We generally use classroom discussions to engage students with the material, particularly complex concepts that need to be unpacked. The many kinds of discussions available to us are powerful tools, but students have varying levels of experience with them. In order to have productive conversations, you need to teach discussion as a skill, balancing clear structure with flexibility to pursue important ideas and insights.

Discussion as a Skill

We would teach students to use an audio recorder for an ethnography project, or InDesign as part of the visual communication major. Canvas is a technology that students (and we) have to learn. Why don’t we view real-time, face-to-face discussion this way? We cannot assume that students have had the same kinds of opportunities to practice discussion in high school, prior college classes, or other parts of their lives.

Particularly in a world where people encounter complex ideas in oversimplified soundbites, learning to have a good discussion requires modeling, transparency, and practice. You cannot expect students to have deep, insightful discussions in the first week of class, even if you have great participation! Instead, we must teach the skills of having a good conversation (listening, responding to what is actually being said, being able to bring in other sources of information), and whatever analysis tools are appropriate for breaking down complex skills and ideas in your discipline. This article is about the former.

How to Scaffold Class Discussions

Plan ahead. If you want your students to be able to have thoughtful and productive discussions of complex ideas, with minimal intervention from you, by Week 12, you need to start in Week 1.

Create a classroom culture that facilitates difficult discussions. Students need to know and trust each other, and you, in order to engage productively with difficult ideas about which they may have strong feelings. Early in the semester, engage them in articulating what makes a safe and productive learning environment, and then help them meet that goal. Check out the work of our colleagues Kristin Novotny, Chuck Bashaw, Cory Davis, and Dave Mills on difficult conversations.

Build confidence and engagement. Early in the semester, and each class period, start discussions with prompts everyone can think about and respond to. Use materials that are accessible, and engage students in finding concrete examples. Increase the complexity of the task and course materials as you go along; coach them into more abstraction and application.

Frame class preparation assignments to ensure students are ready to discuss. Discussions based on homework or reading can’t proceed if students haven’t done the reading. Think about how you assign pre-class reading/viewing to both encourage students to do it and get them to start sorting out their thoughts before they enter the classroom. This may even shape your discussion activities. For example, literature circles and note-taking, as discussed by West, directly incentivize reading and shape class discussion. Check out this article from Villanova University, our advice on getting students to do the reading, or talk to us about social annotation.

Use discussion styles where everyone contributes. Use models for group discussion that make space for everyone to participate. Think-Pair-Share is a great starting point, as are Snowball/Pyramid and activities that ask small groups of students to do a task. They might explore a passage of text, identify or examine a case study, or develop common language (see below). Check out our favorite discussion protocols to learn more.

Develop a common language. Over the first few weeks of the semester, work with your students to develop a shared, nuanced vocabulary, especially for abstract concepts, key disciplinary ideas, and hot-button words. As discussions grow in complexity, you can fall back on this work to help dispel oversimplifications.

Use structured activities to remove yourself from center stage and help students focus on each other. When students are used to answering questions during a lecture or facilitated full-class discussion, they tend to talk to you, not each other. But at the beginning of the semester, they are not able to discuss as a class without your intervention. Coach organic conversation by gradually increasing group sizes and using activities like debate, and make a habit of moving out of their sightlines.

Stay flexible. Structure is a guardrail that allows flexibility within a productive framework. To put it another way, don’t let the model you are using to shape discussion impede opportunities to follow students’ interests and insights in new directions–or to make sure more voices get heard. This may be the trickiest part of real-time facilitation. Learn more about balance, flexibility, and discussion pacing from Harvard’s Instructional Moves initiative.

Don’t limit yourself to live discussion. The patterns of a productive conversation are very similar to the structures and goals of writing. Use formative assignments like journals, reflections, and homework to help students practice responding to ideas and generating their own questions. As experts in college writing Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein write, “writing is a social, conversational act” (xvi)–and practicing writing and discussion in concert can improve both skills.

More Resources

Check out these CLT resources for more guidance on discussions:

Works Cited

“Balance and Packing.” Instructional Moves. Harvard University. https://instructionalmoves.gse.harvard.edu/balancing-pacing

Davis, Danny. 2021. “Using Scaffolding to Guide Class Discussions.” VITALITY: Vital Teaching Ideas. Villanova University.

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. 2017. They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, 3rd. ed. WW Norton & Co.

West, Jane. 2018. “Raising the Quality of Discussion by Scaffolding Students’ Reading.” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30(1), pp. 146-160. https://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/pdf/IJTLHE2809.pdf

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