UMBC logo

Faculty Development Center

I. Improving Classroom Discussions

Getting students to participate in a productive discussion can be a challenge, even for seasoned professors. Students often seem unprepared or simply shy. You pose a question and no one responds, as everyone stares at the floor or ceiling, avoiding eye contact. Or the two students who are always interested in speaking once again want the floor (to the relief or disapproval of everyone else). Getting students to talk is one thing; getting them to learn from the discussion is quite another.

While lectures can effectively present information and concepts in a well organized fashion, they do not give us useful immediate feedback on whether students are learning the material properly; for that we must eventually rely on tests or quizzes or papers. But discussions, while less useful as ways of communicating quantities of information, highlight student learning--whether students are able to understand information, apply it, analyze or evaluate it. Participating in discussion forces students to think critically and recognize the complexity of issues and ideas.

Contrary to what some novice teachers might think, preparing for good classroom discussions can take as much time and thought as preparing lectures (even though the outcome can not be as controlled). And contrary to what many novice teachers do, good classroom discussions don’t start in the classroom but begin long before the class convenes; that is, students need to be prepared for discussion just as much as does the instructor. The first important tip on leading good discussions is designing the course so that students come fully prepared to participate.

This can be done in a variety of ways--for example, by asking students to submit something in writing to a listserv or discussion board a day or two before the class meets (perhaps their own questions, or their response to a question you pose, or a summary of a text). Or students can be told in advance that they will have to argue a certain position (pro or con) on a topic; or they can be paired or put in teams to open the class with a short summary of a reading and then highlight two or three of the most significant questions or problems that it raised. If students have to think of what they might contribute to discussion in advance of the class, they’ll be more interested in and able to participate--even the shy students.

In preparing for productive classroom discussions, consider the following suggestions:

  • Identify the goals for the discussion for yourself and for the students
  • Explain the ground rules and expectations for discussion early in the semester
  • Listen carefully and be prepared to teach students how to listen to each other
  • Paraphrase student comments and offer positive feedback
  • Give students time to think—get comfortable with silences
  • Start class with a short writing exercise that students then exchange and discuss
  • Summarize class discussion (or assign this task to specific students), highlighting what’s been accomplished and what still needs to be clarified
  • Ask students to respond to the discussion by posting to a discussion group or through a reflective paper that synthesizes what they’ve learned.

For more information on discussion leading, see the following:

William E. Cashin and Philip C. McKnight, Improving Discussions, Idea Paper 15

Barbara Gross Davis, Lynn Wood, and Robert C. Wilson, A Berkeley Compendium of Suggestions for Teaching with Excellence. See section 10: Encouraging Class Discussion.

Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for Teaching, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1993. Several chapters including chapter 9 “Encouraging Student Participation in Discussion” are available online at

C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet (eds.). Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press. 1991.

Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1999.

(The books listed above may be borrowed from the Faculty Development Center.)

II. Structuring Courses for Participation

Now that we have almost reached the midpoint of the spring semester, instructors may want to check with students to find out more information about what's working well in a course and what might be improved. Midsemester evaluations can be much more useful than end-of-semester evaluations, which come too late for us to make improvements in the courses we are in the midst of teaching.

One of the most effective means of getting feedback is to have a small group evaluation (SGE)-essential a short focus group session which I run for any professors willing to sacrifice 20 minutes of class time. Students are divided into groups and asked to discuss the course and provide specific information on what is helping them learn material and what might be strengthened.

When I run these evaluations, students usually confirm an instructor's feelings about the course-that some aspects are wonderful but that other things may not be working as planned. In particular, students often comment on what has helped them become engaged in the course, especially if it is a large lecture class. As various reports have shown (confirming what most of us already know), "the average student's attention span is between ten and twenty minutes" (Davis, p.99). Lecturing for long periods of time may keep students in the classroom, but may be less effective than dividing up the class period into segments that require students to participate in some form. These occasional breaks reinforce learning by helping students consolidate what they know and allowing them to identify what they are not understanding.

Long PowerPoint lectures can be particularly troubling for students who may feel overwhelmed with the amount of material to digest. After dozens of slides of information, students can no longer retain-let along apply--every detail, no matter how significant it may seem.

Professors here at UMBC use a variety of techniques to vary the structure of a class, and student feedback shows that many of these teaching practices are quite effective. In brief, here are some examples of how long lectures can be packaged into segments with periods of class participation:

  • Short writing exercises. After presenting 20 minutes of information, instructors ask students to explain a principle or idea, or to apply information in a new setting. Such writing need not be collected or graded to be useful to students. They may, however, exchange papers or discuss their ideas in pairs.
  • Problem-solving exercises. Choose a problem that can be handled in a 5 to 10 minute exercise; students might discuss the problem with a neighbor or in a small group
  • Pair activity or small group work. A popular cooperative learning technique is called Think-Pair-Share, in which students are asked to ponder a question briefly, discuss it with a partner, and then several responses from the class are used as the basis for a short discussion led by the instructor.

Consider having a small group evaluation run in your course. The information that students provide can be very useful in making small changes that might have a great effect in the classroom. Contact the Faculty Development Center at or call 5-1829.

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2001).

Davis, Barbara Gross. "Personalizing the Large Lecture Class," in Tools for Teaching. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2001).

Foyle, Harvey C. (ed). Interactive Learning in the Higher Education Classroom: Cooperative, Collaborative, and Active Learning Strategies. (Washington, DC: NEA, 1995).

Sugar, Steve. Games that Teach: Experiential Activities for Reinforcing Training. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 1998.

back to top