Discussion as an activity in the classroom

You-Y’all-We Method

Open with an open-ended question or provocative idea. Questions are best when they refer to a shared experience. Post the question visibly.

Have students think solo. Explicitly say, “Think about this and no one can say anything for the next two minutes.” Then, to avoid embarrassment, have students discuss in small groups, then as a larger class. Try to stay quiet once it’s going.

Have students write a summary of the discussion and its conclusions for the last 5-10 minutes.

Cold-calling Method

Open by requesting that students come to class with a written question, quote, or comment from the reading. Cold call students to get the discussion rolling.

During the discussion, encourage students to add to their list as they go.

Challenge responses by asking “Why do you say that?” Or “What do you mean?” “Can I have an example?” A know-nothing is more effective than a devil’s advocate. Convey the value of thoughtful, well-considered opinions.


Svinicki, M. D., & McKeachie, W. J. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips (Fourteenth edition). Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Discussion is trendy, but also valuable when you want to: Teach students to think in terms of the subject matter by giving them practice thinking, help students learn to evaluate arguments, practice applying principles, have students articulate what they’ve learned, and/or get quick feedback on what they understand.

Discussion can be started by referring to a common experience, either something you’ve just had them read or watch, or something pre-existing, or a question. It’s essential to give them enough time to think. (Try “Think about this and no one can say anything for the next two minutes.”) Application and interpretation-based questions are more useful than factual questions.

Once you have defined an issue for discussion, try to keep quiet.

It’s important for a discussion to have a focus so that it feels productive. One way is to break a problem into multiple steps, like:

  1. Clarification of the problem
  2. What do we know? What data are relevant?
  3. What are the characteristics of an acceptable solution?
  4. What are possible solutions?
  5. How do these solutions perform against our criteria?

The instructor should periodically summarize discussions as they happen. Be careful about stating emerging generalizations too early.

Students usually stay quiet because they’re afraid of being embarrassed. Having them work solo, and then in small groups before coming together as a large group can help. Sitting in a circle can help too.

Students can write a brief life history indicating their interests and experiences relevant to the course.

Students often feel they have learned less in a discussion than in a lecture where they’ve taken a lot of notes. This can be helped by using the last 5-10 minutes to get students to write a summary of the discussion and its conclusions.