UW Continuum College Instructor Resources

Leading Dynamic Discussions

While “good” discussions can be a powerful tool for encouraging student learning, successful discussions rarely happen spontaneously. Preparing ahead of time will help you delineate a clear focus for the discussion and set well-defined parameters. This will enable the class to address important topics from multiple perspectives, thus increasing students’ curiosity for, and engagement with course content. As the instructor, it is important to engage with as many students as possible and have these students actively participate and lead discussions when it makes sense to do so.

Ask Open-ended Questions

When students are asked questions requiring “yes/no” or “correct/incorrect” responses, they are less likely to contribute in class. Also, students may be embarrassed if they respond incorrectly to a binary question. These students may be less likely to participate in class over the quarter. Whenever possible, try to ask questions allowing students freedom to contribute a variety of responses. A question phrased, “What do you think?” will elicit more responses than “What is…?”

Ask the “What is…?”

As instructors, you may feel that it is important to ask some fact-based questions for foundational purposes. If so, consider using a classroom response system or another polling tool so that students can post answers anonymously during class. There are low tech and high tech options available. (review our Teaching with Technology section for more details)

Provide a Summary Periodically

During the discussion, provide a summary and draw some conclusions. Determine whether there is group consensus and check to see whether the conclusions you draw are supported by all your students.

Manage Actual or Potential Student Conflict

Starting the first day of class, it is important to establish class norms. This should help deter potential conflict. However, class norms in and of itself are not always sufficient to avoid student conflict.

  • Deal with conflicts – Do not ignore conflict in the course. As the instructor, it is important to clarify disagreements among students early on. Make it clear from the first day of class that eye-rolling, sighing, and berating students is simply not tolerated as part of the class norms.
  • Redirect excessive talkers – If a student(s) monopolizes the discussion, actively recruit other students to participate too. Attempt to call on students who do not participate often.
  • Students should listen – It is important for students to contribute to the course environment, but it is equally important for them to hear others’ ideas. Ask students to reiterate student’s ideas if it seems that some students are less interested in others ideas and are only eager to share their own ideas.

Additional Resources

How to Hold a Better Class Discussion – The Chronicle of Higher Education