Student-led Discussion in an online class

How to Lead a Discussion


When you are tasked to lead a discussion the primary task is to encourage discussion by getting the rest of the class to participate and to think deeply about the topic. You do this by incorporating bold statements and open-ended questions into your message (2).

Step 1: Preparing

To lead an effective discussion, you need to be familiar with the readings and assignment materials. This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert, just that you have read the assigned materials and have spent time reflecting on what it means.

Jot down the main ideas and most important points from the materials.

Write down one or two questions that encourage the other participants to dig deeper into each point. (See Types of Questions, located at the end of this document.) (7)

Step 2: Posting

Write one to two meaningful paragraphs because long messages are difficult to read online. Be concise. (2) More words does not mean better post. Say enough to give a background for why you are asking the questions or what prompted your questions.

Add some of your questions to the bottom of your narrative to start the conversation.

Step 3: Sustaining the Discussion

Your job doesn’t stop after the initial question post is complete. You now need to help to sustain the discussion and keep it moving.

“Here are some suggestions:

  1. Get students to talk to each other. Ask for a response to the most recent comments. (Anyone have a response to Clara's opinion?) Or ask a specific student to respond. (Clara, do you agree with Ralph?)
  2. Get students to defend or explain their opinions. (Marvin why do you say that? What's your evidence or reasoning?)
  3. Encourage an exploration of differing points of view. When you hear conflicting views, point them out and get the holders of those views to discuss their differences. Perhaps ask a third person to sum up the two positions.
  4. Keep the class on the subject. If you are even halfway familiar with the material, you know when the discussion is no longer connected to it. Just say so. (We've gotten pretty far from the readings; let's get back on the subject.) Or simply consult your list of questions. Any sensible response to one of your questions is bound to be pertinent.
  5. Point to a particular passage in the text relevant to a comment made by one person, or to a discussion among several. This might be a passage that challenges, or sums up and confirms, the views being expressed.
  6. Don't fill every silence with your own voice. Any discussion will lapse occasionally. It is not your job as leader to avoid all silence. Some quiet periods are productive. Students who are not so quick to speak will frequently get the chance they need when others are quiet. If the silence gets too heavy, take advantage of the other students' lists of questions. (Ginny, give us one of the questions you brought to class.)” (7)
  7. Encourage debate. (6)
  8. At the end, summarize and post your report about the discussion. (6)
  9. You are the leader and facilitator, not the brains of the operation. As is outlined in the Student-Led Discussion Manual, “You are not expected to know it all; the class is full of students who have read the same assignment that you read. Your job is to give them a chance to talk about it and thus give others the benefits of their thinking. On the other hand, if any one student begins to do all the talking, gently correct this problem by bringing other students into the discussion.”(7)
  10. If things are going well then relax and contribute when you want.

Types of Questions to Use as Prompts

What was the most challenging part of the chapter for you to grasp?” or “How could the reading material apply to your professional practice?” (1)

Here are some types of questions that tend to facilitate thoughtful, sustained discussions:


Questions beginning with “Why…” “How would you explain…” “What is the importance of…” “What is the meaning of”

  • Example: What is the meaning of Madame X’s comment about Jacque’s activities the week before their encounter at the opera? (5)

Compare and Contrast

“Compare…” “Contrast…” “What is the difference between…” “What is the similarity between…”

  • Example: What is the difference between the mother and the father’s attitudes toward the daughter’s relationship with Philippe? (5)

Cause and Effect

“What are the causes/results of…” “What connection is there between…”

  • Example: What is the cause of Lea’s distress when she looks at herself in the mirror? (5)


“What is meant by…” “Explain how…” (5)

Faculty Tips

Designing the Instructions for Student Posts and Replies

Writing a good reply is just as important as leading the discussion. If the replies are not well thought out the conversation can come to a halt. As the instructor, you need to provide guidance and tips to help students continue the conversation. Here are a few tips you can choose from when designing the discussion expectations, especially for replies:

  • Remember, it’s okay to restate someone’s post or affirm what someone else said but you have to add something new or take the conversation in a different direction if you want to do well.
  • Each student’s response must include a compliment, a comment, a connection (3C) and a question (Q). (1)
  • Encourage students to piggy-back off ideas of each other. "I agree with ________ when he/she said... because..." or "I disagree with ________________ when he/she said... because..." (8)
  • Encourage students to feel comfortable disagreeing as long as there is evidence to back up ideas. (8)

The Instructor Should...

Explain why they are being asked to do this. Developing leadership skills is an important learning objective for my students, and moderating will help them develop leadership skills and learn a topic more thoroughly. Students select the topics they would like to moderate, which also serves as a motivator. (6)

Give positive feedback. To the moderator: Send feedback via email and sometimes in the announcements section of the course. They need to know that they’ve done a good job. (6)

Foster an open environment where everyone's ideas are welcomed and considered. (8)

Become co-learners because students feel more free to share their thoughts and ideas with us in an environment where students are respected as thinkers and learners. 7


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