Dynamic classroom discussions, where students engage meaningfully with not only the material but also each other, are possible both in the small intimate seminar space and in the large lecture hall—and on Zoom.
Crafting a productive conversation requires thinking intentionally about how to ask questions, how to facilitate answers, and how to nurture dialog.
We all fear the silence and blank stares, but it doesn’t have to be so! Here are some practical tips to get students talking.
Have a discussion road map in place
We tend to imagine that discussions emerge organically and take on a life of their own. While occasionally that is the case, good discussions take prep work! Before any discussion time, outline a road map of where you’d like the conversation to go—what topics, themes, or points you want to be sure students hit on before class wraps up.
A key piece of this work will be determining what questions to ask in order for students to get where you want them to go. The road map itself should be for your eyes only, but these questions might also serve as prompts to share with the class.
Especially at the start of the semester, when students have yet to develop a certain comfort level with you, each other, and the material, it can be useful to turn to a slide of question prompts to guide the discussion. If the conversation lulls, you can encourage students to come back to them as needed
Question your questions!
The questions you pose shape the direction and substance of the subsequent classroom discussions. Take the time to think through what they will be. Try to have more than one version of key questions on hand, in case one approach does not resonate. The best questions (and road maps) have multiple, flexible paths to get you where you’re going.
Make sure your opening questions especially are broad enough to prompt student responses; this breadth can help make discussion more accessible for all students.
Being attentive to scope is especially important when considering the intellectual space a question opens up. Students can sometimes be silenced by the impression that there is only one right answer to the question you are posing. Give them room to do what you want them to do in the classroom: think.
Space matters—and trust is key
Classroom discussions are cultivated by the intellectual space good questions open up, and by the architecture of the classroom itself. If your class is small enough to do so, utilize Zoom breakout rooms or (when teaching in person) have students sit in a circle or otherwise arrange themselves to face each other.
You can’t always create an intimate environment but you can foster an intimate dynamic through focusing on trust as the foundation for a productive discussion. Trust can be built through the tone you set for the class. Allow your students to see you honestly, and affirm that you see them also. Regularly ask how they are and show them you care about them beyond the expectations of your course. This gesture, made genuinely, goes a long way towards making a group a community.
Facilitate with intention
While you want students to talk to each other, not to (or through) you, you need to see your role in classrom discussions as a facilitator; you are there to nudge things along and guide students towards where you want them to go.
Model for students the acknowledgment and connection you hope to foster between them. Verbalize the links you hear between different students’ comments, and use students’ comments to leapfrog into new questions.
Be attentive to how each comment works not only as a response to a given question prompt (or previous comment) but also as a means to push the discussion forward.
Turn to the text
The best discussion questions encourage students to make connections and get them to think not only through but beyond the course material. But sometimes it can be too much to start there. If students are struggling either to comment meaningfully or speak at all, ground the discussion by (re)turning to the text.
Have passages from the readings on hand that you’d like students to turn to if the conversation isn’t flowing. Have students volunteer to read out loud—this approach can be less intimidating for them than responding to a question.
Silence is inevitable
After all is said and done, the number one ground rule for dynamic class discussions is: don’t be afraid of silence! Sit with the discomfort for a bit—that alone is sometimes enough to prompt the conversation. However, don’t be afraid to step back and regroup if you are met with crickets.
It can be helpful for students to see you thinking and working through approaches to the topic at hand. Ask students outright what they thought about the reading, and if their silence means they didn’t connect with it; work through the reason for the silence together.
If you are struggling with silence, try adding some levity to the situation. Setting your class up for vibrant classroom discussions means making it clear to students that there is room for them to question, play, explore and, more importantly, fail.
Yes, discussions are—and should ultimately be—about getting somewhere specific and moving forward with the curriculum. But they are just as much about inquiry and engagement, a chance for students to exercise and demonstrate their critical thinking and analytical skills.