Use discussion to promote active learning in the classroom: Strategies and tips for college teachers

by Jungyun Won
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

Jungyun Won

Jungyun Won

Students do not learn as much by listening to teachers as they do by participating in discussions (Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Ericksen, 1984). Discussion is one of the best methods of fostering active learning and promoting learning in the classroom.

Discussion gives students the opportunity to express their opinions, share ideas, and exchange experiences orally.

The following are reasons why teachers need to use discussion techniques:

  • To develop students’ motivation for further learning.
  • To give students opportunities to formulate application of principles.
  •  To help students articulate what they’ve learned from lecture.
  • To get feedback on students’ understanding or misunderstanding.

However, as Henning (2005) said: “Leading a productive discussion, one that engages students and enhances their understanding, may be the most complex and challenging task in teaching” (p.90). Thus, teachers must consider many factors such as time, topic, class size, and type of classroom to choose the proper discussion techniques and promote a high quality discussion.

Beginning of the class – Brainstorm ideas, build structure of thoughts
Middle of the class – In-depth discussion, develop detailed ideas
End of the class – Summarize main points from discussion, draw out conclusions

Class size
Small class – Harkness Table, Jigsaw group discussion
Large class – Think-Pair-Share, The Fishbowl Model

The following provides strategies and tips for college teachers to prepare and conduct class discussions.

Preparing for the discussion

  1. Announce the topic and assign relevant class materials  ahead of time.
  2. Set and announce clear goals, expectations, and guidelines.
  3. Be aware of each student’s ability and personality.
  4. Develop effective discussion questions and listening techniques.

Getting the discussion started

  1. Start with a common experience or information.
  2. Start with a controversy.
  3. Focus discussion on a problem or case study.
  4. Start with discussion questions.

Keeping the discussion going

  1. Maintain eye contact with students.
  2. Encourage student’s self-confidence in participation.
  3. Create an appropriate environment and situation in the classroom.
  4. Understand the features of the student group.

Teachers must remember some students actively participate, but others never volunteer a sentence. How can you get all students involved?

How deal with passive participants in class discussion?

  1.  Reduce fear of passive participants — Start with small group discussion as moving toward the large-class discussion and easier questions before moving to difficult questions.
  2. Provide enough time to prepare — Make sure to give enough time for students to think about the discussion topic and questions and prepare their own answers.
  3. Reward students to encourage them to participate.
  4. Get to know the nonparticipants — Collect from the students self-summaries that include their background, experience, personalities, and ideologies.
  5. Ask open-ended questions with no wrong answers.

Related video links for class discussion:

Strategies for student-centered discussion

Jungyun Won is a doctoral student in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC6930).


1 thought on “Use discussion to promote active learning in the classroom: Strategies and tips for college teachers

  1. Pingback: 4 teaching strategies for college instructors — context, optimism, preparation and engagement | Strategies for Successful Teaching

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