ETP - Planning Effective Class Discussions



“Just as an effective lecture takes preparation, planning, and structure in order to facilitate student learning, so does an effective discussion. An effective discussion in the college classroom is much less frequently the result of a lucky happenstance. It is more likely to be the result of forethought and intentional planning” (Howard, 2015, p. 4).

Learning Objectives

To plan effective class discussions, we’ll discuss practices you can use to:

  • Ask or post open-ended, analytical, or opinion questions to increase participation
  • Sequence questions to progress toward higher order thinking
  • Provide guidance to help students develop questioning skills for productive discussions
  • Explain the role of discussion
  • Develop a grading policy or discussion forum rubric with clear criteria
  • Respond with positive reinforcement, and prompt for elaboration and clarity
  • Assign a self-grading activity
  • Create a physical space or online environment conducive to discussions
  • Create small groups for more in-depth online discussions
  • Require students to apply content from assigned readings

Skeletal Outline

Download a 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 Katie Jodl, PhD, from University of Michigan; Jess Butler, PhD, from Butler University; Tara Lineweaver, PhD, from Butler University; and Zoë Cohen, PhD, from University of Arizona.

Watch additional classroom demonstrations that cover Fishbowl Discussions as well as techniques for assessing discussions on the following pages.

Download the transcript for this video.

Fishbowl Discussions

Watch Tara Lineweaver, PhD, from Butler University, as she demonstrates a Fishbowl Discussion.

Download the transcript for this video.

Assessing Discussions

In this classroom demonstration, Jess Butler, PhD, from Butler University, Tara Lineweaver, PhD, from Butler University, and Jay Howard, PhD, from Butler University, present techniques for assessing class discussions.

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 plan effective class discussions. Click on each statement to read research-based clarifications and suggestions aligned to each challenge or misconception.

MISCONCEPTION: Discussion is best suited for arts and humanities classes and is not appropriate for mathematics and sciences.


According to Brookfield and Preskill (2005), some of the student benefits of effective classroom discussion—which are applicable in all subject areas—include:

  • Recognition and investigation of assumptions
  • Increased intellectual agility
  • Increased connection to a topic
  • Improved communication of ideas and meaning
  • Development of collective learning habits
  • Development of synthesis and integration skills

MISCONCEPTION: Online discussions are not as engaging as face-to-face discussions.

Clarification :

Just like in-class discussions, engaging and worthwhile online discussions require preparation and planning. Setting up small groups to maximize participation, asking effective questions to promote engaged discussion, reminding students about online netiquette, and providing a grading rubric with criteria for participation will help ensure high-quality online discussions (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016; Nilson & Goodson, 2018).

MISCONCEPTION: Worthwhile discussions happen spontaneously in class, so there is no need to prepare.

Clarification :

There are times when meaningful discussions happen spontaneously, but just as an effective lecture takes preparation and planning, so does an effective discussion (Howard, 2015). Creating effective questions aligned to your instructional goals, making sure students are well prepared to participate in the discussion, and facilitating the discussion so that all students are able to benefit are necessary steps to ensuring an effective discussion.

CHALLENGE: Students do not feel obligated to interact with their peers during discussions.

Suggestion :

Karp and Yoels (1976) identified college classroom norms that work against effective classroom discussion. The first, which they called civil attention, occurs when students create the appearance of paying attention in class, rather than actually being engaged in classroom activities. Because many college professors won’t call on students who don’t show some indication they are willing to contribute, civil attention has become a classroom norm.

Suggestion :

To overcome civil attention, interact with your students frequently both in and outside of class so they feel invested in your course (Auster & MacRone, 1994). During class, explain the role of discussion to increase student buy-in. Finally, it is important to hold students accountable for their participation in class discussions. You can accomplish this by developing a grading policy with clear criteria for participation outlined in a rubric and assigning self-grading activities.

Suggestion :

Requiring students to post feedback to at least two to three of their classmates’ posts and providing criteria in the discussion rubric for thoughtful responses helps ensure that students engage with each other in meaningful ways (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 planning effective 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.

Create thought-provoking questions for online discussions

Sequence questions to progress toward higher order thinking online

Some online instructors create a single discussion forum for each week of their course and require that students post and reply to each other throughout the week. In these cases, instructors will want to post a multi-part question or sequence of questions requiring responses to each part. Another approach is to develop a set of discussion forums throughout the week with progressively more cognitively challenging questions.

View or download an example of sequenced questions in a single forum discussion and a sequenced forum discussion.

Help students develop questioning skills for productive online discussions

Providing guidance to students about asking productive questions may not only enrich their online discussions, it can also help them develop an important lifelong skill for effective collaboration, management, leadership, creative processes, and interpersonal relationships (Pohlmann & Thomas, 2015). Provide the attached resource, and remind students that asking good questions is a key life skill as well as a critical component of effective participation in online discussion forums.

View or download a resource to help students develop questioning skills for productive online discussions.

Set expectations for student participation in online discussions

Develop a discussion forum rubric with clear criteria

Online discussion forums provide opportunities to expand and clarify knowledge, encourage critical thinking, build communication skills, articulate and defend positions, and consider different points of view. To help students get the most out of this learning opportunity, set clear expectations for participation. 

Providing students with a discussion forum grading rubric helps them understand, and therefore better meet, your expectations for thoughtful participation in online discussions. It is also very helpful to provide students with examples of postings that receive full, partial, or no credit with explanations of why each posting received that different level of credit.

View or download discussion post examples with instructor feedback.

View or download an example of a discussion forum rubric.

Assign a self-reflection activity

Help students evaluate their participation in an online discussion with a self-reflection activity that is aligned to your discussion forum rubric. This activity will allow them to reflect on the discussion areas where they are excelling and areas in need of attention.

View or download an example of a self-grading activity based on the grading rubric example provided above.

Create an online environment conducive to student-to-student interaction

Create small groups for more in-depth online discussions

Instructors can create small online discussion groups to increase student-to-student engagement helping them become more self-directed and collaborative with their peers. Small groups can be assigned challenging problem sets, case studies, real-world scenarios, or complex issues to work on and respond to as a group. Once you have formed a set of small groups you might consider keeping them together to do these types of activities throughout a semester.

View or download a resource for creating small groups for more in-depth discussions online.

Share technology for effective collaboration

Technology tools can facilitate the creation of small groups as well as a workspace for students to meet and complete the project without having to meet in person, which can be challenging for students with many responsibilities outside of the course.

Download resources for forming groups and collaboration tools.

Ensure students are prepared for class

Ensure students apply their new learning through concept application

The application phase provides opportunities for students to apply their new knowledge to help move that new learning to long-term memory. This allows them to be more prepared for using or transferring the knowledge or skills learned to new and perhaps different scenarios or problems. Offer students an interesting case study, real-world problem or issue, or career-specific task requiring the application of their new knowledge.

Download a concept application resource.


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

Kirsten Heinz
Instructor of Communication
University of Arkansas, Pulaski Technical College

Sarah Martinelli, MS, RD, SNS
Clinical Assistant Professor
Arizona State University

Below are additional resources to further explore the module topics.

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

Zoë Cohen, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Physiology
University of Arizona

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(link no longer active)

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Nilson, L. B., & Goodson, L. A. (2018).
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