How do I generate discussion?

“Try small group activities, give them time to even write in class (a focused work day in which you walk around and talk to them individually right before a draft in due works great).  Don’t try to just have large group discussion—it is not a graduate seminar.  When I do large group discussion it is only part of the class—and usually after small group, so I can call on the groups and asked them what they talked about.”


“Generating and facilitating discussion in a large group is one of the hardest teaching tasks there is.  If students have a hard time discussing a reading or answering your questions, it isn’t always because they haven’t read the material or they aren’t engaged.  I always assume they want to have a lively discussion, it’s just a matter of getting the group to “gel”—not an easy task in the least.  I often ask students to write first, providing a simple and short writing prompt to give them a chance to think about their answers and put them on paper before they’re asked to perform for others in the class.  I also try putting them in small groups first to discuss the topic, then come back to the large group to share their answers.  Finally, if a large group discussion isn’t working, I just abandon it for that day and try something else.  Sometimes it’s a matter of day, mood, timing and simply another day will lead to a better discussion.”


“Start with open-ended questions:  did you like this?  What did you think of it? Did it remind you of anything?  Or, as them to freewrite for a few minutes in answer to some general question, and then call on people to read stuff they came up with.”


“Have questions prepared.  Put them in small groups.  My personal favorite: make them freewrite and then turn to discussion.  Also, have them write discussion questions anonymously and then read them aloud (assuming they’re appropriate).”


“Sit on the desk and call on one person. In my class, we have a rule that ‘I don’t know’ isn’t allowed. They have to try. If they look panicked, then I’ll say, ‘ok, we’ll give you a second to collect your thoughts’ and then I DO go back to that person to help him save face and try again.”

“You can ask them to write and then share.

“You can ask them to bring something to class and be prepared to share that.

“You can ask them directly.

“Just remember: ask real questions. Don’t ask “guess what’s in my head” questions. In other words, if you want them to fill in the blanks (eg. ‘The author says on p. 7 that he believes what?’), you are going to get a lot of blank stares and a couple of eager students willing to fill in the blanks.

“A real discussion comes when you have real things to discuss. It is also a real discussion if it isn’t simply question and answer. Learn to listen to what they say and to moderate the conversation as they contribute.

“If it is really a quiet class, put them in smaller groups, but even then, you’ll need to give them something very specific to work on and a product you want from it.

“Never simply say, ‘Discuss.'”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s