Facilitate Discussion

Preparing for a Discussion 

Successful classroom discussions are based on mutually respectful relationships between class members, phrasing questions to make them relevant to students' learning goals and the course learning outcomes, and knowing how to mitigate common challenges that may arise during classroom discussions. You’ll often find that your students can articulate profound statements if they are asked the right questions.  The suggestions below will help ensure you give students adequate time and support to respond to each question, respond to each other, think of follow-up questions, and summarize how their responses connect to their lives and other parts of the course.

Since the phrasing of a question impacts how students may respond, consider which questions should be phrased as “close-ended” and which should be phrased as “open-ended”. Close-ended questions usually have limited and shorter responses making them useful to review main points from lectures or build a foundation for open-ended questions that help students think critically about a topic. 


Examples of close-ended questions

  • What year did Walt Whitman first publish Leaves of Grass?

  • Is the sample in this problem representative?

  • What is the purpose of a thesis statement?


Examples of open-ended questions

  • How do you see the backdrop of the US Civil War informing Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass?

  • Why is it important to ask if a sample is representative in statistical analysis?

  • What challenges are you facing as you write your thesis statement?

  • Provide clear and detailed learning objectives for your students, and write them on the board, slides, or a collaborative digital space (e.g. a Google doc or jamboard). 

  • Create questions that target each of your learning objectives and pose them to the class. Use active verbs such as imagine, compare, elaborate, defend, support, distinguish, recount, assemble, measure etc. in your questions in ways that correspond with your learning objectives. 

  • Ensure that some of your discussion questions directly relate to major assignments in the course. For instance, start with an example of an exam question or writing prompt, and ask students to describe how they might go about finding the answer or approaching the prompt.

Polls work well to begin a discussion or debate, to check student understanding, or to conduct quick fact checks. Some starting ideas of how to phrase poll questions are:  

  • “How many agree that...?”

  • “Who in the class would like to spend more time on…”

  • “Which of the following responses shows a complete hypothesis?” 

  • “When does the author use imagery in this short story?”


Use UCSB-supported technologies for polling and facilitating discussions. Some of the most popular include:


Ways to do polls without technology:

  • Ask students for a show of hands

  • Ask students for a thumbs up, side, or down to measure level of agreement

  • Ask students to sit, stand, or walk to a certain area of a room when possible

  • Ask students to hold up a number of fingers to indicate a response to a list of answers

  • Ask students to write responses on notecards 

  • Ask students to complete an “exit slip” so they can ask or answer questions at the end of class.


Habits of a Good Discussion Leader

Leading a meaningful discussion takes intentional planning of group work, activities and prompts that focus on giving students time and opportunities to prepare their ideas and questions. Good discussion leaders also use positive voice tone and phrases to help students build their learning confidence, thereby making them more willing to contribute ideas and questions. Below are some of the many techniques you can adopt to ensure more students participate in class.

Habits of a Good Discussion Leader PDF Download

  • “This topic can be challenging, so feel free to stop me, ask me to slow down, repeat, or give more examples.” Then stop frequently to check in on student learning.

  • “It’s easy to miss the connections made here. Would it be helpful for me to go over this again?”

  • “Let’s consider what we already know about this and see how we can build on that.”

  • Use iClicker or polling questions to show students that they are not alone in making errors or thinking differently.

  • Wait at least 3-5 seconds before expecting student responses. 

  • Tell students about wait time so they know the purpose.

  • Tell students to think through the question and jot down notes before answering. 

  • “Let’s take a few moments to think about this before responding.”

  • “That’s a good question Omar, would anyone like to try answering that?”

  • “Who has an example that illustrates Daniela’s explanation?”

  • “That is definitely one perspective, can someone else offer another perspective.”

  • Get to know students before and after class. Tell them you’d appreciate their contributions. 

  • Notice who has and has not contributed to the conversation so far and encourage participation from others by name. 

  • Study students’ faces confusion or comprehension.

  • Plan activities based on the technology and software students have access to.

  • “Can you tell me more about what you shared?”

  • “What brought you to this perspective?”

  • “Can you think of any experiences that would lead you to that idea?”

  • “Tell us some examples or evidence that support your argument.”

  • “What are some biases of those sources?”

  • “How might someone from a different background react to your statement?”

Ways to Jumpstart a Discussion

After formulating discussion questions that align with student learning outcomes, consider different configurations and activities for your classroom discussion. Below (and on the jumpstarting discussion infographic) are some suggestions that can be done in pairs or small groups as well as through short writes or collaborative digital spaces.


Set the Scene

Have students contribute visuals about the topic prior to class (e.g. Use a collaborative chat, discussion forum, Google Jamboard or Slides for students to post images, photos, videos, meme, audio, etc.). 

Group Brainstorm

As students arrive, have them contribute to an open-ended prompt on the board or digital space (e.g. question, matrix, diagram, or list).

Truth Statements

In small groups, ask students to produce 3 true statements about a particular issue. Use the resulting complexities for discussion.

Staged Debate

Assign students to support a particular side of a debate and articulate the reasoning behind that position.


Ask students to respond to a prompt and then call on one of their peers to also respond. Repeat multiple times.

Hypothesize and Predict

Present students with a scenario and ask them to hypothesize reasons for what is happening and/or predict what might happen.

Mitigating Challenges to Classroom Discussions

Once you have planned discussion questions and the formats you want to use to jumpstart your discussions, consider the potential challenges that might arise and ways you may go about mitigating them. The list below captures a few common challenges experienced by educators when facilitating classroom discussions and some effective responsive strategies.  

  • Provide multiple ways for students to contribute, such as submitting exit slips, writing, small group work, polls, attending office hours, and collaborative problem solving.

  • Learn students’ names and invite silent students into the discussion as you read their body language, i.e. “I see you shaking your head there, Doug—what do you think?”

  • Many students struggle with spontaneous contributions, so give them a few extra seconds to think or try a think-pair-share activity

  • Use the students’ contributions to help the class find patterns, identify what’s missing, practice problem solving, explore examples, and generate questions.

  • Start class with an open-ended prompt that has many “correct” answers. 

  • Put on the syllabus, and repeat often verbally, that you value the complexity of ideas that emerge when all students participate in the classroom discussions.

  • Provide a mini-workshop on discussion techniques. Explain how students can monitor whether they’re speaking too much or too little, and how to contribute to the conversation.

  • Emphasize that incorrect answers are learning opportunities. Establish that errors are not a reflection of self-worth and that making mistakes is a crucial part of the learning process.

  • Insist that students learn the correct answer. This can be gentle: “Let’s go over that one more time so you’ll remember it”; or medium: “I’ll check with you tomorrow to be sure you remember”;  or unmistakable: “This on the test.” 

  • Make sure that the correct answer is eventually provided (by another student or by you). 

  • Dignify errors with interest and respect. Greet all comments with a head nod, smile, and a thank you for contributing. Say, “I’m so glad you brought that up, because it’s a common misconception. Let’s look at why.”

  • Indicate what question the answer is correct for, and then clarify further, e.g. “That would be correct if X were true, but remember that this situation is different because of Y,” or “I see why you might think that, because the terms are easy to confuse. However, keep in mind that we’re talking about Z.” 

  • Resist giving the right answer or declaring a response correct (or incorrect) too quickly—that shuts down contemplation of the question for the rest of the class. 

  • Be positive. Resist the impulse to say “No” or “Wrong” Remember: you are there to help students be right, not catch them being wrong. 

  • Try redirection: “Okay, so you’ve expressed one point of view, can anyone elaborate on [student’s name] point or provide an alternative view?”

  • Mention that in academic settings our assumptions are often challenged to help us think critically. Emphasize that the class benefits from hearing differing opinions. 

  • Bring the discussion back to the text by asking a factual question that can’t be refuted.

  • Be patient and speak with the student after class or in office hours.

  • Consult with colleagues and the course professor.

  • You might say “Emotions are a bit high; let’s take a break.”

  • Ask students to write or draw their feelings, assumptions, and positions.

  • Remind the class of ground rules and respectful language.

  • Allow students to leave if overly distressed.


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