Engaging Class Discussion

Good Participation

I will grade student participation in this class. Participating in discussion does not necessarily mean talking a lot or showing everyone else that you know or have studied a lot. Good discussion participation involves people trying to build on, and synthesize, comments from others, and on showing appreciation for others' contributions. It also involves inviting others to say more about what they are thinking. Try ask different kinds of questions for different purposes to expand your critical thinking skills.1 Being able to engage in rational dialogue on complex public issues is vital to civic competence in a democracy and assessing the truth about a subject is a vital to intellectual development.2

Behaviors that are evidence of good participation:

Examples of good participation in class discussion:

Examples of good participation in either class discussion or online:


The Discussion Leading Project

Now that you have had experience as an active listener and contributor to critical thinking discussions, it is time for you to lead and facilitate one. Leading discussion is a powerful way to demonstrate and practice critical thinking. Your overall objective is to help us all become more adept at forming judgments about social issues around drugs so that we can suggest informed social solutions to these problems based on the knowledge we have available.

You and a partner are assigned a date on the D2L Main Page. You should contact your partner(s) and split-up responsibilities. Since the overall grade is a group grade, all members of your team should contribute equally.

Your objective

You must accomplish three things during your discussion:

  1. Discuss topical content to help clear-up confusion, reinforce major points, and reflect on our experiences with the material.
  2. Critically examine at least one important question at issue through discussion.
  3. Either critically analyze or evaluate at least one text that your team contributes.
  4. Keep the discussion focused around the assigned texts.

Selecting texts

What to turn-in and due dates

By 1:00 PM seven days in advance of your discussion day, at least one member of your team must submit to the D2L Submission folder the filled-in Discussion Leading Template containing:

  1. A list of Vocabulary, if applicable. (The only optional component)
  2. A list of Key Ideas. Point the reader to the most important features of the article through reading comprehension questions. These questions should be specific, fact-based questions that direct your reader to understanding of the most important points in the reading. The answers should be simple lists, statistics, or explanations of concepts that require simply quoting of paraphrasing the text. If you could answer the question in under two minutes, it is appropriate here. Your team should contribute at least four items to this section. I will be grading on both quality and quantity.
  3. Answers to your Key Ideas. Provide answers to the questions you posed above. Writing these will help confirm whether or not your questions have clear factual answers as posed (if they do not have factual answers, then you should probably upgrade them to Thinking Critically). Also, be aware that your answers help me to evaluate your team's preparation.
  4. One or more Thinking Critically prompts. Each of these challenges the reader to consider an important question at issue to help the reader form judgments around a difficult problem and consider solutions. Set a purpose for the day. Give open-ended questions that tie the reading to other topics. These questions should stimulate discussion and not be easily answered.
  5. A link to or attachment of a selected text to critically analyze or evaluate.
  6. A short description of your agenda including the specific critical thinking skills you plan to apply.
  7. Four questions with answers for the Reading Guide Quiz. Use True/False, Multiple Choice, Multi-Select, Matching, Ordering, or Fill in the Blanks format (the blanks must have a limited number of possibilities). These must be related to the readings and one can focus on a critical thinking skill.
  8. At least one short Homework Activity. Your activity should help students prepare for discussion. Ideally, it should take less than 15 minutes to complete. You do not need to do your own homework activity, you will automatically recieve points for simply designing it.

By the next class period after your presentation, grade the homework Activity that you assigned in your Daily Guide and submit the scored papers to the instructor in alphabetized by first name. The rubric is below. You may wish to consult the grading profiles for guidance.






Clearly engaging with ideas, reasoning, assumptions, implications, and intellectual processes.



Occasional lapses while clearly engaging with ideas, reasoning, assumptions, implications, and intellectual processes.



Sometimes engaging with ideas, reasoning, assumptions, implications, and intellectual processes, with evidence that some skills are still developing.



Occassionally engaging with ideas, reasoning, assumptions, implications, and intellectual processes, with evidence of "going through the motions" or incompleteness of task.


Not engaged

Little evidence of engagement in the task. An attempt was made.


How your team will be evaluated

Pulling off a great classroom discussion that involves all students is a complex and challenging project that I've broken it down into two parts: (1) planning the discussion and (2) facilitating an effective discussion. The total points will be divided equally between these two parts. All members of the team will receive the same group grade. The instructor will grade your team using a grading rubric. You should read this rubric to understand how the points will be distributed.

How to prepare

The next page will cover advice on how to prepare for this assigned.

Developing A Class Discussion

1. Try to select one text that provides some well-reasoned information to ground the discussion and one text that is less objective for critical analysis. Often one text can satisfy both criteria.

2. Read, watch, or listen to your texts very carefully, preferably more than once.

2. Think about what you want to get across to your classmates.

3. Carefully consider your objectives for discussion.

4. Once you have decided what you want to convey, think about how you want to convey it.

5. Decide how you want the class to prepare.

6. Decide how you want to divide up the tasks involved in leading the discussion. Will one person give the introduction, and the other(s) ask questions? Will you each take charge of parts of the class in small groups, then meet as a whole and discuss comparative conclusions the second half of the class time? Do you want to split up the readings each person is responsible for leading discussion about, or do you want to share responsibility jointly for all of them? (In any case, ALL of the leaders should understand ALL of the texts thoroughly.)

7. Prepare selected passages—quotes, statistics, or other examples—from the texts to interject to stimulate discussion since anyone can respond to a passage. It's better to be overprepared and only discuss 25% of what you planned than to have nothing to talk about and awkward silence.

8. On your template, provide the instructor with a succinct and clear explanation of your agenda. Plan for part of this to be your introduction that will start the class session.

9. Using the Template as a starting point, prepare organized notes about what is going to be said/done (by you or someone in the discussion group), and in what order instead of relying on flipping through your highlighted readings looking for the interesting parts. Prepare to be flexible and allow a few moments here and there for the unexpected turns mentioned in the last point.

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.

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.

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:

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:

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.

Appendix: Handling Emotionally Charged Disagreements

Seven Strategies to Encourage Critical Thinking

We live in politically polarized times. For a democracy to function, we must be able to have difficult conversations about values issues. Telling someone they are wrong, makes them defensive and is likely to shut down critical thinking and evoke reactance (the feeling that our behavioral freedoms are being resticted) which encourages motivated reasoning (emotionally-based reasoning that favors concusions that we want to believe). When we use motivated reasoning...

Instead, we must use approaches that build trust and facilitate critical thinking. Otherwise, we might spend unproductive hours talking past each each other while getting increasingly agitated. Motivated reasoning tends to cause us to reinforce rather than question our ideas. The goal of discussion around contraversial values issues is to make decisions in accord with our values guided by factual information about the issue. We must think critically and with clarity about our values and the facts.

Listen and be curious about a person's point-of-view and experience. Have some humility about the correctness of your position and you are likely to learn a lot about the experiences of the person you disagree with. People on opposite sides of an issue hold positions that make sense in the context of their information diet and values.

Put points of disagreement in the form of questions that lead a person through the steps of critical thinking. People are less defensive if asked to respond to a sincere question. Moreover, the person answering the questions will often discover the holes in their own thinking for themselves. Self-discovery is more likely to unseat uncritical thinking because it does not evoke reactance. The following are examples of such questions.

1. Find points of agreement to get people with opposing opinions on the same team. This builds trust, which predisposes the parties to listen to each other and softens blows of disagreement. This approach clearly draws lines between where the parties agree and disagree. By establishing shared values, differences in assumptions and mental models become clear and easier to accept. Facilitators can explicitly ask participants to compare and contrast their views with those of others. Common ground inquiry can be especially powerful for enhancing listening among adversaries who might otherwise tend to dismiss one another's views summarily.7 Given such a relationship, the facilitator can attempt with gentle insistence to engage participants in expansive social role-taking, asking students to make conjectures about others' points of view, in the sense of generating sympathetically constructive reasons for holding those differing positions. The point of this strategy is to nurture understanding, not necessarily consensus. Understanding through social role-taking is an essential part of developing an informed position and, as research indicates,8 a necessary precondition to developing a fully reasoned moral position. For example,

2. Identify and evaluate information that has uncertain truth value. The answer will lead to a critical examination of facts. If facts are found to have questionable truth value, all parties should agree that this information cannot be used in the discussion. However, such information can be used to explore hypothetical "what if" scenarios to explore how participants apply their values.

3. Identify central values conflicts. Judging which values should be upheld in specific situations presumes, at minimum, clearly recognizing the particular values in conflict. Build a common vocabulary on the board for describing values. Lockwood and Harris describe eight central values: authority, equality, liberty, life, loyalty, promise keeping, property, and truth.4 Explicitly identifying these values can set the stage for systematic and productive discussion.

4. Compare values justifications. Extends general probes of participants' reasoning by asking them to explicitly to address the heart of the conflict: Why do they give greater importance to some values than to others in the case under discussion? For example,

5. Raise comments to the level of general principle. Ask participants to consider whether the particular priorities identified in one case should be generalized into a set of principles to guide actions in similar cases. Posing analogous or slightly modified cases can help students test their tentative general principles. For example,

6. Examine implications and values. One major source of public controversy is the ambiguity associated with predicting or controlling the actual consequences of policy decisions. A second is the difficulty of achieving consensus on the meaning of generally cherished values such as equality, justice, loyalty, and the common good. This is the case in part because there the very definitions of these terms lack universality—are prescriptive and value-based rather than descriptive in nature. Uncover implicit value positions by probing to clarify the meaning of terms used by participants.

  1. "What would it look like if your idea played out?" Examine both reasoning and implications. This question alone is very powerful and may need no follow-up. However, you can then ask to focus on values.
  2. "How do you define 'loyalty' or 'justice'?" In cases of disputed facts, predictions, or meanings of terms, stipulating can provide a sharpened focus on value issues when evaluating consequences.
  3. "If we say the effects will be ... and/or define loyalty as ..., how does that affect your view as to what is the right policy or action?"

7. Identify barriers between Should and Would. Ideally, we want participants to only make informed and reasoned private judgments but, when appropriate, to act publicly in accordance with those judgments. In other words, we all have a civic interest in whether a citizen would act in particular situations as we think persons should act. In probing the relationship between should and would, facilitators might be alert to participants' concerns about incurring the charge of hypocrisy. If the personal level appears initially too threatening, facilitators may ask questions at a generalized level.


Agree to disagree. During any argument, I keep the advice of Neil deGrasse Tyson in the back of my mind, "If an argument lasts more than five minutes, both sides are wrong." At some point, if no progress is being made toward understanding, both parties must let go of trying to be "right" and accept that they disagree.10 A failure to make further progress occurs when there is either (1) insufficient information to evaluate the stronger argument, (2) at least one party is unwilling to abandon a long-held assumption, (3) at least one party is talking past the other to make a different point and isn't actually listening to the other, or (4) the two positions are equally valid within different value systems. Either way, it's best to move on to a more fruitful question of inquiry. At minimum, if both parties have made some progress in understanding each other's values, arguments, and points-of-view in such a way that they respect the other's perspectives, then it was a valuable discussion.

We have to accept that other people have different values. Often in life, all we can do is respectfully clarify points of agreement and disagreement. From there we must decide what we are willing to accept and what we wish to change. If we want to change minds and persuade people to our positions and values, it will rarely happen in one conversation. It will never happen by disrespecting the people we disagree with. Respect the humanity and dignity of those you disagree with, engage with them and their ideas, and you will be most likely to find convergence of thought.


1. Brookfield, Stephen D.; Participation Self-Assessment Form. https://www.stephenbrookfield.com/workshop. Accessed 12 Dec. 2019.

2. Kelly, T. E. (1986) Discussing Controversial Issues: Four Perspectives on the Teacher's Role, Theory and Research in Social Education, 14(2): 113–38.

3. Four Ways to Spark Engaging Classroom Discussions. Association of College and University Educators. 30 Dec. 2015. https://community.acue.org/blog/four-more-ways-to-spark-classroom-discussions-and-keep-students-engaged/. Accessed 22 Nov. 2019.

4. Lockwood, A.; Harris, D. Reasoning with Democratic Values; Ethical Problems in United States History, vols. 1 and 2, Instructors Manual; Teachers College Press: New York, 1985.

5. Newmann, F. M.; Oliver, D. W. Clarifying Public Controversy: An Approach to Teaching Social Studies; Little, Brown: Boston, 1970.

6. Maresh, Justin J.; A Guide to Critical Thinking; http://think.maresh.info. Accessed 3 Feb 2020.

7. Berman, S.; (1987) Beyond Critical Thinking: Teaching for Synthesis, Educators for Social Responsibility Forum 6, no. 1, 1(10).

8. Selman, R. L.; Social-Cognitive Understanding: A Guide to Educational and Clinical Practice, Moral Development and Behavior: Theory Research and Social Issues, ed. T. Lickona; Holt, Rinehart, & Winston: 1976, pp 299–316.

9. Adams, S.; Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America; Portfolio: New York, 2019.

10. Tyson, Neil deGrasse; "Chapter 19: Paths To Discovery"; The Columbia History of the 20th Century; Bulliet, Richard W. (ed.); Columbia University Press: New York, NY, 1998.