4 Tips for Classroom Discussions

By Ashley Brooksbank
Mrs. Brooksbank is a social studies teacher at Ridgefield High School in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where she has taught world history and psychology for 8 years. She is also a doctoral student at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.

As a new teacher, one of the most intimidating activities to facilitate in your classroom can be discussion. Despite being daunting, discussions can empower your students by giving them the opportunity to learn from one another, to validate the arguments made by classmates, and to gain confidence in their own ability to speak—all while making the content more meaningful through active engagement (Bowers, 2016). Research has shown that when given structured opportunities to engage in discussion-style activities, the associated skills and critical thinking work to enhance students’ conceptual learning (Osborne, 2010). Even if discussion is a technique tried only once in your classroom, the power it has to increase student learning and agency makes it worthwhile. Using the tips that follow can alleviate many of your trepidations.

1. Craft your questions or prompts to encourage discussion. At the heart of a good discussion is a good question. Make sure that your question lends itself to genuine debate and discussion (Ehrenworth, 2017), is broad enough that students can have differing opinions or approaches to the question (Bowers, 2016), and is focused on higher-level critical thinking rather than factual recall. This strategy gives students the chance to craft a legitimate argument that they can then justify and defend using evidence.

2. Have your students come prepared for the discussion. For students to craft nuanced, evidence-based arguments, they need to be drawing from a shared knowledge base so that they are on the same page during the discussion. The use of relevant texts and other media-based resources that are directly related to the prompt allows students to develop higher-level arguments that are based in evidence rather than generalizations or unfounded opinion. Also, by having students working from the same knowledge base, you create the opportunity for them to present and refute counterclaims on the topics being discussed (Ehrenworth, 2017). Discussion preparation can take multiple forms, such as content notes, annotation of articles, preparation questions, or a reading on relevant background information. Hold your students accountable for their preparation and reinforce its importance within the discussion.

3.Clearly communicate a well-defined structure to your students. Discussions can be stressful for students. Knowing what to expect helps them feel more comfortable and leads to a higher level of engagement. Project a timer onto the board to cue students to stay on task and to help you make sure that all topics are covered (Bowers, 2016). When students are clear on the structure and what you expect them to accomplish, the discussion will run smoother and allow students to discuss at a higher level.

4. Hold students accountable for their learning in the discussion. Although discussions are fluid, organic learning experiences where student conversation can take numerous paths, hold students accountable for their participation in the discussion. Use listening guides to provide structure to the discussion and cue students to bring in evidence to support their point. A listening guide is a structured worksheet that students fill out as they are participating in the discussion. It can take various forms, such as answering the discussion questions, justifying a decision from multiple perspectives, creating extension questions, or tracking the contributions made by the discussion members. If you incorporate a place in the listening guide for students to explain their point of view or justify their decision, the guide can cue them to use evidence independent of a direct reminder from the teacher (Ehrenworth, 2017).

These strategies can be applied for both large and small group discussions across all grade levels and content areas. Although the idea of facilitating a discussion in your classroom can seem daunting at first, the levels of collaboration, engagement, and critical thinking demonstrated by your students makes the challenge rewarding.

Bowers, R. (2016). Speaking their minds. California English, 22(2), 20–23.

Ehrenworth, M. (2017). Why argue? Educational Leadership, 74(5), 35–40.

Osborne, J. (2010). Arguing to learn in science: The role of collaborative, critical discourse. Science, 328(5977), 463–466.