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Planning an Effective Classroom Discussion


The first time I realized facilitating classroom discussion was not as an easy task as it seemed to be was when I was assigned as a weekly facilitator in one of my graduate classes. There were around 25 students in the room from various backgrounds counting on my facilitation. Although I read all the materials and tried to familiarize myself with them as much as possible, it was very challenging for me to engage everyone, and there were awkward silences.

Since that moment I have made a commitment to explore discussion facilitation strategies. I found that the planning beforehand is the most critical step, and the following aspects are very important in the whole planning process.

  • Develop clear learning objectives for each class session, and create discussion activities that are closely tied to learning goals and class content. Hearing the goals for the discussion activity in the classroom, students will easily make connections between the content and the activity so that their discussion will be meaningful, focused, and engaging. Keep in mind that there are many ways to “participate”, so it could be designed as oral activities, writing prompts, or both. Also, different class size or students from different cultural backgrounds might need totally different discussion prompts.
  • Prepare higher order discussion-questions based on learning objectives ClarifyingQuestionssummarized in Bloom’s Taxonomy to foster critical thinking. Effective questions play an indispensable role in  facilitating discussions. While planning, you can refer to the Questioning Circles created by Christenbury  and Kelly (1983) and discussed by William F. McComas and Linda Abraham (2005), or question taxonomies, such as Barbara Gross Davis’ (1993) inventory, and the Socratic Questions by Richard Paul and Linda Elder (2006).

Below are a few Socratic questions reproduced with the permission from the Foundation for Critical Thinking, and here is a more complete list of questions you may use to prepare for the discussion.

Questions for clarification:
  • Why do you say that?
  • How does this relate to our discussion?
Questions that probe assumptions:
  • What could we assume instead?
  • How can you verify or disapprove that assumption?
Questions that probe reasons and evidence:
  • What would be an example?
  • What do you think causes to happen…? Why:?
Questions about Viewpoints and Perspectives:
  • What would be an alternative?
  • Would you explain why it is necessary or beneficial, and who benefits?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
  • How are…and …similar?
Questions that probe implications and consequences:
  • What generalizations can you make?
  • How does…affect…?
  • How does…tie in with what we learned before?
Questions about the question:
  • What was the point of this question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • Set up a time range for each class discussion and be structured. Different activities may need different amounts of time. Ask yourself, do you expect every student to speak up to the whole class, or that students share opinions among themselves in small groups?
  • Be mentally prepared for discomfort or any unexpected incident, such as tough questions, conflicting opinions, unusually quiet classroom, off-topic conversations, and so on.

Furthermore, here are some of my favorite techniques that you can tie in your plan to lead an effective classroom discussion.

  • Build an inclusive classroom  For example, guide self-introduction among participants, use name tents, embrace respect, etc.
  • Keep discussions positive and constructive For example, clarify goals of each session, establish ground rules, etc.
  • Increase student engagement and encourage participation For example, admit your own ignorance or confusion, provide sufficient time to think and reflect, collaborative activities for reflection, write down the key words from students’ comments on the board, allow them to write out answers instead of speaking up, ask the talkers to act as observers for some sessions, taking notes and reporting back, etc.

Discussion is a very powerful mechanism for active learning. A well-planned and facilitated discussion allows students to explore new ideas while recognizing, valuing, and understanding others’ experiences and opinions. I hope you all feel more comfortable and confident when it comes to planning an effective discussion in your own classroom.


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One Response to Planning an Effective Classroom Discussion

  1. Ruben August 23, 2016 at 11:45 am #

    Hi Bo, this is a wonderful blog! classroom discussion is indeed an essential principle of teaching that requires careful planning. Asking questions to lead meaningful discussion is, as you realized and pointed out, a skill we develop through practice and guidance. Thanks for the many examples of quality questions you provide.

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