Tired of dead-end classroom discussions? This post will teach you tried and true strategies to encourage participation and lead to more engaging classroom discussions. With specific tips geared toward more reserved students, this post ensures no students are left behind when it comes to participation.
We know the dread of classroom crickets, and we know it well.
I’m not afraid to admit that fostering an effective and engaging classroom discussion is challenging. More often than not, if we’re lucky, we get something that resembles an engaging classroom discussion. However, upon a closer look, it’s an exchange of dialogue between a teacher and a small handful of students. You know, the same ones who always participate.
With the right strategies in place, you can also host an engaging classroom discussion most teachers would dream of. And, hey, you might just find yourself surprised by how much those “quiet” students of yours have to say.
The Benefits of Classroom Discussion
While classroom discussions can feel like pulling teeth at times, they have benefits for students and teachers.
For example, a quality classroom discussion can:
- Increase student interest and engagement. A good question and lively discussion can be the key to piquing students’ interest in a topic and motivating them to engage with the content.
- Provides teachers with quick, immediate feedback. Classroom discussions allow teachers to informally gauge students’ understanding of the material and provide verbal feedback in real-time.
- Develops listening and speaking skills. These communication skills are some of the most transferable skills students can learn, and they only get better with practice.
- Allows students to learn from one another. Classroom discussions expose students to different perspectives on a topic. While some build upon their own ideas, others might offer a completely new one.
- Inspires critical thinking. Asking strong, open-ended questions encourages students to think deeply, make connections, and consider new ideas.
- Encourages student preparation. If engaging students in classroom discussions is a recurring aspect of your class, students are more likely to come prepared to participate. Trust me. No one likes to be the deer in the headlights.
The only problem is actually getting students to buy in and participate, especially during a classroom discussion. Keep reading to learn my favorite strategies to prompt engaging classroom discussion.
8 Effective Classroom Discussion Strategies
1. Break the Ice
Sometimes classroom discussions hit a dead end not because students don’t have anything to say, but because they’re not comfortable using their voice in class. However, student participation is vital to any classroom discussion. That’s why I always recommend finding a way to break the ice, allowing students to get comfortable sharing their thoughts in front of one another.
Begin by incorporating a weekly or daily question or micro-debate. In fact, these quick and engaging activities make great bell ringers in secondary ELA. Simply pose a controversial, silly, or interesting question and let students take turns sharing their thoughts. The question can be related to classroom material or current events, or be completely random and fun. Looking to get students up and moving? Let students sit in a “teacher chair” when they come up to speak. What students don’t love the opportunity to sit in one of those?
2. Ask The Right Questions
The types of questions you ask your students play an imperative role in a classroom discussion. As it turns out, a group of quiet students doesn’t always mean disinterest. Sometimes it’s simply the fear of saying the wrong thing. In other words, if students think you are looking for a single specific correct answer, they may be more hesitant to raise their hand. While these types of closed questions are useful for checking student comprehension, they won’t lead to the engaging discussion you’re looking for.
Instead, ask more open-ended questions that have no single or specific answer. Answering open-ended questions requires deeper, more critical thought. Not only do students have to understand the material at hand, but they must pull from their personal interpretations, experiences, and opinions to formulate a response. Sometimes they have to make inferences or use higher-level problem-solving. The result? More engaging back-and-forth discussions involving various students and perspectives.
3. Ask Follow-Up Questions
Open-ended questions aren’t the only type of questions you can use to promote engaging classroom discussion. It’s important to ask students follow-up questions, too. This will be your secret weapon to avoiding short answers that barely scratch the surface. Due to the nature of open-ended questions, it’s the perfect opportunity to encourage the use of evidence. Ask students why they think “this” or how they came to “that” conclusion.
And don’t stop at asking follow-up questions to the student who initially responded. Instead, build a sense of community by encouraging students to respond to each other’s ideas. For example, if student A answers a question, ask student B if they agree or disagree with the response. You can ask them to provide further evidence or expand upon the idea. Asking these types of follow-up questions is a great way to get your more timid students to participate. Giving them the opportunity to piggyback off of another student is a great gateway into the conversation.
4. Use Think-Pair-Share to Let Students Warm Up
After asking a question, give students a minute or two to think about it on their own. Then, give them a few minutes to discuss their thoughts with a partner. I like to call this part a “turn and talk,” inviting them to share their ideas with a person sitting near them. Trust me. This will cut out a lot of time, indecisiveness, and unnecessary distraction. Lastly, bring your students together, inviting students to share their thoughts with the class.
This discussion strategy may be simple, but it’s highly effective. It gives students time to gather their thoughts before asking them to share them with anyone. By the time you ask students to share their thoughts with the class, they’ve already had a chance to “try it out” with a partner, building their confidence. I’ve found students are more likely to participate when they participate in the first two steps before sharing with the whole group. The best part? You can call on students to participate knowing it isn’t a total “cold” call.
5. Let Students Lead. While it’s tempting to lead all of the discussions, some of the best and most engaging classroom discussions are student-led. Sometimes this means letting students develop and ask questions. Other times this means simply giving students more time to think before interjecting with a teacher-provided answer.
6. Don’t fear “silence.” Instead, embrace it as thinking time. Sometimes students need time to process the question and prepare a thoughtful answer—and that’s okay. This strategy is also a great way to prevent hearing from the same kid over and over again simply because they raised their hand first.
7. Make it Interesting. Even if you follow all the tips on this list, you’re likely to find yourself in the middle of a rather dull classroom discussion. (It happens to the best of us.) Try to incorporate your student’s interests, pop culture, real-world references, and current events when possible. This will help encourage connections and give students more to think (and talk) about.
8. Incorporate Movement. Students spend most of their school day sitting at a desk. Shake things up by giving them a chance to get their feet (and mouths) moving. Using games like Four Corners is a great way to get students up and moving and involved in classroom discussions.
How Do You Engage Quiet Students in Class Discussions?
Some students are more introverted than others. For others, speaking in front of the class and having all eyes on them is anxiety-inducing. And that’s okay. There are ways you can engage these students in classroom discussions, too. However, this might require you to step away from the more “typical” classroom discussion and try something new.
Here are a few discussion-based activities to consider:
- Gallery Walk. Set up various posters, images, or quotes, around the classroom. Have students travel in small groups to each artifact. At each station, students must complete a task or respond to a prompt as a group, leading to group discussion.
- Conver-stations. Set up a variety of stations around the room, each with a controversial or thought-provoking statement or prompt. Students will move around in small groups, discussing the topic at each station. Once the groups have made it through each station, come together as a class to share key talking points.
- Affinity Mapping. Start by providing students with a broad question or problem. Give students five minutes to generate as many responses as they think of, writing each thought on a sticky note and placing it on the board. At the end of five minutes, review the notes as a class before having students work together to organize the responses into labeled categories.
- Snowball Discussion. Before revealing a discussion question, pair students up. Then, give them five to ten minutes to share their ideas with one another in response to the question. Then, have each pair join another pair, making a group of four. After they all share ideas, they join another group of four, and so on, until there is one class discussion taking place.
From One Teacher to Another
Instead of settling for mediocre conversation or avoiding classroom discussions altogether, try incorporating some of the strategies above. It might feel a little awkward at first, but once students get more comfortable, you’ll be surprised at just how engaging classroom discussions can be.
I wish you all the best as you give these discussion strategies a try. Be sure to come back and let me know how they worked for you and your students. If you have any other engaging classroom discussion strategies or tips to toss out there, I’d love to hear those, too.