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Discussion Facilitation

“Initiating and sustaining a lively, productive discussion are among the most challenging activities for an instructor” (Davis, 1993). Here are some strategies that will help you prepare for and lead an effective discussion.

Preparing for a Discussion
  • Plan how you will conduct the discussion. Although the ideal discussion is spontaneous and unpredictable, you will want to do some careful planning. You should have a clear goal/objective for the discussion, a plan for how you will prepare the students, and a general idea about how you will guide the discussion (e.g., with activities, videos, questions, etc).
  • Remember that in the modern classroom, there are many ways to be “present” and to “participate.”  Reevaluate your course participation and attendance policies to be certain that they are assessing what you want them to assess, encouraging what you want to encourage, and that there aren’t other options that can accomplish the same goals.  For instance, if you value the exchange of ideas, does it matter whether this happens in class or online?  
  • Help students prepare for the discussion. You can distribute a list of questions for each discussion, ask students to bring in their own questions, suggest key concepts or themes for them to focus on, or ask them to collect evidence that clarifies or refutes a particular concept or problem. Discussions will be more satisfying for you and your students if they are prepared.
  • Establish ground rules for participation in a discussion. In order for a discussion to be effective, students need to understand the value of actively listening to their peers, tolerating opposing viewpoints, and being open-minded. They also need to recognize the importance of staying focused and expressing themselves clearly. You might spend the first session with your students exploring the characteristics of effective and ineffective discussions.
  • Clearly communicate how much time you have for questions or discussion, and what you are looking for from this time.  Do you ideally expect every student to have a question? Are you looking for problem-posing, questions of clarification, extensions, applications, critique?  Don’t assume that students know what the pedagogical purpose of the discussion is. 
  • Ask students to state their name before they begin speaking. Use their name when responding to their question or point. 
  • Keep background noise to a minimum.  One person speaking at a time is essential if all students are expected to listen.
Starting a Discussion
  • Refer to questions you distributed. Start the discussion by asking one of the study questions you assigned or by asking group members which of the questions they found most challenging.
  • Make a list of key points. Identify and list the important points from the reading and use these as a starting point for discussion.
  • Use a partner activity. Ask students to come to the discussion with 3 or 4 questions prepared. Start the discussion by having students pair off and alternate asking and answering their questions.
  • Use a brainstorming activity. Ask students to contribute ideas related to the discussion topic (no matter how bizarre or farfetched) and write all ideas on the board. After a set period of time or when students have run out of ideas, critically evaluate all the ideas or categorize themes.
  • Pose an opening question and give students a few minutes to record an answer. The process of writing down their answers will enable students to generate new ideas as well as questions. After they have finished writing, ask for volunteers or call on students to share their ideas. This activity also gives quieter students the opportunity to prepare answers they can share with the group.
  • Divide students into small groups to discuss a specific question or issue. Be sure to assign explicit questions and guidelines and give the groups a time limit to complete the exercise. Also ask them to select a recorder and/or a reporter who will report back to the entire discussion group.
  • Pose a controversial issue and organize an informal debate. Group the students according to the pro or con position they take and ask the groups to formulate 2-3 arguments or examples to support their position. Write each group’s statements on the board and use these as a starting point for discussion.
Encouraging Student Participation
  • Create an inclusive discussion environment. Group members will be more likely to contribute to a discussion if they feel they are in a safe, comfortable environment. Here are some general strategies for achieving this:
    • At the beginning of term, use an icebreaker activity and ask students to introduce themselves and describe their interests and backgrounds so they can get to know one another.
    • As the facilitator, you should also learn all of your students’ names (using name cards may assist you and your students in accomplishing this task) and preferred pronouns.
    • Arrange the seating in the room, if possible, into a semicircle so that the group members can see each other.
  • Allow students to ask questions or share ideas in class anonymously, or without “speaking out” — circulate note cards for students to write questions or comments, or to answer your questions, perhaps anonymously, and collect and address them. You can also encourage students to ask questions in the learning management system, which you can then respond to either in class or online.
  • Give students low-stakes opportunities to think and discuss content – this is a “tolerance for error” approach. Students sometimes need to get it wrong, take risks, or try out different ideas to learn.
  • Facilitate smaller discussions among students before you ask students to share with the entire class. Many students need some time and space to try ideas out with one another first.  This also gets many more students talking.
  • Facilitate smaller activities before discussion and questions start, so that students have time and space to compose their thoughts. For example, to help them prepare for discussion, give them the opportunity to write or solve problems quietly for a few minutes. You might even consider asking students to pass these ideas around the room to share with one another, as long as you have warned them in advance that you will do so.
  • Use online resources and content management systems to extend class discussions. Students won’t all get the chance to contribute in a large lecture, so offer the opportunity somewhere else.  Students should be given many different opportunities and spaces in which to participate (and to be graded for participation).
  • Have students take turns writing down questions and answers on whiteboards or on large flipchart paper, and then post the notes around the classroom for future reference—keep them up all term – build running answers to pertinent and revisited questions.
  • Positively reinforce student contributions. You can emphasize the value of student responses by restating their comments, writing their ideas on the board, and/or making connections between their comments and the discussion at large. Also be sure to maintain eye contact and use non-verbal gestures such as smiling and head nodding to indicate your attention and interest in students’ responses.
  • Silence in the classroom is okay – it is actually good – and if you become comfortable with it, students will too.
  • Limit your own involvement. Avoid the temptation to talk too much and/or respond to every student’s contribution. After you ask students a question, count to at least five in your head before answering it yourself. When you ask students a question, if you really want them to think and be able to give an answer, be willing to wait for it. Try to encourage students to develop their own ideas and to respond to one another (that is, peer interaction). You might also sit someplace other than the “head” of the table.
  • Balance students’ voices during the discussion. Here are some strategies for dealing with problem group members who can affect the level of student participation:
    • Discourage students who monopolize the discussion by implementing a structured activity that requires each group member to be involved, avoiding eye contact with him/her, assigning a specific role to the dominant student that limits participation (e.g., discussion recorder), or implementing time limits on individual contributions.
    • Draw quiet students into the discussion by posing non-threatening questions that don’t require a detailed or correct response, assigning a small specific task to the student (e.g., obtaining information for next class), sitting next to him/her, or positively reinforcing contributions he/she does make.
    • Clarify confusing student contributions by asking the student to rephrase/explain the comment, paraphrasing the comment if you can interpret it, asking the student probing questions, or encouraging him/her to use concrete examples and metaphors.
Utilize Structured Facilitation Techniques

Structured facilitation techniques increase connections, deepen learning, and encourage fuller engagement. It is advisable to utilize a technique more than once with a group of students. You and your students will get more adept at the technique with practice. As students gain comfort and familiarity with an approach, the discussions will improve. The first time you use a technique, use a low-stakes topic so students have an easy initial experience with it, building up to high-stakes topics in future classes.

Use this key to find a technique appropriate for a particular goal or modality:

  • (V) = Balances voices heard 
  • (D) = Encourages depth of discussion
  • (C) = Focuses on the content
  • (L) = Could be used with a large class
  • (OS) = Could be used online, synchronously
  • (OA) = Could be used online, asynchronously

  • Three Tokens (V, OS, OA). Prior to class distribute 3-5 tokens to each student (any kind of cardboard card, playing cards, Legos, stones, etc.). Once class or a certain part of class discussion begins, students “spend” their discussion tokens each time they speak, placing them in a “recycle” container or at the top of the table in front of them. Once they have used all their tokens, they no longer may add comments to the discussion. This activity helps students who tend to dominate discussions; they will consider more carefully when a comment is worth making. Quieter students have more space to talk and are motivated to engage. If implementing this in an online setting, you could give students 4 tokens (such as Compliment, Comment, Connection, and Question) and they should preface their discussion contribution with which token they’re using.

    Adapted from description available at
  • Circular Response (V, D, OS). Students sit in a circle so that everyone can see everyone else, and each person in turns takes no more than 3 min. to talk about an issue or a question that the group has agreed to discuss. Speakers are not free, however, to say anything they want. They must make a brief summary of the preceding speaker’s message and then use this as a springboard for their own comments. In other words, what each speaker articulates depends on listening well to the preceding speaker as much as on generating new or unspoken ideas. Students must respect the following six ground rules: (1) No one may be interrupted while speaking. (2) No one may speak out of turn in the circle. (3) Each person is allowed only 3 min. to speak. (4) Each person must begin by paraphrasing the comments of the previous discussant. (5) Each person, in all comments, must strive to show how their remarks relate to the comments of the previous discussant. (6) After each discussant has had a turn to speak, the floor is opened for general reactions, and the previous ground rules no longer apply.

    A variation on this activity is to denote 2 or 3 students to not participate, but rather, to listen carefully to all contributions, taking notes where necessary, and to end the exercise with a synthesis of the discussion’s highlights. They recount key points and recurring themes, giving everyone involved some sense of the whole.

    As described in Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (2nd Edition) by Brookfield & Preskill, Chapter 4, Section 7 (Kindle Version).
  • Affinity Mapping (V, D, C , L, OS, OA). Give students a broad question or problem that is likely to result in lots of different ideas, such as “What could be some effective keywords when researching the topic of alternative energy?” or “What literary works should every person read?” Have students generate responses by writing ideas on post-it notes (one idea per note) placing them in no particular arrangement on a wall, whiteboard, or chart paper. Once lots of ideas have been generated, have students begin grouping them into similar categories, then label the categories and discuss why the ideas fit within them, how the categories relate to one another, and so on. If facilitating online, consider using a shared document to initially capture ideas and then have students work on re-arranging using headers.

    Adapted from Gonzalez, J. (2015, October 15). The big list of class discussion strategies [Blog post]. Retrieved from
  • Think-Pair-Share (V, D, L, OS). Think-Pair-Share (TPS) is a short activity designed to engage students in thoughtful consideration of a topic, and may serve effectively as a warm-up to instruction and class discussion on new course material. First, students individually think for a few min. about a question posed by the instructor, then get together for a short period in groups of 2 (pair) to 4 students to discuss their thoughts, and 1 or more groups share the results of their discussion with the class or another small group. If facilitating in Microsoft Teams or Zoom, use break-out rooms for the small group discussions. In addition to engaging with course content, students can reflect before speaking, and share their ideas in a low-risk situation before participating in full class discussion. Thus, both the quality of class discussion and students’ comfort in contributing to class discussion may improve. TPS also allows instructors to assess students’ initial knowledge and to modify instruction to bolster understanding and clear up misconceptions.

    Adapted from description available at
  • Circle of Voices (V, D, L). Ask 4 or 5 students to form a circle. The rest of the students are observing and taking notes. Provide up to 3 min. of silent time to organize thoughts. During this time, they think about what they want to say on the topic once the circle of voices begins. Then the discussion opens, with each student having up to 3 min. of uninterrupted time. During the 3 min. each person is speaking, no one else is allowed to say anything. It can help to just move sequentially around the circle (reducing stress of having to decide whether or not to try to jump in after another student has finished speaking). After everyone has shared, initially, open discussion begins with one rule: Participants are allowed to talk only about other people’s ideas.

    As described in Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (2nd Edition) by Brookfield & Preskill, Chapter 4, Section 7 (Kindle Version).
  • Concentric Circles Dialogue (V, D). Students sit or stand in two concentric circles facing each other. Begin the session by asking students to introduce themselves to their partner. The session is a series of questions (generally 4-6) pertaining to each person’s experience of their religious or spiritual tradition. Participants frame their responses in “I” statements. Only one person may speak at a time. Each partner is asked the same question in a given time frame (2-5 min.). The facilitator designates partners to begin with the inside or outside circle, and gives a signal when it is time to switch partners. After both partners have answered the question, the inner or outer circle moves around the circle until each participant has a new partner. With each rotation, ask deeper questions. Sample questions: What is your religious/spiritual tradition and what are you most proud of from that heritage? When and how did you first become aware of religious differences? Today, what is your greatest fear in interreligious dialogue? What do you hope to gain from interreligious dialogue? Lastly, evaluate the experience with the group: How was that exercise for you? What was most challenging? New insights? The questions will vary from the examples given here to match the curriculum.

    As described at
  • Concrete Images (V, C, OS, OA). It is obvious, of course, that discussions go better when specific references are made. Yet I think we often need help remembering the content of our text. A few min. at the beginning can guarantee that the sophisticated analysis we seek will be based on specific facts. Go around the table and ask each student to state one concrete image/scene/event/moment from the text that stands out. No analysis is necessary, just recollections and brief description. As each student reports, the collective images are listed on the board, thus providing a visual record of selected content from the text as a backdrop to the following discussion. Usually the recall of concrete scenes prompts further recollections, and a flood of images flows from the students. A follow-up question is to invite the class to study the items on the board, and ask: “what themes seem to emerge from these items?”; “what connects these images?”; “is there a pattern to our recollected events?”; “what is missing?” This is, obviously, an inductive approach to the text. Facts precede analysis. But also, everyone gets to say something early in class and every contribution gets written down to aid our collective memory and work.

    As described in The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start at
  • Hatful of Quotes (V, C, L, OA). Prior to a discussion, the facilitator types out 5 or 6 sentences or passages from the text onto separate slips of paper (there should be duplicate copies). These are put into a hat and each student is asked to draw 1 of the slips out of the hat. Students are given a few min. to think about their quote and then asked to read it out and comment on it. The order of contribution is up to the students. Because the same quotes are used, students who go later can build on, affirm, or contradict what a peer has already said.

    If facilitating online, have students use an online “random number generator” to pick a number between 1 and [the max number of quotes you’ve selected]. Assign each quote a number and each student’s random number equates to the quote they will reflect upon.

    As described in Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (2nd Edition) by Brookfield & Preskill, Chapter 4, Section 7 (Kindle Version).
  • Complete a Sentence (D, C, L, OS, OA). Ask students to complete whichever of the following sentences seems appropriate:
    • What struck me about the text we read/lecture we heard/art we saw to prepare for the discussion today is …
    • The idea that I take most issue in the text/lecture/exhibit is …
    • The most crucial point of last week’s lecture is …
    • The part of the text/lecture/exhibit that I felt made the most sense to me is …
    • The part of the text/lecture/exhibit that was the most confusing is …

      Have students share in groups of 4 or 5. Just have them jot notes about which responses they wish to hear more about. Once everyone has shared, students can ask questions regarding the statements that most intrigued them.

      Adapted from Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (2nd Edition) by Brookfield & Preskill, Chapter 4, Section 4 (Kindle Version).
  • Jeopardy (C, OS). Competition can motivate students to prepare for and participate in discussion. You can create a free board on Jeopardy Labs ( Questions can be fact-based or application based. Students play as individuals or in teams. It is important to discuss why an answer is correct, as not all students may understand the reasoning for a response. Be sure to explain the game of Jeopardy, as it may not be familiar to all students in your class (including how to answer in the form of a question). Provide time limits for each question. Rotate which team gets to select the category/point value (or use buzzers to “ring in”). Allow other teams to “steal” the points if the first team gets the wrong answer. 

    Variations: Have students (for homework) make a Jeopardy board for their classmates to play. Require that students provide a citation for their responses. Give bonus points to people/teams that ask questions that lead to deeper understanding.
  • Fishbowls (V, D, OS). In a fishbowl discussion, students seated inside the “fishbowl” actively participate in a discussion by asking questions and sharing their opinions, while students sitting outside listen carefully to the ideas presented. Students take turns in these roles, so that they practice being both contributors and listeners in a group discussion. A fishbowl discussion makes for an excellent pre-writing activity, often unearthing questions or ideas that students can explore more deeply in an independent assignment.
    • Select a topic and write an open-ended prompt.
    • Set up the room with two circles. Typically, the inner circle (the fishbowl) is made up of 4-12 chairs, allowing for a range of perspectives while still giving each student an opportunity to speak.
    • Allow students to prepare for the discussion by writing ideas and questions in advance (5-10 min.).
    • Discuss norms and rules with the students. For instance, will you call “switch” after 10 min. or 15 min.? Are students allowed to speak a second time before everyone else has spoken once? Also provide instructions for the audience. What should they be listening for? Should they be taking notes?
    • Debrief the exercise by asking students what they learned from the discussion and how they think it went. Students can also evaluate their performances as listeners and as participants.

      Adapted from
  • Chat Stations (V, D, C). Break students into small groups (max 4 students). Throughout the room, hang questions/problems/quotes on the wall (equivalent number of questions to the number of groups). Provide each group with paper to record their reactions to the question. Have students rotate throughout the room, spending time in their small groups at each question. Set a time limit for each station; have groups rotate simultaneously. The instructor/TA should move throughout the room to listen in to conversations. When a particularly interesting idea comes up, flag it and ask students if they’d be willing (later) to share with the larger class. If facilitating online, use a shared document for each station.

    Once every group has visited every question, regather as a whole class. Discuss each question (one at a time), inviting each group to share an insight or summary of their reactions.

    As described at Cult of Pedagogy
  • Peer Provocations (V, D, C, OS). A different pair of students, each week, are asked to develop a provocation and the lead class discussion.
    • Before Class: The pair should meet with the instructor/TA as they develop their concept for the provocation. A provocation is meant to generate deep thinking before class (the provocation is sent electronically to the class a few days in advance). A provocation would likely include excerpts from a text and questions. The provocation is meant to be brief and spark discussion.
    • During Class: The leading pair is expected to guide discussion and help the class explore the week’s content. The pair has autonomy to decide whether the class discussion will be a whole-group conversation, whether students will be in groups, or whether another facilitation technique (such as a debate) will be used.

      Note: The use of a provocation followed by discussion is best modeled by the instructor/TA prior to having students lead class sessions.

      As described in Designing, Scaffolding, and Assessing Student Discussion Leadership at
  • Generating Truth Statements (L, OS, OA). Divide students into pairs or small groups. The instructions to each group are to decide upon three statements known to be true about some particular issue. “It is true about slavery that…” “We have agreed that it is true about the welfare system that…” “It is true about international politics in the l950s that…” “We know it to be true about the theory of relativity that…”, and so on.

    This strategy can be useful in introducing a new topic where students may think they already know a great deal but the veracity of their assumptions demands examination. The complexity and ambiguity of knowledge is clearly revealed as students present their truth statements and other students raise questions about or refute them.

    The purpose of the exercise is to develop some true statements, perhaps, but mostly to generate a list of questions and of issues demanding further study. This provides an agenda for the unit. Sending students to the library is the usual next step, and they are quite charged up for research after the process of trying to generate truth statements.

    If facilitating online synchronously, use Channels to break students into small groups. If facilitating asynchronously, the Group Discussion Board could work well.

    Adapted from The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start
  • Doubting & Believing Squares (V, D, C). Create a 1×3 grid on a sheet of paper. The professor pre-fills the first box with a debatable statement like, “Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack” or “Letter grades support student learning.” In the second box, every student must write for themselves a few reasons to doubt the truth of the statement. In the third box, they write a few reasons to believe in the statement. Whether they personally doubt or believe in the statement doesn’t matter. This is an exercise in thinking through at least two sides of an argument.

    Next, the professor goes around the class, perhaps from one side of the room to the other, asking for students to share reasons to believe. The professor writes these on the board in a column. If a student says that their idea is the same as a previous student’s, it’s still important to add a checkmark or underline on the board indicating their concurrence. One of the simplest ways to include all students is to make sure their contributions show up on the board. Afterwards, go around again, perhaps in the opposite direction, asking for reasons to doubt the statement.

    Once all of the ideas are on the board, ask students how the exercise felt. Inevitably, some will say that it was hard. They often admit that they never give thought to the side of an argument that they don’t believe in themselves. After this quick debriefing, lead a substantive conversation about the ideas on the board. Students normally feel safe enough to support or critique the ideas because they have been aired already and they are not personally invested in each idea.

    Credited to Alison Cook-Sather as described in Five Techniques for Better Class Discussions
Guiding the Discussion
  • Keep the discussion focused. Have a clear agenda for the discussion and list questions/issues on the board to inform and remind everyone of where the discussion is heading. Brief interim summaries are also helpful as long as they don’t interfere with the flow of the discussion. If the discussion gets off track, stop and bring the discussion back to the key issues.
  • Repeat the key point of all comments or questions for the rest of the class, using your microphone if possible. For instance: “Jennifer just asked…” 
  • Take notes. Be sure to jot down key points that emerge from the discussion and use these for summarizing the session. You might also assign a different group member each week the specific role of recording and summarizing the progression of the discussion.
  • Be alert for signs that the discussion is deteriorating. Indications that the discussion is breaking down include: subgroups engaging in private conversations, members not listening to each other and trying to force their ideas, excessive “nit-picking,” and lack of participation. Changing the pace by introducing a new activity or question can jump-start the discussion.
  • If students are having trouble communicating, avoid making remarks such as: “Slow down,” “Take a breath,” or “Relax.” This will not be helpful and may be interpreted as demeaning.  Avoid finishing the person’s sentences, or guessing what is being said. This can increase their feelings of self-consciousness.
  • Prevent the discussion from deteriorating into a heated argument. Remind students of the ground rules for discussion: they need to practice active listening, remain open-minded, and focus on ideas and content rather than on people and personal issues. Defuse arguments with a calm remark and bring the discussion back on track.
  • Bring closure to the discussion. Announce that the discussion is ending and ask the group if there are any final comments or questions before you pull the ideas together. Your closing remarks should show the students how the discussion progressed, emphasizing 2-3 key points and tying the ideas into the overall theme of the discussion. Also be sure to acknowledge the insightful comments students have made. Providing closure to the discussion is critical for ensuring that group members leave feeling satisfied that they accomplished something.
  • Remember that not all students are comfortable with extended direct eye contact
Evaluating the Discussion
  • Ask students to write a one-minute paper. You can ask students to write about how their thinking changed as a result of the discussion or how the discussion fits into the context of issues previously discussed. Have students hand in their papers and review samples to assess what they have learned.
  • Ask students to respond to specific questions about the discussion. Was the topic defined effectively? Did the facilitator keep the discussion on track? Did everyone have the opportunity to speak? Was your participation invited and encouraged? What questions related to the discussion remain unanswered? In what ways could the discussion have been improved? You might also use a more formal questionnaire and have students rate these various aspects of the discussion.
  • Conduct your own informal evaluation of the discussion. Consider the following questions when making your evaluation: Did everyone contribute to the discussion? How much was I, as the facilitator, involved? Did the discussion stay focused? What questions worked especially well? How satisfied did the group seem about the productiveness of the discussion? What would I do differently next time?
Additional Resources

Citation: Facilitating Effective Discussions. University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence. Retrieved June 13, 2023 from


This teaching guide, which has been modified from its original form, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.