Facilitating Classroom Discussion: A Guide

A photograph of three students sitting together around a desk with one student raising a hand.

One of the most effective ways to promote learning with students is through a well-facilitated class discussion. In interacting with the instructor and their peers, students learn how to develop their point of view while comparing what they think to what others think. Students can learn how to communicate with others, even in the presence of disagreement. Instructors can make this kind of learning possible by planning classroom discussions ahead of time, building an inclusive environment, setting clear expectations, and asking the right questions.

Planning the Discussion

To begin a class discussion, instructors should have a list of questions that they plan to ask their students. These questions could be assigned as a homework assignment prior to class to help students effectively prepare. Think about what your students will need to get out of the classroom discussion and how you might influence the discussion to ensure those points get made. Plan to leave time at the end of the discussion to summarize what was learned, point out the most important details to remember, and indicate what to expect for the next class.

It also helps to consider ways to respond if the discussion goes off track or when certain students may be monopolizing the discussion. If you need to interrupt a student, say, “Let me make sure I understand your main point…” then restate what you believe is the main point. Allow the student to correct you if you misunderstood, and then decide what you should do next. If you need to redirect the discussion, be prepared with a response like, “I will take one more comment on this before we move on to the next point” or “These are great points and I wish we had more time to discuss these. We’ve got to move on to get where we need to go by the end of the class period.”

Building an Inclusive Classroom Environment

Instructors have a responsibility to create an inclusive, interactive learning environment where students can explore their own thoughts on content, be willing to consider the thoughts of others, and formulate their opinions about what they hear their peers saying. If facilitated well, the art of agreeing to disagree can be learned in this kind of environment. Students can learn to develop and value their own opinions as well as the opinions of their peers. Through classroom discussion, the instructor can involve students in a learning process where students, whether actively participating or listening in, can better understand the different sides to a topic. This kind of interactive learning requires trust and a well-defined structure for these types of conversations to occur.

Building trust requires that both instructors and students will hold their peers responsible for:

  • Learning the material,
  • Allowing mistakes to be made in the presence of others without negative consequences, and
  • Respectfully challenging others’ perspectives.

Learning through discussion is an iterative process. Starting on day one, encourage students to speak their minds and respect differing opinions on a given topic. Students should be held accountable to the rules of mutual respect and appropriate disagreement with each other. Consider community building activities that get students to learn about one another.

Forsyth (2003) reminds us to be aware of those who have not spoken up in the discussion and encourage them to be involved. There are several roles the facilitator can take to encourage participation as gatekeeper, mirror, observer, validator, negotiator and reality tester. Here are questions associated with each facilitator’s role:

Facilitator Roles

Associated Discussion Questions


“You’ve been quiet. Do you have something to add?”


“The group seems to be focusing on…”


“Why do you believe we drift off into tangents when discussing…”


“Great point!”


“Can we come to a consensus on this?”

Reality Tester

“Do you realize how our comments can be interpreted?”

In encouraging students to speak up in class, consider your audience. Communication styles can make a difference in how and if students respond based on their family experience and cultural background. Encourage students to talk to you outside of class if they would like to become more active in the conversation but are hesitant to speak up. Provide them with guidance and support for how to participate in class discussion.

Finally, the most important thing an instructor can do to maintain an inclusive classroom environment is being an example of what one should do when interacting with others when they agree, when they disagree, when mistakes are made, and when consequences are assigned to the things students say to each other in class discussion. Students will be taking their cues from the way you treat them in the classroom.

Setting Clear Expectations

Building an inclusive learning environment also requires laying out specific rules of interaction. Students need to know what the boundaries are and what is allowed and what isn’t allowed in the classroom. This information should be stated in both the syllabus and the first day’s course introduction.

Be clear about what role class discussion will play in your course. Students will need to know that you expect everyone to participate and that it is an opportunity to explore new ideas. A successful learning environment requires trust and clear expectations. Some of these expectations would be:

  • Be respectful of others as you would want them to be to you.
  • No name-calling.
  • Stick to the topic and keep it about the topic and not about the person having the discussion.

The goal is to build some structure around how interactions work best in the classroom and build trust with the students so that everyone is willing to participate in the discussion over time.

Asking the Right Questions

Next, there are ways to ask open-ended questions that will encourage greater conversation among students. Learning to ask the right questions is one of the biggest challenges instructors face as they begin facilitating classroom interaction. As instructors, we need to ask the questions we want them to learn from most and then encourage them to connect their thoughts with the details in the assigned materials.

One of the things instructors are faced with when teaching students how to discuss topics in class is the tendency for students to not think critically. The biggest challenge is to allow students to express what’s on their mind at first thought and at the same time encourage them to connect their opinions and experiences to course content. This is where facilitation really begins.

It helps to give students time to think aloud before adding more information to reframe their responses towards the course content. Have students compare their thoughts and response with each other and how they agree or disagree with the course content. Reel them in by challenging commonly held misconceptions about the topic at hand. To continue the conversation, add another dimension to the conversation by bringing in another detail that has not been mentioned before about the topic. Adding another detail can encourage students to consider the impact of this new detail on their original position.

Sometimes starting a productive discussion is all about asking The Right Questions. The Right Questions can encourage effective learning for those who participate and those who do not. Some of these questions include:

  • What would you do to fix this problem?
  • What’s wrong with this picture?
  • Asking another student, “How would you respond to this student’s comments?”
  • Giving students a scenario and asking them to think through a solution based on what they have learned.
  • What would make the article more complete or less biased?
  • Based on the reading, what should be done in this situation?

These questions are detailed enough to provoke more thoughtful answers and a variety of responses from students. The goal is not what they decide as a class, but that the learning that is happening by this exchange has just as much value if not more value than if they were just reading about it and taking a quiz.


Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Forsyth, D.R. (2003). The Professor’s Guide to Teaching: Psychological Principles and Practices. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.