Leading Better Discussions

A surprising study of the amount of class time dedicated to student discussion reveals that instructors give students far less participation time than commonly thought.

“Analysis of observations of 20 classes revealed that typically only 2.28% of class time was spent in student participation” (Nunn, 1996).

Some instructors shortchange discussions because they are unaware of their value for enhancing student learning and because they are unfamiliar with techniques to promote student participation in conversations.

What is the value of discussion?

Discussions allow students to process material in a way that promotes factual and procedural learning.  Student participation in discussion enhances their ability to recall information.  “Cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that long-term learning depends on the learner actively processing the material. Information that is not actively processed, but merely ‘recorded,’ is harder to retrieve from storage, less available for application to new situations, and more easily forgotten” (Nunn, 1996).  Another benefit of discussion is that it develops disciplinary procedural knowledge alongside of factual knowledge.  A recent study of undergraduate biology majors shows that the use of peer discussion promotes “conceptual understanding” even among students who originally misunderstood the concept because peer discussion allows “opportunities for students to develop communicative and metacognitive skills that are crucial components of disciplinary knowledge” (Smith, et al, 2009).  Simply stated, discussion allows students actively to engage materials in ways that promote both procedural and factual learning.

What instructor practices promote student participation in discussion?

1.  Prepare students ahead of the session

Advance planning helps to prepare students for discussions.  Tell students what you plan to discuss: “When you walk in next time the first thing I am going to ask is to identify the three major sections of the Declaration and how Jefferson used each to advance his argument.” (Frederick, 1996)

2.  Let the students hear themselves early in the learning environment

“For students to feel safe participating in discussions it is important to devise ways in which each person has opportunity to say something early in the class period.  If students hear their voice at the beginning of class (or term) they are more likely to participate later” (Frederick, 1996).  Ways to do this include brainstorming, small group discussions and think-pair-share activities, etc.  Henning (2005) says, “‘Priming the pump’ or letting students talk to each other before the whole class discussion also contributes to a positive atmosphere and leads to better discussions. Students need to feel comfortable with each other, as well as with the professor. Working together in groups gives them a chance to build relationships, to hear different perspectives, and to try out risky ideas” (Henning, 2005).

3. Practice discussion friendly behaviors

Research shows a significant relationship between certain faculty behaviors and the duration of student participation (Nunn, 1996).  Behaviors that increase the amount of time students participate in discussion include praising student answers, asking follow-up questions,  asking for elaborations, accepting student answers by saying ‘that’s right,’ using student names, and repeating student answers (Nunn, 1996).  Using students’ ideas increases the number of students who participate (Nunn, 1996).

4.  Gradually build the conversation’s complexity

Beginning a discussion on a narrative level allows students to warm up to the subject.  Students are much more likely to enter a discussion “when offered a chance to express an opinion rooted in their own experience” (Henning, 2005).  However, students are often unwilling to jump into a conceptual discussion for fear that they lack important knowledge.  “One approach to bridging this knowledge gap is to use a narrative to begin the discussion and gradually move students to a more conceptual understanding . . . Even in highly conceptual disciplines such as science and mathematics, incorporating memorable stories of insight or discoveries offers potential to expose students to disciplinary thinking in action” (Henning, 2005).

For more help with leading discussions, read "Facilitating Classroom Discussions."


  • Frederick, Peter J. (1994). “Classroom Discussions” In Keith W Prichard and Robert McLaran Sawyer (Ed.), Handbook of college teaching: theory and applications. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
  • Henning, John E. (2005). “Leading Discussions: Opening Up the Conversation.” College Teaching 53, no 3, 90-95.
  • Nunn, Claudia E. (1996). “Discussion in the College Classroom: Triangulating Observational and Survey Results.” Journal of Higher Education 67, no. 3, 243-266.
  • Smith, M.K., et al. (2009). “Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions.” Science 323: 122-124.