How To Facilitate Easy and Effective Discussions in the College Classroom


After reading last week’s post, Why Students Benefit from Participation & Class Discussions, a longtime friend and reader of the blog decided to try a new approach to teaching her class and reached out to me for some tips. I was thorough enough that I figured my (very long) response to her would serve as a great follow-up post for this week:

Hi Carol,

(Just to warn you, my answer is really long! I’ll probably end up using it as a blog post on Happy Professor next week :). I hope it helps!)

I’m glad you enjoy the posts! The way I normally facilitate a discussion is to put the responsibility on the students so they feel some ownership of what they’re learning. Whether it’s a chapter in a textbook or an article like the one you mentioned, I would use the same approach (and this is just me, so it doesn’t fit everyone’s teaching style!):

  1. As the instructor, pick your favorite concepts from the reading that you think the students will enjoy most (preferably one for every student in the class if you have 10 or fewer people, or one concept for every 2 students in the class if it’s a bigger group- you want to keep the number of concepts between 5 and 10, otherwise you’ll run out of class time).
  2. Write the list of concepts up on the board, and tell the students (either individually or in pairs) what concept they’ll be responsible for ‘researching’ and discussing with the class (I try to pick a specific idea that that particular student would like most, based on what I know about them). They can look within the assigned reading for answers and outside sources (like the internet on their smartphone to gather more information to share).
  3. After assigning the topics/concepts, I would give them 10 minutes to read, do research, and figure out in what way they personally want to steer the discussion. I also encourage students to look at other concepts on the board and read about them so they have more to add to the discussion, other than just the topic they were given.
  4. Then I just go down the list and have each student or pair of students share their thoughts with the class. I also go around the room and ask each individual student if they have anything to add, but I don’t force them to answer (sometimes it’s just easier for them to speak up when asked directly rather than for them to take the initiative to raise their hands- at least that was how I was as a student!).
  5. I always ask for them to include personal examples from their own lives in applying the ideas, since it helps them understand how the lesson affects them directly, and it’ll help them remember the concepts better. It also makes the discussion much more lively.

That’s about it!

This might be the way you were already doing things, but hopefully you found some new stuff in what I said above!

Good luck with the lesson! 🙂


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