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Facilitating In-Class Discussions


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How to facilitate an in-class discussion

Students find discussions disillusioning just about as often as faculty do. In the analysis referenced below, students objected when a few classmates dominated the discussion, when the discussion wandered off-topic, making it difficult to ascertain the main points, and when students participated just for the sake of participating. Problems such as these can be prevented or significantly reduced when discussions are structured — at least, that was one of the conclusions reached in the study highlighted here. A set of guidelines used in this analysis offers a concrete way to provide structure.


  1. Use a modular approach to topical coverage to force the integration of topical ideas and concepts. The point here is simply that discussions should have designated themes or topics. The focus should be more specific than “Let’s talk about the readings” or “It’s time to discuss yesterday's material presented in class.”
  2. Develop a minimal set of discussion questions that do not have “known answers.” Three or four questions (possibly distributed before the discussion or introduced at its beginning) can do much to focus and direct a discussion. If the questions are regularly returned to throughout the discussion, they keep the discussion from drifting too far off-topic.
  3. Allow sufficient time for discussion to develop. This is an inherent advantage of online discussion. Students have time to review, think about, and prepare contributions. No face-to-face discussion can allow that much time, but in-class discussions can be slowed down. Students can be challenged to think about what others have said. They can be asked to summarize or indicate where they think the discussion is leading.
  4. Set student expectations for instructor guidance and feedback. “Students should take the lead role in the evolution of a discussion; the instructor must limit his or her involvement in the discussion to a role as facilitator and provocateur and should do so only after other students decline the opportunity.” (p. 124)
  5. Establish a reward system that encourages interaction and peer critique. Students are motivated to participate if contributions to a discussion “count.” Instructors need to devise manageable grading systems and ones that make quality stipulations.
  6. Provide additional participation incentives through assessment. In this case, the instructor followed in-class discussion exercises with a take-home essay exam that used themes and “lessons” from the discussion. Knowing that they will be using discussion content in an exam provides a powerful incentive for students to get involved in exchanging ideas.

This analysis also includes a helpful comparison and contrast between online and face-to-face discussions. The author concludes, “The choice between online and face-to-face discussion exercises rests more on the instructor’s goals with regards to communication skills and rapport in the learning community.” (p. 128)

Online exchanges do a better job of developing critical thinking skills. They teach students how to make and support points in writing. For the instructor, the permanence of the record expedites the grading process. Rather than trying to keep track of who said what and simultaneously facilitate the discussion, an instructor can review the record and more thoughtfully assess individual contributions. However, in-class discussions are better at building instructor-student rapport, and they develop essential oral communication skills such as "thinking on one’s feet.” No doubt, in most professional contexts, students will be having discussions in both formats.


  • Sautter, P. (2007). Designing discussion activities to achieve desired learning outcomes: Choices using the mode of delivery and structure. Journal of Marketing Education, 29 (2), 122–131.

Source: Six Keys to More Effective Class Discussions – Faculty Focus

Keywordsclassroom, in-class, discussion, facilitationDoc ID113253
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2021-08-25 07:40:17Updated2023-12-18 08:38:35
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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