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Tips for Leading Discussions

Although initially designed for a classroom context, the following suggestions are equally valid online.

Motivating Students to Participate

  • Choose topics that capture attention and arouse curiosity
  • State incentives to participate in discussions
  • Be enthusiastic about the topic
  • Make it relevant
  • Organize the discussion
  • Aim at an appropriate level of difficulty
  • Actively involve students
  • Plan for variety
  • Demonstrate student – teacher rapport
  • Use concrete, appropriate and understandable examples
  • Consider what we may inadvertently do that destroys student motivation

Initiating Discussions

  • Develop a strategy for beginning the discussion or restarting it if it stalls
  • Start with a common experience, an open-ended question, a controversy, or a document or product to critique
  • Offer an example if the problem seems too abstract
  • Allow sufficient wait time

Guiding Discussions

  • Ask questions that promote discussion, don’t give answers
  • Give and take control
  • Move around the room
  • Watch for non-verbal cues
  • Ask for responses in writing

The Role of Questions

Depending on the level of the discussion, ask the following questions:

  • Comprehension: Retell
  • Application: How is … an example of…? How is … related to…?
  • Analysis: What are the parts of …? How would you compare/contrast …? What evidence is there for…?
  • Synthesis: What do you predict/infer…? How would you create/design …? What would the result be if you combined…?
  • Evaluation: What are your points of agreement/disagreement and why? What criteria would you use to …?

Concluding the Discussion

  • End with a summary so that students know what important points were covered
  • Fill in points that weren't covered
  • Praise the class for the quality of their responses


  • Give frequent, early, positive feedback that supports students' belief that they can do well
  • Ensure success by setting realistic task difficulty
  • Help students find personal meaning and value in the material
  • Create an open and positive atmosphere
  • Help students feel they are valued members of a learning community
  • Students bring research and/or questions to share
  • Students write out questions in class
  • Small groups address a task/discussion question
  • Quickly review lecture notes to see if major points were covered
  • Call on people – invite them to join the conversation
  • Ask follow-up questions
  • Use supplemental methods such as Discussions on Canvas

Common Problems

  • Moderate the student who talks too much
  • Help guide students who make unclear or hesitant comments
  • Get back on track if the discussion goes off on a tangent
  • Use a "parking spot" to record points that are off track/beyond the scope but important for another time
  • Neutralize the student who attacks
  • Redirect the student who tries to embarrass

Some material adapted from:
Teaching at Ohio State University: A Handbook, Center for Teaching Excellence & Tools for Teaching, Barbara Gross Davis, University of CA, Berkeley.

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  • 18-Feb-2020