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Leading a discussion

Effective discussion leading is not simply asking students questions and expecting answers. Discussion is a complex interaction between the instructor’s ability to reflect, guide, and set a comfortable atmosphere and the students’ ability to respond to the atmosphere and problem-solve.

Good discussion don’t just happen – they take planning, the instructor’s ability to management multiple roles, and reflection-in-action.  Here are some tips to get you started towards leading an effective discussion.

Set the atmosphere - In order for a student to participate in a discussion, they must feel comfortable enough to answer and, more importantly, take a risk if they are unsure of their answer.  Try some of these hints:

  • Share your purpose for the discussion. Relate how participating in the discussion can help students understand material better, remember the material longer, and get misinformation clarified.
  • Learn students’ names or ask them to use desk-top name tags.  Call on students by name.
  • Practice good manners.  The number one reason students resist participating in a discussion is that they feel belittled and disrespected.
  • Adopt some of the characteristics of “Quick Starters.”


Prepare for the discussion in advance – Although spontaneous, good discussion can occur, those “teaching moments” don’t often happen. Prepare for a discussion with as much care as you do any other part of your class.

  • Think about why you want to use a discussion.  What can students learn from a discussion that they can’t learn any other way?
  • Think about the discussion’s outcome.  At the end of the discussion, what do you want the students to know or what behavior do you want them to have?
  • Plan your questions based on those outcomes.  If you want students to understand the material, plan for questions that ask them to do more than recall the information. Ask questions that will cause the students to think about information, make a judgment, analyze, or apply information.
    • Example: rather than asking “What was the first capital of Virginia?” try asking “Why was moving the capital from Williamsburg to Richmond important for the economics of the area?”
  • Prepare the students for the discussion ahead of time.  For example, announce the discussion in a preceding class period and post some of the questions you will be asking.
  • Consider calling on students.  However, in order to use this technique adequately, you need to have set the comfortable classroom atmosphere and inform students you will be calling on them.
  • Have back up questions in case students can’t answer your questions.  Your back up questions should be Socratic in nature, leading the students to the conclusions or goals you would like them to have.


Keep the discussion moving – A discussion is a living thing.  It needs to be kept moving.  Try some of these tips to keep the discussion moving.

  • Start by reminding your students the purpose of the discussion.
  • Ask your easiest question first.
  • Use wait time.  Most faculty members wait only 1-3 seconds after asking a question.  Wait for up to fifteen seconds before reacting, and then ask an easier question.  Don’t answer the question yourself.
  • If students’ don’t answer, ask them to turn to a neighbor and take about 20 seconds to discuss a possible answer.  Then ask student pairs to report their answer.
  • Acknowledge every answer.  Even if the answer is incorrect, thank the student for answering and try to find some positive point about their answer. 
  • If the student’s answer is wrong, use guided questioning to help the student understand the right answer. 
  • Be aware of your position of power.  Non-verbal, negative reactions from the instructor can kill a discussion.


Wrapping up a discussion – Never leave a discussion hanging.  Draw it to a conclusion that will segue to the next activity.

  • When the discussion is complete, review the main points. Trying asking the students to outline “What have we learned today?”
  • Allow students to make notes about the discussion before moving on.
  • Draw, or ask the students to draw, a parallel between the topic and their everyday life or future career.


  • Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. Jossey Bass: San Franscisco
  • McKeachie, W. J. & Svinicky, M. (2006). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (12th ed.) Houghton Mifflin: Boston
  • Teaching at Stanford, http://ctl.stanford.edu/handbook.pdf
Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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