to draw upon if students are not responding. In addition to initial prompts, consider what kinds of follow up questions you might use to encourage students to explore the topic in greater depth. Making a habit of structuring lectures, as well as planned discussions, around essential questions can help students become more familiar and comfortable with the use of questions and discussions as teaching tools.

Foster a positive learning environment. Classroom discussion is collective and collaborative. While individual student and instructor preparation are important, the climate, or culture, of the classroom also shapes the willingness of students to engage in conversation and share their ideas. Visit CTL’s Learning Environment pages for more ways to cultivate a positive learning environment.

Preparing Your Students 

Introduce discussion as a part of the course on the first day of class. When you review the syllabus with your students, point out the discussion guidelines and engage them in a brief discussion during class to model that process for them.

Incentivize advance preparation. It is difficult to get a class discussion going and encourage widespread participation if the discussion rests on advance reading (or another form of preparation) and only a few students completed it. Consider what will motivate your students to complete assignments associated with class discussion. Structuring course assessment to reward student preparation may help. Techniques you might encourage students to complete advance preparation by 

  • assigning brief, written responses or questions based on the assignment, due before class; 
  • using online or in-class quizzes on the reading; and 
  • rotating responsibility to different students who will come to a class meting prepared to facilitate the discussion.

Foster collaboration rather than competition. While including class participation and effective preparation in student grades communicates its importance and enhances compliance, if students focus more on quantity of participation than quality, they may be so focused on preparing their own comments that they have difficulty listening and responding to others. Try to structure and communicate how you will assess participation in ways that encourage active listening and thoughtful responses to the ideas shared by other students.


References and Additional Resources

Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hollander, J. (2002). Learning to discuss: Strategies for improving the quality of class discussion. Teaching Sociology, 30(3), 317-327.

For help developing discussion questions, see A Typology of Questions from Harvard's Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

Accessibility Information

Per accessibility compliance standards, this page may have links to files that would require the downloading of additional software:

  • Click here to download Microsoft Products.
  • Click here to download Adobe Reader.