Facilitating An Engaging Class Discussion

Set the agenda and expectations

1. Introduce the discussion by telling the class what your focus is, and why it is important.

2. Outline how your discussion will procede. Remind students of the expectations. If you planned an activity, such as a debate or a small group exercise, explain the rules and structure of the activity.

3. An excellent way to get students to focus and connect to the topic at hand is to ask students to share their thought-provoking responses to the homework Activity. They can share their responses either in small groups or as a whole-class. 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.

4. Don't expect your discussion to go according to a plan and don't try to force it to do so. Sometimes the best parts of a discussion are the unexpected turns it takes. Having said that, keep it on course by being well-organized.

5. If you find that you cannot fit all of the points you want to make into the discussion, it will not end the world if you omit some of them. More is gained by everyone if you cover the interesting points thoroughly than if you rush through your list of discussion questions.

Be a leader

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 some 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."3

Think about your "presentation of self." Be confident, upbeat, engaged, and focused. Make eye contact, speak clearly, and don't rush. It is not necessary to cover everything you have prepared.

Facilitate a climate for discussion and learning

You can also significantly increase the quantity and quality of participation simply by creating an encouraging environment for discussion.

1. Try not to spill all of your beans at once. A discussion should build gradually and move forward from point to point. If you explain your whole interpretation of the readings at the very beginning, there is nowhere to go. Save some of the good stuff for later.

2. Avoid answering your own questions before you even ask them. For example, avoid saying, "We thought that XXX's analysis really did a bad job of taking race into consideration. What did you think about XXX's use of race?"

3. Use open-ended questions that will get people to share their own ideas about the texts.

  • Avoid questions that begin with "Do you think..." because they can easily be answered "yes" or "no."
  • Questions that begin with "what, why, and how," generally will spark discussion.

4. Keep the discussion focused by enforcing the following guidelines for how you expect students to participate. If you wish to add other specific guidelines, state them at the start of class.

  • If a student states their opinion, invite them to critically examination that opinion. Ask them about their facts, assumptions, and reasons for forming their judgment.
  • If the discussion strays to relevant ideas that are outside the scope of texts, refocus the discussion to what we know and be clear about what we can potentially learn with further research.
  • If a student states a fact the seems imprecise, ask them to find the reference and verify that they are correctly using the fact.
  • If the discussion strays too far from your agenda, it is appropriate to stop, point this out, and refocus it.

5. Probe for clarity, definitions, assumptions, and elaboration.4,5,6 Conversational speaking is briefer than writing. For this reason, almost any point a participant makes provides you with an opportunity to engage them in critical thinking! Ask the participant to apply critical analysis or evaluation:

  • "Where did you get this information?" Evaluate the certainty of truth in information (also see Appendix Question 2)
  • "Please define what you mean by..." Clarify their information and/or values (also see Appendix Question 3)
  • "Please explain the premises that lead you to this conclusion. I didn't follow your reasoning." Provide more detail to the argument
  • "Please explain how you got to this conclusion. I think I missed something." Explain the steps and inferences that lead to the conclusion
  • "If what you say is true, what general idea are you assuming?" Uncover assumptions
  • "If what you say is true, what does that imply for society or for the future?" Explore implications (also see Appendix Question 6)

6. Encourage 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?"

7. When students ask questions, try to help them find the answers for themselves. One good strategy is to ask leading follow-up questions. For inspiration, use the questions above and the questions in the Dealing with Conflict Appendix. At some point, you might ask the class to find some information on the internet or in the text to help a student arrive at an answer.

8. Pause to give students time to reflect on your summaries or others' comments.

9. Summarize student responses without taking a stand one way or another.

10. Take notes of main points on the board. Attempt to write everyone's ideas down and relate them. Toward the end of the discussion, review the main ideas, the thread of the discussion, and conclusions.

11. If some students aren't prepared with questions and responses (hopefully this will not happen to you), do not let the discussion wander. Have some specific quotes, statistics, or other examples from the texts ready. If you read a passage and ask for responses, even underprepared students will have something to talk about.

12. If arguments develop, try to resolve disputes by appeal to objective evidence and clarification of values rather than authority of position. If the dispute is over values, help students clarify their values and respect each others', even if resolution is not possible. Disputes can often form the basis for interesting writing assignments. If there is an emotionally-charged disagreement, try the following strategies to steer the conversation onto a productive track. The Dealing with Conflict Appendix offers advice on this.


1. To wrap-up, summarize a few key points and insights. If you wrote on the board, you should use refer back to the ideas on the board. You want the students to leave with a few specific take home messages that they will hopefully remember.

2. Invite students to give a last reactions to the discussion.