A Guide to Engaging Discussions both online and face-to-face

The Oxford Dictionary defines a discussion as, “the action or process of talking about something in order to reach a decision or to exchange ideas, a conversation or debate about a certain topic.” However, what normally occurs in class is merely a Q & A where you are asking questions and the students answer them, or vice versa. This is not a discussion and doesn’t help your students reflect on the topic or learn from others.

  • The primary goal in any discussion is to enhance the understanding of some common topic or "text" (in the broadest sense). Keep this in mind when moving forward.
  • Students should be expected to do some thinking about a text or issue before the discussion class begins and should come to class prepared and with notes or a handout.
  • Discussions are enhanced by a climate of trust, support, acceptance, and respect: even "wrong" answers are legitimate. Foster this.
  • Good discussions don’t normally happen organically. Take time to plan your discussions
Step 1

Know the reason you’re having a discussion.

Write an/the objective(s) that you want the students’ to achieve in the discussion.

Step 2

Do some pre-planning. Below are a few questions you should answer before conducting the discussion.

  • What are some typical misconceptions that might lead students to incorrect answers?
  • Am I asking an open or closed question?
  • What type of response do I expect from students, a definition? Example? Solution?
  • Will I accept the answer in the students' language or am I expecting the textbooks' words or my own terms?
  • What will my strategy be for handling incorrect answers?
  • What will I do if students do not answer?
  • What will the students need to know in advance to fully participate in the discussion?
Step 3

Write your discussion questions

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? (2)

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? (2)

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? (2)


“What is meant by…” “Explain how…” (2)

Pose an either/or question or Debate

Example: “Is the frontier or the industrial revolution more important for an understanding of American character?” Have the class divide physically into those who favor each side and those who are undecided. Have the pro and con sides debate the issue, with the undecided free to contribute at any time. Instruct students to move to the other group if they change their view during the debate. This kind of debate can encourage intellectual flexibility and help students clarify value positions and levels of argument. (2)

Hypothetical questions

Hypotheticals are also a great way to allow students to use the creative and imaginative portions of their brains. If your material is science-based, ask students to imagine a world without that particular phenomenon or property. For example,What would the world be like without gravity? or How would it affect the food chain if this type of insect went extinct? If you’re using narrative material, ask students to describe how they would behave or react in the character’s situation. (7)

Moral/ethical dilemmas

Provide students with a problem or situation, and ask them to explore one or more of the moral and ethical concerns.

This type of prompt will get students thinking about the topic from multiple sides, giving them a broader understanding of the subject. This will help prepare them for discussion, as they now have the tools to form their own opinions and ideas based on those that they have researched. (6)

Assess → Diagnose → Act

Assessment: What is the issue or problem at hand?

Diagnosis: What is the root cause of this issue or problem?

Action: How can we solve the issue?

This type of question will help students through the process of problem solving. Each step will have them evaluating the problem and prompting to think of ways that they can fix it/deal with it. (6)

Conceptual Changes

Introduce students to a new concept or idea, then ask them to search online to find a common misconception about this topic and explain it in their response.

Both 4. and 5. get students forming their own ideas about a topic based on the content they’ve read. Once they’ve formed their own ideas they must then question their own methods and challenge their original thoughts. These are great ways to get students thinking critically about their own ideas, coaching them to reflect and self-evaluate. (6)

Personal Exploration

Let students explore a new idea on their own terms. Exploring what it means to them as individuals. This creative freedom helps them find their authentic voice. For example:

“What does _______ mean to you?” OR “Find an example of…”

Questions like this encourage students to be curious and build a personal connection with the topic. This makes the topic more interesting to the student which helps foster further engagement during discussions. (6)


What is the long-term effect of this problem? How does this scene/quote affect the character(s)? Is there something more important that we should be considering? If we take a step back, what new theories can we make about the story/character/conflict? (4)


Does this remind you of anything we have studied or seen before? Have you experienced a similar problem before? Has someone you know dealt with this problem before? Does this seem to be part of a pattern? (4)

Points of View

Whose point of view are we hearing? Whose point of view is left out? (4)

Forced Debate

Force students to select one or the other of two opposite sides and to defend their choice.

Example: "Burke or Paine?" "Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois?" "Are you for or against achieving racial balance in the schools?" "Should Nora have left or stayed?" "Who had the better argument: Creon or Antigone?" "Capitalism or Socialism for developing nations?" Once students have made their choice, which may be required prior to entering the room for class that day, I ask them to sit on one side of the table or room to represent their decision. Physical movement is important and sides need to face each other.

Tips and Tricks

Ask students to end their response with a question, something they aren’t sure of or didn’t understand. It’s a good strategy to keep discussion going but doesn’t necessarily encourage the students to go deeper on a topic. Example: Instructor starts the discussion with a question. Student A answers it. Student A then ends with something they don’t understand about the topic. Student B then clarifies or answers the question. Student B then ends with something they don’t understand about the topic.

When a student gives their response they throw it to another student in the class by saying, “Student B, What do you think?” or “Student B, Do you agree with me? Why or why not?”

Students should listen to what someone says and use their words in the response. This encourages listening.

Allow time after the group discussions for groups to report the results of group work and for students in other groups to ask questions and comment on their peers' ideas.(10)

Created By
Mendi Benigni


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