Class discussions

Earlier this year, I led a workshop for the University of Winnipeg History Department on leading class discussions. Below is a summary of that workshop.


In my first scheduled class with undergraduates, I take some time to explain how to read journal articles in preparation for class discussions. (See the suggestions provided in Patrick Rael, Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students (Bowdoin College, 2004)). I like to centre the first discussion around a non-threatening text – usually a poem, such as Tom Wayman’s “Paper, Scissors, Stone” or Bertolt Brecht’s “A Worker Reads History.”

rock paper scissors. © Janis Thiessen, University of Winnipeg,
rock paper scissors. © Janis Thiessen, University of Winnipeg,

It can be helpful as well to spend time in the first class having a meta-discussion about class discussions; students can take the opportunity to reflect and set goals for themselves regarding what they want to accomplish in class discussions.

It is important to give students sufficient time to ponder questions posed before jumping in with answers or further questions. There have been many studies of wait/pause/think times (most of them in the sciences at the secondary school level, however). Studies conducted from the 1970s through 1990s suggest that the average wait time of teachers after posing a question is between 0.7 and 1.4 seconds! Teachers tended, on average, to wait only 0.55 seconds after a student response before speaking themselves. A 1990 meta-analysis of such studies suggested that a minimum of 3 seconds of wait/pause/think time is needed. That said, I have only been able to find a single study of university students and wait times, which concluded that extending wait times had no positive effect on learning.

Since I began teaching (back in 1995), I’ve been reconsidering whether the ways in which I lead class discussion are too teacher-centric and thus inhibit student participation. For example, I am more careful than I used to be about where I seat myself in relation to the students. I also insist that students make eye contact with fellow students, rather than directing their comments to me. And I discourage hand-raising in an effort to encourage students to monitor the fairness of participation themselves.

Most important is to regularly take time to reflect on teaching practice. An excellent example of such is Jane C. Schaffer’s “Improving Discussion Questions: Is Anyone Out There Listening?” The English Journal 78 no. 4 (April 1989): 40-42.

Graffiti board
Graffiti board discussion of Craig Heron’s “Booze: A Distilled History,” University of Winnipeg, November 2012. (Photo copyright Janis Thiessen)


Leading discussions in large classes (40+) can be a challenge. There are, however, ways to encourage participation. Examples include:

  • one minute ORAL REPORTS (draw names if class is large)
  • KWL/KNL (know; want to know; learned or know; need to know; learned)
  • students generate open-ended questions for discussion (either before or during class) – can use DOTMOCRACY to choose which questions to discuss
  • 4 CORNERS: in response to a statement, ask students to move to corners of the room based on whether they agree, strongly agree, disagree, strongly disagree; then arrange groups of disagreeing students to discuss their perspectives
  • 3-2-1: 3 things learned; 2 questions; 1 aspect enjoyed
    • or 3 main ideas; 2 pieces of supporting evidence; 1 question
  • THUMBS UP OR DOWN answer to an initial question; then follow-up questions to discuss reasons for different responses
  • JIGSAW: expert groups of 3-6 each analyze a different passage/article; reorganize into teaching groups of different experts
    • or class divides into 3 groups: agree, disagree, undecided – then jigsaw with undecided serving as judges
  • FISHBOWL: small group in circle in centre of room to discuss for set amount of time while remainder observes
    • rotate groups or allow individuals to tap-in
    • or assign perspectives (agreement; class position…)
  • ACADEMIC CONTROVERSY: a cooperative form of debating
    • research and present best case for group’s position; open discussion; change perspectives and present; synthesize (consensus)
  • ZEN TEN: instructor observes silently for 10-20 minutes
  • SPEED DATING: 2 concentric rings of chairs (inner facing outer); pairs read, discuss, make notes for 5 minutes; inner ring rotates to next partner; start again
    • each member of outer ring has a different item to read
    • or each student brings draft essay intro or conclusion
  • TICKET TO SPEAK: for large classes or classes with dominant students
  • finally, understand and value SILENCE

Assessment and evaluation:

Evaluation of student discussions can be challenging. In larger classes, use RUBRICS (such as those of Adam Chapnick, Martha Maznevski, or the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence) and select a certain number of students each class to evaluate. Or have students set goals for class discussion and evaluate themselves and/or each other. Whatever the method used, students should be provided with interim participation grades and explanations so that they can adjust their performance before the end of the course.

Further reflection:

  • What strategies to encourage student discussion have you found effective?
  • How do you encourage participation by quiet students?
  • (How) do you assess and evaluate student discussion?