Tips on Teaching

Leading Effective In-Class Discussions

by Konnor Brennan, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

In-class discussions are one of the most frequently used instructional strategies, and when intentionally designed, can yield many benefits for students. In-class discussions can fit into the overall design of a course in several ways. They could be used to formatively assess student learning, be used to develop student’s oral communications skills, or be used as an instructional tool to help students meet specific content or competency learning objectives.

When preparing to lead a discussion in class, it is often helpful to provide the learning objectives the discussion is intended to meet to the students. For example, if an instructor plans to have their students discuss a journal article, some of the learning objectives the instructor may provide to the students throughout the discussion could include: summarizing the background information, critiquing the methods, and providing future research directions. By providing students with the explicit learning objectives the instructor intends the discussion to facilitate, the instructor allows the students to better engage with the activity (Bloom’s Taxonomy can help instructors clarify their learning objectives by providing examples of measurable verbs).

Framing of the discussion question or prompt is important to ensure students understand the learning objective and can engage with the content. One recommendation is to frame discussion prompts to encourage a range of responses. Take the following example of a discussion prompt from a biology course:

“Should crispr cas9 be used on humans?”

This discussion prompt is phrased in a way to elicit “yes” or “no” responses from the students. While some students may volunteer more information, others may not think further explanation is necessary. By rephrasing the prompt to include the specific learning objectives the instructor intended the discussion to facilitate, the students can more easily engage in the discussion and practices the skills needed to meet the learning objectives. The following prompt includes the specific learning objectives the instructor intended to practice during the discussion.

“There is debate on whether crispr cas9 should be used on humans. Describe both sides of this debate, and list the evidence they use to support their claim.” ​

Effective in-class discussions often end with a summary of the important material covered. By their nature, discussions can sometimes get off topic or include information the instructor did not plan to cover. By clarifying the information the students will be held accountable for from the discussion, the instructor can take steps to help students meet their learning goals and better prepare the students for future assessments. Post-discussion summaries can come in many forms including reflective writings, exits cards, “muddiest point” activities and many more. The key to a post-discussion summary is to give the students a better understanding of what they should be taking away from the discussion (i.e. the learning objective of the discussion)


Students often benefit the most from in-class discussions that have targeted learning goals/objectives that are clear to the students. While facilitating an effective in-class discussion can be more time consuming and demanding for the instructor, well-designed discussions are often very beneficial to student learning. Through thoughtful design, reflection, and sometimes trial and error, instructors can continue to improve their courses by adding in-class discussions, when it meets their learning objectives.

Additional Resources and References

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching

Gray, T., & Madson, L. (2007). Ten easy ways to engage your students. College Teaching, 55(2), 83-87.

Jones, R. C. (2008). The” why” of class participation: A question worth asking. College Teaching, 56(1), 59-63.

Kramer, T. J., & Korn, J. H. (1996). Class discussions: Promoting participation and preventing problems. APS Observer, 9(5).