7 Tips for Better Classroom Discussions

We’ve all been there: You introduce what you think is a red-hot topic to discuss, but when you ask the first question, there’s so much silence you can hear the classroom clock ticking. Or, in a class of 30, two or three students dominate the conversation—and you’re so happy anyone is talking you don’t want to discourage them.

So how do you get everyone talking? What steps can you take to increase participation? Following are seven tips for better classroom discussions, whether you’re talking about a familiar topic like holidays or a difficult reading for a college prep class.

1. Warm Up

Start with a short activity that lowers affect. It doesn’t need to be related to the topic—it just needs to be fun. For instance, it can be something as simple as Two Truths and a Lie, or as silly as the game Jump In, Jump Out.

Jump In, Jump Out video by Plameo.

Jump In, Jump Out can be played without holding hands for social distancing purposes, or even online, with students participating individually in their own homes.

2. Break It Down

Don’t feel like you need to start with a whole class discussion. Small groups in the classroom or online breakout rooms help students practice what they want to say in a lower stakes environment before they speak to the larger group.

3. Practice Communication Skills

Introduce students to conversational gambits so they know how to politely state their opinion, disagree, and interrupt—and know how to get the topic back on track if they are interrupted. It’s important to practice those skills separately before the discussion. For instance, one student in a group tells a simple story about themselves, such as what they did the day before, while other students politely interrupt them (“Could I interrupt to say something?”, “Excuse me, but could I ask…”). The storyteller then uses gambits (“As I was saying…”, “Anyway…”) to get back to their story.

4. Give Students a Head Start

One sticking point for students is trying to find the words they need on the fly, so ensure that students have already learned the words likely to come up in the discussion.

Likewise, some students feel more confident participating if they have a chance to think about the discussion before class, so consider posting the questions a day or two in advance. This also allows students to look up any extra vocabulary they need to make their point.

5. Assign Roles

If your goal is for shyer students to be more involved in conversation, ask pairs to interview each other and report on what they find. Because students will share their partner’s ideas instead of their own, they need to participate equally.

For small groups, assign students roles, such as facilitator, time-keeper, note-taker, and reporter. It’s especially important to have a facilitator to make sure everyone has the chance to speak. Though it’s easier to let the students choose these roles themselves, it’s worth planning ahead of time who will do what. If you leave it up to the students, the most confident will want to lead the discussion, while the shyest will opt to be the note-taker.

Students in a discussion group

“Members discussion groups” by AIESEC (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

6. Make Connections

Ask open-ended questions and make them relevant to students’ lives and experiences. What do they already know about the topic? How does it affect them? For instance, if you’re going to discuss climate change, what changes have the students seen during their lifetimes? What are some examples of extreme weather they have experienced? If students are discussing a novel, how are their lives different from and similar to the characters? Would they do something differently if faced with the same challenges?

7. Change Things Up

If you’re in a physical classroom, get students out of their seats and up at the board. They can use it to answer questions, list ideas, or write up two sides of a debate—whatever is appropriate for your discussion. For brainstorming, students can write at the same time, limited only by space and the number of markers. Online, you can change the scenery by asking them to cocreate a Google doc or Google presentation based on their discussion that can then be shared with the class.


I hope these tips will liven up your classroom discussions and increase participation from all your students. If you have other tips that have worked well for you, please share in the comments, below!

About A. C. Kemp

A. C. Kemp
A. C. Kemp has been a lecturer in English language studies at MIT since 2007. She has a master’s degree in applied linguistics from the University of Massachusetts/Boston. A. C. has also presented extensively on teaching strategies for vocabulary acquisition. Since 2002, she has been the director of Slang City, a website devoted to American slang and colloquial language. She also has a strong interest in ITA training, for which she created the User-Friendly Classroom Video Series in 2016.
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