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Anyone? Anyone? How to Facilitate Engaging Group Discussions

Group discussion in the classroom is an extremely effective technique for helping students achieve your course learning outcomes.  The book Teaching at its Best cites group discussion as a helpful tool for affording students the opportunity to:

examine and change attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviors, explore unfamiliar ideas open-mindedly, engage in deep learning, think critically, problem solve, actively listen, transfer knowledge to new situations, retain material, and want to learn more about the subject matter (page 127)

However, leading a group discussion can sometimes prove to be difficult especially when a course is taught in a lecture format.  I know that I have tried to facilitate a group discussion and encountered situations reminiscent of this famous scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

In an effort to avoid that uncomfortable situation as much as possible I have tried to be more intentional about how I facilitate group discussion.  I outlined some of my favorite techniques for getting students to actively participate in dialogue below.


The students in the video seemed bored and disconnected from the class. Students are not likely to participate in discussions if they are not comfortable in the group. An easy way to create a sense of community and have fun is to dedicate a portion of your first class to an icebreaker activity. These activities usually only take a few minutes and can set a positive tone for the rest of the quarter. One of my favorite activities utilizes a “question ball.” This activity allows students to get to know each other in a fun and low risk environment.

Question Ball Activity

2 SI leaders participating in the Question Ball Ice Breaker

Two of our Supplemental Instruction Leaders participating in the Question Ball Ice Breaker

Supplies Needed: Ball with several questions written on it, like this one.  However, I have always made my own using a beach ball and a marker.  If you would like you can also customize the ball to your course by using questions that are relevant to your content material.

Overview of Activity: Participants will stand in a circle and toss a ball with questions on it to each other. When a participant catches the ball they must answer the question that is closest to their right thumb. After they answer the question they toss the ball to someone else. When everyone has answered a question, the activity is complete.

Interested in learning additional ways to build community in your classroom? Pinterest  is an excellent resource for finding fun icebreakers.

Open Ended Questions

Once you have established an open environment in your classroom it will be easier to get your class to participate in a large group discussion! When you begin the discussion, it is important to remember to ask open ended questions. The teacher in the video seemed to be asking a lot of yes/no or leading questions. Those questions can be useful when you are trying to check for understanding or to quickly gauge what a group is thinking but they are ineffective in creating a vibrant group discussion.  This article contains many strong examples of open ended questions you can use to get a discussion flowing in your next class.

Small Group Activities

The teacher in the above video did not give the students enough time to gather their thoughts. I have found that discussion seems to flow easily if I frame it as an activity with very specific parameters. Students seem to be more willing to participate in discussions based activities because it can seem less risky, and they are often given time to collect their thoughts before they address the group.

 Affinity Grouping

This activity is useful for identifying major themes around an idea. It also allows participants to think critically on a topic before sharing their ideas with a large group.

1) The facilitator introduces an idea or prompt for the group, for example “How do you use Social Media?”

2) Participants will individually brainstorm ideas on note cards or post it notes. Each unique idea should be written on a separate post it note.

3) The facilitator will separate the participants into small clusters and have them group their ideas into categories.

4) After the small clusters have categorized their ideas, the facilitator will lead a group discussion to further categorize the ideas and identify major themes.


In clusters, group participants are divided into smaller groups for discussion. Once they are divided, give your class a topic to discuss such as “What specific themes did the author emphasize throughout the novel?” After the groups have had time to discuss their answer, ask them to share their thoughts with the class.

Students working together in a cluster

Students working together in a cluster photo from Flickr Creative Commons

 Think / Pair / Share

The goal of a Think/Pair/Share is allow participants time to think BEFORE they discuss. When people are given time to contemplate an answer to a question, their answers differ from those they would give if they responded immediately. The process for Think/Pair/Share is as follows:

1) Think – Give your students a prompt of something to think independently about such as: “Was the American War for Independence inevitable?”

2) Pair – Pair up students and have them share their responses with each other.

3) Share – Have the pairs of students share their responses with the large group.


Jigsaws, when used properly, make the group as a whole dependent upon all of the subgroups. Each group provides a piece of the puzzle. Group members are broken into smaller groups. Each small group works on some aspect of the same problem, question, or issue. They then share their part of the puzzle with the large group. When using jigsaw, make sure you carefully define the limits of what each group will contribute to the topic that is being explored.

For example, a jigsaw can be used to help students learn how to find the mean, median, mode, and range of a set of data. First you would split students in to four separate groups. Assign each group to focus on one of the following topics: 1) solving for the mean from grouped and ungrouped data, 2) solving for the median from the given grouped and ungrouped data, 3) solving for the mode of the given grouped and ungrouped data, 4) finding the range of the given data. Each group will review material, become an “expert” on their topic and finally present to the class.

OTLA Resources

If you would like more information or resources on facilitating classroom discussion be sure to check out the following OTLA resources:

Teaching Commons

Among the many great resources on the Teaching Commons website are some quick and simple tips for engaging your students in a group discussion.

OTLA Library

The OTLA offers a free library for staff and faculty to check out books that span a variety of topics – including classroom management best practices. I have found the book I referenced at the beginning of this post, Teaching at its Best, to be particularly helpful while forming workshops and coaching my Supplemental Instruction Leaders on how effectively facilitate their sessions.

Teaching Support

If you would like some one-on-one coaching, I encourage you to contact Jen O’Brien, our Assistant Director for Teaching Support. She conducts teaching consultations and has a lot of experience in creating dynamic classroom environments.

Teaching and Learning Conference

OTLA co-sponsors the Annual Teaching and Learning Conference every year. This year’s topic is “Full Contact Teaching: Making the Most of Class Time.” Those who attend the conference are sure to leave with new ideas on facilitating in class discussions.


2 Responses to Anyone? Anyone? How to Facilitate Engaging Group Discussions

  1. Ruben February 17, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    Hi Erin,
    I like the many examples and techniques you provide to help facilitate group discussion!

    • Erin Sella February 17, 2014 at 10:33 pm #

      Thanks Ruben!

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