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Leading Discussions

Leading a Discussion

Class discussion can be highly effective for helping students to apply abstract ideas, think critically, and develop higher-order reasoning skills. To maximize these benefits, instructors take as much time to plan a discussion session as they do for a lecture. Planning involves identifying the goals and purpose for the discussion, and then creating an outline that ensures students advance their knowledge through the course of the discussion.

Types of discussion

In deliberative discussions, students consider a variety of voices, texts, and experiences in order to create meaning. It is important to distinguish deliberative discussions from debates. In deliberative discussion, the goal is not for certain participants to win but for all participants to advance their understanding of a topic or issue. Deliberative discussions in college classrooms often are organized around the following types:

  • Appreciation: Students examine cultures, values, and styles in order to understand differences and similarities. Discussions in humanities courses often begin with a focus on appreciation.
  • Examination of Issues: Students examine the complexities of choices, assumptions, values,goals, and politics. The social sciences often rely on these discussions.
  • Analysis: The focus for discussion is methodology, reasoning, disciplinary thinking, rules, assumptions, and ways of problem solving. The law, sciences, philosophy, and business depend on these discussions.

In consensus discussions, students collaboratively apply criteria and clarify options to judge or choose a course of action. This kind of discussion is often used by panels of judges. It can be effectively preceded by hearings in which students gather information and consider testimony. Hearings can take a variety of forms: interviews; question-and-answer sessions; focus groups;forums; panels; or a series of short presentations.

In work sessions, students obtain useful feedback for developing and revising their work, such as class papers, performances, designs, and creative pieces. Work sessions have a variety of names: workshops; studios; labs; charettes; study sessions. They can be highly effective discussion settings for several kinds of course assignments, including collaborative projects, case studies, problem solving, and peer reviews.

Debates involve taking a stand, developing formal arguments, and persuading others. Debates need careful preparation and clear structures to succeed.


Planning a discussion

Know the material. A discussion is usually based on some kind of course assignment, such as a reading or video assignment, an observation of some kind, attendance at lectures, participation in a lab or clinic, or research. Discussion leaders should be thoroughly conversant with the assignment; it is difficult to monitor a discussion without having read the text that students are discussing.

Prepare ground rules. Write a draft of ground rules for discussion that explains your role as discussion leader, expectations for how students should participate as discussants and as listeners, the kinds of comments that are not appropriate for discussion (e.g., contributions that stereotype individuals or groups). At the minimum, create a handout of the ground rules.Better yet, incorporate student ideas into your handout.

Write an outline or agenda for the session. Identify a few specific goals for the discussion session. Plan the amount of time that will be spent on each goal. Create an agenda or outline for the session, and identify approximate numbers of minutes for each part of the outline. In addition to identifying goals and topics, identify formats for discussion (e.g., time for individual writing, working pairs, small groups, reports from group leaders, whole group discussion).


Leading the session

Beginning. Share your ground rules and outline with students ahead of time or at the beginning of the class period. Create a handout or write guidelines on the board. Ask for students to contribute ideas or suggest changes. Scan how students are seated in the room and rearrange seating so that all students have an equal chance to contribute.

Middle. As you proceed through your outline, take notes and monitor the following:

  • Time. If a part of the outline is taking longer, let students know how you will change the outline.
  • Your own talking. Your role is not to respond to every student’s comment; if you do that, then you talk for 50% of the time! The goal is for students to respond to each other, not to have one-on-one exchanges with you. Instead of contributing your ideas (which will be regarded by students as the “expert’s opinion”), summarize from time to time what others have said and identify the points of contention or confusion. Better yet, invite students to do the summarizing.
  • The number of students contributing. Develop strategies for inviting responses from those who are not contributing. For example, turn to a specific section of the room and ask for a contribution from that group of students.


Ending.Be sure to allow a few minutes for closing the discussion. Summarize. Use the board.Pose questions. Connect the discussion that just happened to other parts of the course. Ask for a one-minute paper in which students summarize or respond to the discussion.



Review your notes. Read the one-minute papers. Take a few minutes to reflect in writing on whether the outline and ground rules worked. Identify the main points raised in the discussion.Write a summary document and send it to students in an email. Include your own assessment in your summary. Invite responses.


Recommended reading: Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill, Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, 2nd edition. Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Available for checkout from the ECTL library, Coe Library, room 510.

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