1. Create a safe environment for productive classroom discussion
  2. Set expectations for class participation and discussion content 

Activity 1: Students set discussion criteria and rules

Time: 45 minutes

The class I use this exercise for is an upper-level seminar of about 15 students. I expect students to attend and actively participate in class – both speaking and listening to others. There are two student discussion leaders assigned to lead each class, which includes a discussion of several readings, connections with earlier course material and with everyday experience. I tell students that one of my objectives, as a professor, is to give them experience expressing their ideas orally and in leading a group discussion — two important skills in the post-collegiate “real” world.

I start the class off by telling students that class discussion is the core of the class — they will get more out of the class if they attend and participate in discussion, and they will get much less enjoyment and information out of the class if they opt out of these activities.  In fact, they have to attend class in order to pass — too many absences results in an automatic no credit.

I then challenge them to think of elements that make a good discussion — either a casual discussion with a friend or a larger classroom discussion. I write everything down on the board, even if it doesn’t initially seem relevant, using commentary and arrows to draw connections between different ideas and to draw out elements that were not clearly stated. Sometimes I will try to group related ideas on the board. If items that come up later would better fit a follow-up question, I’ll write it down, then use an arrow to move it later in discussion. We end up with a messy map, and it usually includes many of the following ideas (roughly organized and edited here).

1. What are qualities or characteristics of good discussions?

  • Participant engagement
    • Meaningful conversation
    • Fluid discussion
    • Balanced participation
    • Active listening
    • Leave wanting more
  • Participants have mutual trust and respect
    • Development of intellectual relationships
    • Honesty
    • Develop mutual respect
    • Everyone is heard
    • Mutual sharing
    • Acknowledge others’ contributions
    • Open-mindedness
    • Safe space
      • Freedom to question, disagree, or admit non-understanding
      • Sensitivity 
  • An opportunity to affirm and develop existing ideas
    • Validate ideas and theories
    • Deeper understanding
    • Understanding pushed to new areas
  • An opportunity to explore new ideas
    • Learn something new and interesting
    • Contribute something new and interesting
    • Spark new ideas and directions for thought
    • Feeling unsettled
    • Explore new ideas
    • Variety of viewpoints
    • Take risks

Next, I ask students to set ground rules for discussions. What kind of expectations do they have for themselves and their peers in a discussion that they want to be productive? They need to set up a set of criteria that will nurture good discussions. These should be more concrete than the responses to the first question. I tell them that I will be using these criteria to evaluate their class participation. While the students don’t always realize it explicitly, they generally have criteria that address each of the main qualities discussed in (1). If they don’t include any guidelines that address a particular goal, I might explicitly point out the parallels.

2. What ground rules or guidelines should we follow in discussions?

  • Participant engagement
    • Participate (Equality of participation?  Quality vs. quantity)
      • Consider “talkers” vs. “listeners”
      • Encourage participation of peers
      • Turn-taking (raising hands?)
  • Be aware of talking patterns: attend to body language; be aware of who else might want the floor
    •     Prepare in advance
      • Do readings
      • Come up with specific comments and questions
      • Read Moodle discussion before class – use it to define terms and establish common ground
      • Bring in ideas from outside class
    • Active listening
      • Stay on topic, but know when to move on
      • Be brief – try not to repeat self or others
    • Have fun!
  • Participants have mutual trust and respect
    • Be respectful of peers
    • Address other students, not the professor
    • Assume best intent of others
    • Have patience with others
    • Maintain eye contact with peers
    • Criticize and comment on ideas, not people
    • Don’t interrupt or make careful use of interruptions
    • Maintain confidentiality of others’ opinions
  • An opportunity to affirm and develop existing ideas
    • Support arguments and contextualize knowledge
      • Refer to readings explicitly
      • Use concrete examples
      • Opinions should be supported by evidence
      • Limit use of anecdotes and examples to illustrations, not social responses
    • Draw conclusions, summarize, end discussions
  • An opportunity to explore new ideas
    • Be willing to take risks – to think out loud
    • Be open to questions
    • Make constructive critiques of others’ ideas
    • Consider bias in own and others’ opinions and assertions
    • Contribute new ideas
    • Be flexible

Finally, I ask the students to brainstorm suggestions for discussion leaders to help the class maintain the ground rules and encourage the elements of good discussion. These suggestions give students who are more experienced in leading groups a chance to share their experiences with students less experienced. I like this because it is an opportunity for students to start learning from each other. It makes explicit the various types of work that the discussion leaders need to do aside from just bringing in a few questions and is an opportunity for students to open the floor to more creative methods for fostering discussion.

3. What guidelines should discussion leaders follow?

  • Come prepared
    • Leaders should meet in advance and collaborate on all activities
    • Read all readings (including optional material)
    • Think critically about readings
    • Print out Moodle discussion
    • Provide discussion questions and diverse activities
    • Short videos can be good
    • Have a backup plan
  • Start with a point of common ground in discussion
    • Give overviews of main points (PowerPoint or lecture?)
    • Give handouts
  • Manage discussion
    • Participate in discussion
    • Use different techniques for discussions, e.g. round robins, jigsaw methods
    • Mediate participation
    • Define terms and scope of discussion
    • Help discussion move on if it gets stuck
    • Avoid tangents
    • Present all sides of discussions
    • Make decisions and commitments
    • Give summary statements

Generally speaking, students give remarkably similar sets of responses to these questions each term. At the end of the discussion, I review what they came up with, add anything large that I see is missing, and emphasize that these will be the criteria by which I will grade both their class participation and their discussion leading. I write down all of the comments and post them to Moodle. A little before mid-term, I administer mid-term evaluations that include a list of the ground rules. I ask students to rate themselves on meeting the ground rules and ask them to come up with 1-2 things they can do to improve class discussions. I like that the students generate the criteria, and that gives me additional freedom to hold them accountable for meeting them. 

Activity 2: Written pre-discussion of material

In the same class, I require students “pre-discuss” issues on Moodle. Students are all required to post something related to the readings to Moodle at some point before class. (Again, I let students set the cut-off time. It is generally fairly late the night before, but I insist that it be early enough that the discussion leaders can incorporate these comments into the class discussion. I like for students to read the “pre-discussion” on Moodle first.) This activity gives students — especially students that are less comfortable talking in class — the chance to “think” while writing casually and to start thinking about some of the issues that other students are likely to raise in discussion, so that they can feel more comfortable actively participating in discussion.

If discussion goes poorly, I try to diagnose what is going wrong in the first two weeks, so that students do not get set in believing that non-participation is a valid option. If the students are all introverts, I set aside some time to have them reflect about why they tend to talk or not talk in class (see Activity 3). If students are not coming prepared, I address that. And if certain students are monopolizing discussion, I raise the issue gently in an email or after class in a one-on-one discussion. If discussion leaders are flailing, I step in and try to model useful questions. Sometimes I find that discussion leaders are not good at letting students think about questions before jumping in to ask another question or they ask questions that are either too specific or too general.

Activity 3: Talkers and Listeners

(This activity is excerpted entirely from the Tomorrow’s Professor website.)

Time: 30 minutes

When running seminar or discussion classes for undergraduates, the major issue instructors face is unbalanced participation, with some students dominating the discussion while others remain silent. While there are ways to force more widespread participation (such as calling upon people, basing grades on participation, using tokens, allowing people to speak only a limited number of times, etc.), all these techniques involve coercion to a greater or lesser degree. They run counter to the basic idea of the seminar/discussion as a continuing conversation, similar to the ones that one might have with friends and neighbors. One cannot imagine using coercion there.

No Coercion

Since my own teaching philosophy has evolved to the point where I believe that the best learning occurs under conditions that aren’t coercive, I tried a promising experiment this semester that focused on improving discussion without coercion. The course was on the “Evolution of Scientific Ideas.” The class was comprised of 17 sophomore students. At the beginning of the very first meeting, after brief introductions all around, I spoke for a few minutes, saying that the class would function best if everyone participated in the discussions. Of course, all instructors say this, and it usually has little effect.

But then I said that in semi-formal groups such as this, each one of us had, over time, developed a preferred, or at least customary, role. We saw ourselves as either “talkers” (people who volunteered to speak and did so frequently) or “listeners” (people who preferred to stay silent and rarely, if ever, joined in the discussion unasked). I asked each person to self-identify, with me beginning and identifying myself as a talker. (This should be no surprise. McKeachie reports that the most common cause of unbalanced discussion is the instructor who typically talks about 70-80% of the time!) 

Which Are You?

Six students identified themselves as talkers, while eleven said they were listeners. I then said that both talking and listening were essential skills and that we needed to develop both aspects of our personalities. I then asked all the talkers to sit together in one part of the room, the listeners to group in another part, and to discuss amongst themselves the following questions: What made me become a talker (listener)? How can I develop my listening (talking) skills? How can I help listeners (talkers) talk (listen) more?

The two groups spent about 20 minutes discussing these questions. The talkers group (which I naturally joined), although half the size of the listeners, made much more noise, talking and laughing as they discussed, with people jumping in with ideas and comments. The listeners group was much quieter, with only one person speaking at a time, but even there the conversation never died down. The two groups then reported to each other at the end of the time period.

Listener Characteristics

The listeners said they listened and did not talk much because they felt that their ideas must already be obvious to everyone; that there was usually no pause in the discussion for them to insert their ideas; they liked to take in information; they took time to formulate their ideas and by the time that happened the discussion had moved on to something else; they did not feel themselves to be experts and did not want to waste other people’s time with their unformed or poorly articulated views. To overcome these feelings, they felt that they should force themselves to talk more.

Talker Characteristics

On the other hand, the talkers said that they felt compelled to share whatever ideas they had; that they thought their ideas were good; felt compelled to correct ideas they believed were wrong; were uncomfortable with silence and felt obligated to break it; and sometimes felt they would explode if they kept silent. They also said that this behavior had developed over years as they realized that they liked the attention talkers received, they were noticed in class by teachers and hence did better, and were often expected by teachers to respond to questions. To overcome this, they felt they should force themselves to listen.

An important realization by the listeners was that the talkers did not need to think their ideas had to be very original or carefully phrased before they expressed them. Talkers said they often thought things through while they talked, rather than before. Listeners realized that their own ideas were not inferior to those of the talkers. In their private journals to me for that first week, students said they were totally surprised by the exercise, but that they enjoyed it because they had never before thought carefully about why they adopted their particular roles.

The whole class felt that we should try and create the conditions under which everyone got to participate. It was agreed that this responsibility should be shared and that the instructor should not have to play the role of arbitrator or be the focal point of the discussion. The class as a whole would try to develop good seminaring skills as we went along, monitoring the discussions so that they were not dominated by a few people.

Silent Running

I was apprehensive as to how this early discussion would influence subsequent classes. The next few classes were not promising, with low levels of participation and discussion. But what I then learned from their journals was that a few of the talkers (who are the kinds of students who keep discussions going) had decided to take a vow of complete silence in order not to dominate the discussions and to allow space for the listeners! They said they felt discouraged that the listeners had not immediately picked up the slack. I replied that they had to be patient, and that it is much harder for a listener to talk than for a talker to decide to listen. I suggested that they strive for a balance between domination and silence. 


The discussions got much better as the semester progressed, with the distinction between the talkers and listeners getting blurred but not eliminated. Almost all the listeners seemed to feel much more at ease in speaking and one or two of them even started talking to such an extent that they were accused (in good humor) of having “crossed over” to the talkers.

In a review discussion at the end of the semester, students said that this initial discussion had had a major impact on how they viewed their role in the seminar. It had made them more self-reflective and conscious of how their actions influenced that of others. They wished that it would be done in other classes as well.”