ETP - Facilitating Engaging Class Discussions

Learning Objectives


“When students verbally interact with the material, the professor, and their classmates, they are most actively engaged and most likely to be learning and developing thinking skills” (Howard, 2015, p. 5).

Learning Objectives

To facilitate engaging classroom-based and online discussions, we’ll discuss practices you can use to:

  • Design activities to launch conversation (e.g., Hatful of Quotes, Sentence Completions, Fishbowl Discussions)
  • Use wait time
  • Use prompting to support and enhance participation
  • Provide online feedback strategically
  • Manage the dominant talker
  • Encourage quieter students
  • Limit your talking
  • Balance voices and clarify concepts online

Skeletal Outline

Download our skeletal outline to take notes on the key practices included in this module.

Course Demonstration

This video shows instructors effectively demonstrating the evidence-based practices presented in this module. Through this authentic classroom observation, you can begin to consider how you might implement these practices and techniques with your students.

The instructors featured in the video include Jess Butler, PhD, from Butler University; Katie Jodl, PhD, from University of Michigan; and Tara Lineweaver, PhD, from Butler University.

Download the transcript for this video.

Expert Insights

In this video, you’ll hear Jay Howard, a scholar in teaching and learning, discuss the specific nuances of and the research support for the teaching techniques and practices presented in this module.

Download the transcript for this video.

Common Challenges & Misconceptions

In this section, you’ll read about some common challenges and misconceptions associated with techniques designed to facilitate engaging class discussions. Click on each statement to read research-based clarifications and suggestions aligned to each challenge or misconception.

MISCONCEPTION : Lecture is the antithesis of discussion.


 A lecture can include opportunities for discussion at various points throughout the delivery of content.


 Break up the lecture with either whole-class or small-group discussions. For example, after you’ve provided an example of a problem, have small groups discuss how to complete another on their own. Likewise, you may interrupt a discussion with a minilecture that provides additional detail on a key point or gives information students may need to continue the discussion in a meaningful way (Howard, 2015).

MISCONCEPTION : Lecture is a more efficient and effective way to cover course material.

Clarification :

Over the past 30 years, an abundance of research points to the value of active learning and student engagement. Cashin (2011) writes, “As a teaching method, discussion permits students to be active in their own learning, which increases their motivation to learn and makes the process more interesting” (p. 1). When we turn the discussion over to the students, the novice learners, they are able to identify what we are skipping over and provide a more meaningful explanation to their fellow learners (Howard, 2015).

CHALLENGE : Students are not able to take useful notes during discussions.


Signal students that what someone just said was important and they should take note by being overly emphatic: “Say it again so we can all get that in our notes!” Stop and do a minilecture. Say, “Our question was this – Ashley said…., Cassidy said…., and David said…. So we have three important things we want to be sure we remember. Number 1 is.…, Number 2 is.…, and Number 3 is….” (Howard, 2015).

MISCONCEPTION : Discussions are always led by the instructor and involve the whole class.

Clarification :

Think-Pair-Share or small groups of four to five students can effectively carry on a discussion based on an opening question you ask. You are then free to monitor the groups, listening in, providing feedback, asking deeper questions, and providing encouragement ( Barkley, Major, & Cross, 2014; Doyle, 2008; Ito, 2014; Nilson, 2010 ).

Clarification :

 In online courses, instructors work to facilitate rather than lead discussions, striking a balance between providing enough feedback to enrich the discussion, but not too much feedback so as to discourage student participation. Instructors can be strategic about how and when to add their voice to the conversation (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016).


In the Observe & Analyze (OA) section, you’ll view the video(s) depicting developing practice, where an instructor implements some of the module techniques effectively while other techniques may need slight adjustments or improvements. As you analyze the video(s), you will gain a deeper understanding of the module techniques and gain insight into some common pitfalls.


Download the transcript for this video.

Download the transcript for this video.


  • Instructional Practices

  • Online Instructional Practices

  • Additional Resources

This section includes resources and handouts to support your implementation of the techniques and practices presented in the module.

Download all of the implementation resources for this module.

Implementation Resources

Download or print the following resources to practice our techniques for facilitating engaging class discussions:

The module learning objectives and aligned online practices are listed below. Each resource offers step-by-step instructions and examples of effective online teaching in text and/or video.

Get the discussion started

Prompt inquiry with concept exploration

A concept exploration serves to pique student interest in key course content. You can capture student attention by posting a thought-provoking problem, question, video, or quote related to the learning goals and then asking students to reflect on the concepts.

Download a concept exploration resource.

Maintain momentum

Provide online feedback strategically

Striking a balance between too much and too little feedback in discussion forums can be challenging. Some instructors feel that jumping in too early with comments, observations, and other feedback dominates and skews the dialogue. Other instructors share that it is hard to know just what to say when and to whom. Here are some typical questions instructors have about providing feedback in discussion forums:

  • How early in the week should I make comments about student postings?
  • How expansive should those comments be early in the week? Later in the week?
  • Should I respond to individual students’ posts? Or to the group as a whole?
  • How do I coach and mentor students, but not jump in too quickly?

In making these decisions, instructors should first consider the purpose of their feedback as well as the timing of the feedback.

View or download guidance on providing feedback in discussion forums.

Keep voices in balance

Balance voices and clarify concepts in online discussions

Effectively balancing voices and/or clarifying concepts requires us to analyze student responses and then set goals for what and how to respond. Are you trying to engage a quieter student, or manage a dominant one? Did a student post an incorrect response or was their post unclear? Your responses and the method you use to respond (private email to the student, reply to the student in the discussion forum, or reply to the full group) should help you meet the specific goal(s) you have set.

View or download guidance on balancing voices and clarifying concepts in online discussions.


Judith V. Boettcher, PhD
Online Learning Consultant and Author
Designing for Learning

Mar-Elise Hill
Associate Clinical Professor
Northern Arizona University

Below are additional resources to further explore the module topics.

Video Resource

Resources for Further Reading

Consult a comprehensive list of references for this module.

Community Connections


Jay R. Howard, PhD
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Butler University

Jess Butler, PhD
Department of Sociology and Criminology
Butler University

Kathleen M. Jodl, PhD
Department of Psychology
University of Michigan

Paulette Oke, MA
Lecturer, English

Tara Lineweaver, PhD
Department of Psychology
Butler University

Alexander, M. E., Commander, N., Greenberg, D., & Ward, T. (2010).
Using the four-questions technique to enhance critical thinking in online discussions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6, 409–415.

Auster, C. J., & MacRone, M. (1994).
The classroom as a negotiated social setting: An empirical study of the effects of faculty members’ behavior on students’ participation. Teaching Sociology, 22, 289–300.

Barkley, E. F., Major, C. H., & Cross, K. P. (2014).
Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Barton, J., Heilker, P., & Rutkowski, D. (n.d.). 
Fostering effective classroom discussions. Retrieved from (link no longer active)

Baxter, J., & Ter Bush, R. (2010).
Discussions. Retrieved from

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R.-M. (2016).
The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991).
Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ED 336 049). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED340272)

Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2005).
Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cashin, W. E. (2011).
Effective classroom discussions (Idea Paper #49). IDEA. Retrieved from htttp://

Cerbin, B. (2010, April 23).
Collaborative learning techniques workshop handouts. Center for Advancing Teaching & Learning, UW‐La Crosse. Retrieved from

Chase, B., Germundsen, R., Cady Brownstein, J., & Schaak Distad, L. (2001).
Making the connection between increased student learning and reflective practice. Educational Horizons, 79, 143–147.

Davis, B. G. (2009).
Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Doyle, T. (2008).
Helping students learn in a learner-centered environment: A guide to facilitating learning in higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Eikenberry, K. (2007).
Brainstorming strategies: Seven questions that spur better solutions. Retrieved from

Francek, M. (2006, August 14).
Promoting discussion in the science classroom using gallery walks. NSTA WebNews Digest. Retrieved from 

Howard, J. R. (2015).
Discussion in the college classroom: Getting your students engaged and participating in person and online. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ito, C. (2014).
Techniques for active learning. William & Mary, Training & Technical Assistance Center. Retrieved from (link no longer active)

Knight, J. (2013).
High-impact instruction: A framework for great teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Nilson, L. B. (2010).
Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Roesch Johnson, G. (2011).
AC 2011-684: Building a transformative class for freshman STEM students to think and act like creative, thoughtful future scientists. Retrieved from

Rotenberg, R. L. (2010).
The art & craft of college teaching: A guide for new professors & graduate students (2nd ed.). Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Sidelinger, R. J. (2010).
College student involvement: An examination of student characteristics and perceived instructor communication behaviors in the classroom. Communication Studies, 61, 87–103.

Twigg, C. A. (2015, November–December).
Improving learning and reducing costs: Fifteen years of course description. Change. Retrieved from

Wieman, C. (2010).
Basic instructor habits to keep students engaged. Retrieved from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia website:

Wieman, C. (2016).
Observation guide for active-learning classroom. Retrieved from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia website: