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Class discussion

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description 

Discussion can be used in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes. Discussion can be paired with many other teaching methods to enhance its effectiveness. Effective discussion requires that the instructor plan in advance, prepare students for the discussion, manage the discussion well in the moment, and summarize the discussion at the end.


  • Instructors of very large and/or lecture-based classes may intersperse discussion in small groups to engage students in course materials, break up a lecture, create a transition in topics, or assess student understanding.  

  • Whole-class discussion might be the primary instructional format in other courses, used to examine attitudes or beliefs, explore diverse perspectives or interpretations, solve complex problems, explore new ideas, or deepen understanding.
  • Some discussions are more difficult than others, for both instructors and students.  See the Difficult discussions page in this guide for help managing those.  Other resources are the CATL IE Coordinator and many of your UWL colleagues.  

Tips to Implement Class Discussion Effectively

  • Plan at least the initial questions you intend to ask. Clarity of purpose helps in framing questions. E.g., you might not be seeking "the only right answer" to your question, but students may assume that is your intent from the way you stated the question.

  • Prepare students for discussion. Don't assume students know how to discuss in an academic setting, or that they know how to read in your discipline.

  • Help students understand what the discussion produced by summarizing the important learning. 

  • Of course you will assign reading, but consider adding some assessment mechanisms to help students gauge whether they have understood what they have read.

  • Two CATL worksheets can help you plan a good discussion. The Discussion Design Worksheet for Instructors can help you ensure that you don't forget some essential component that will make your discussions effective. The Discussion Worksheet for Student Instructions can help you explain to students what you want them to do.
  • Teach students how to read in your discipline. Fiksdal (2014), whose discipline relies on close reading of texts, suggests initially grouping students by those who did and those who did not finish the assigned text and then working first with those who did not finish to help them learn how to read in the discipline more effectively. 

  • Teach students how to discuss. Bill Cerbin's Discussion Evaluation Form helps students learn effective and counter-productive behaviors. The Critical Incident Questionnaire (also attached at the bottom of this page) provides you with some feedback about what elements of class time students identify as critical to their learning.  The form assumes that students complete it at the end of each week -- feel free to alter it to fit your own needs.

  • Students will be better able to develop their own discussion questions once they have some command of the field (e.g. in an advanced course rather than an introductory one).  Share the Critical Reading Questions to help students develop their own discussion questions.

  • If discussion will be a common class activity, begin on the first day. Nilson (2010) suggests a small-group discussion on the syllabus or students' prior knowledge of a subject or issue the course will explore as a first-day activity.  

  • If you grade on class participation, make very explicit in the syllabus the basis of your evaluation (e.g., what quantity is an A?  What's the quality of excellent participation? Is "active listening" a component of class participation, and can it substitute for talking?  How will you monitor class participation, and how often will you tell students how they are doing?)

  • Don't rely on a class participation grade in motivate students to talk.

  • Set the percentage of the course grade assigned to class participation relative to the level of the course AND the size of the class.  

  • Don't underestimate students' fear of looking stupid in front of an instructor or classmates. Find ways to help put students at ease.

  • Determine in advance how you will handle students who dominate class discussions. Nilson (2010) suggests limiting their contributions; a conversation (individually and outside of class) with such students on how they might facilitate the participation of other students can be very effective).

  • Determine in advance some strategies for drawing in quiet students (e.g., short writes or think-pair-share activities can give students time to gather their thoughts before the discussion begins; many students are more comfortable talking in small groups rather than whole-class -- vary the sizes of small-group discussions to facilitate comfort).

  • Online discussions need even more careful advance planning:  
    • Make tools for collaboration available. 
    • Relate goals for online collaboration to course objectives.
    • Provide guidelines for acceptable standards for netiquette.
    • Provide guidelines for working in virtual groups.
    • Explain how group work will be evaluated.


  • Brookfield, S., & Preskill, Stephen. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching : Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms (Second ed.).
  • Howard, J. (2015). Discussion in the college classroom : Getting your students engaged and participating in person and online (First ed.).
  • Eberly Center, "Solve a Teaching Problem," Carnegie-Mellon University.
  • Fiksdal, S. R. (2014). A Guide to Teaching Effective Seminars: Conversation, Identity, and Power. New York:  Routledge.
  • Nilson, L.B. (2010).  Teaching at Its Best:  A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors.  3rd ed. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.  See Chapter 13.  
  • CATL Tools for Teaching Workshop on Discussion.  This googlesite provides many tips from UW-L instructors on designing effective discussions, before the discussion begins, during the discussion, and after the discussion.  Includes a specific section from a workshop with UWL 100 instructors.  Also includes a section of resources.
  • Worksheets:  

Hoskins, D. (2015). Class discussion. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from