Fostering Classroom Discussion

What is it?

Classroom discussions are a critical instructional strategy that many faculty employ.  But is it effective?  Research has found that student engagement is the key to their academic success (Kuh et al., 2005, as cited in Howard, J., 2015, p. 4). Students learn more when they are involved in their own education and able to think about and apply what they are learning. Fostering classroom discussion is exactly what is suggests. How can instructors encourage and facilitate student participation and engagement within the classroom? How can educators allow the students to take control of their learning through collaboration with other students? How can professors make all of this possible in the classroom?

How does it work?

Professors in the physical classroom, as well as the virtual classroom, are implementing strategies and best practices to foster meaningful discussion. Educators have conducted multiple surveys and studies to determine the benefits of student collaboration and discussion. Kuh et al. (2005) suggests that students lean more when they actively participate in discussion, as opposed to just listening. Umbach and Wawrzynski (2005) conducted national studies that found students reported greater learning when the instructor utilized active and collaborative learning strategies. Murry and Lang (1997) conducted a study on their own psychology students, stating that students who participated more in discussions earned higher exam grades. They also suggest that their students learned topics better when engaging in active participation, compared to just listening to a lecture (as cited in Howard, J., 2005).

Studies have suggested that online classes elicit greater participation from the students as a whole, than face-to-face classes. Discussion forums are commonly used for interaction among students in the virtual classroom. In a study conducted at Brigham Young University, discussion forums were among the top three pedagogical features used by instructors and students (Griffiths and Graham, 2009, as cited in Howard, J., 2005). Kearns (2012) conducted a study of 24 online courses and concluded that online discussions were ‘the second most frequently utilized assessment strategy after written assignments” (as cited in Howard, J., 2005). Hung and Zhang (2008) studied online behaviors of 98 undergraduate business students currently enrolled in an online class. The results found that students interacted more, not only with their peers but with their instructor as well. Hung and Zhang stated that the online behaviors of the students and their performance were related. They concluded the frequency of accessing materials and the number of messages within forums could predict a student’s performance in the course. Active participation resulted in greater learning and comprehension within the virtual classroom. 

Why is it significant?

Various studies have found that students learn more when they are physically engaged and verbally interacting with the class material. This engagement comes from “involving students actively in higher order cognitive processes like creating, problem-solving, evaluating, and decision making”, while promoting the concept of working in collaborative teams (Kearsley and Shneiderman, 1997, as cited in Dreon, O., 2014). Collaboration and communication are essential for life as we know it. These skills need to be developed in the classrooms in order to set students up for success after graduation. Instructors need to create an open and inviting environment that allows students to be willing to share their thoughts and ideas. Implementing group activities for verbal discussion will help students with their interpersonal communication skills. They will learn to work cohesively as a unit, similar to many jobs they could hold in the future. Throwing in occasional writing pieces or online discussions can assist students in bettering their writing skills. Obviously there should be some standards for formatting and students should be expected to write formally, as if it were any other paper. Discussion in all forms is a learning experience for the students and instructor. 

What are the downsides?

Implementing various opportunities for discussion or collaboration can be a challenge for instructors. For those of you that are used to hearing only your voice during (besides the crickets chirping when you ask a question to the class) getting the students involved will take time and planning. Good discussion questions take thought and activities take planning, along with trial and error. If these questions or activities are successful and the class really begins to take advantage of the opportunities to speak up, all of the material you wanted to get through might not get touched. Exam or assignment dates might have to be adjusted accordingly if material is not covered in the time frame you originally planned for.

There is always the possibility that students will use time in small groups to gossip or talk about anything other than what they are supposed to. Using a tool or method to create random groups could help keep the Chatty Kathys away from each other. Requiring each group to submit a small write up of their discussion or making an activity for the group to complete could help motivate the students to actually do the work. Make sure to let the class know from day one that participation is part of their grade. Be present in the classroom and make rounds to each group so they are aware that you are watching. If you catch a group straying from the path, you can intervene and get them back on track. 

Where is it going?

It seems as if class sizes are increasing and online classes or programs are becoming more popular. Instructors are being stretched thin while trying to give students a worthwhile educational experience. Creating more activities or discussion questions for classes can feel like a ton of extra work up front. However, utilizing groups can help minimize the amount of grading individual assignments. Large classes can be broken up into smaller, more manageable break out groups. Each group can work together and come up with an answer to the question or complete an assignment to hand in. Interactive documents, such as Google Docs, make group papers doable for busy students. These approaches can allow students to fine tune their interpersonal and critical thinking skills. On the other hand, the instructor has less assignments to grade, resulting in less caffeine intake.

When many people think of an online class, they question how a student will get the same experience or learning from it being online, as opposed to being in a physical classroom. Technology is ever changing and from email to Skype, students can interact with classmates or their instructor in many different ways. Interaction and discussion only does not occur in an online classroom if the instructor does not allow for students to have these opportunities. Group work is still possible. For example, weekly discussion boards as a participation requirement can encourage students to share their thoughts and ideas with the class. In order for the instructor and students to not get overwhelmed, try having students submit their individual posts sometime between Monday and Thursday. After that window has closed, have students respond to however many other posts between Friday and Sunday. Breaking these up will give the professor time to observe what is being said and allow the students to breathe before they have to post again. 

What are the implications for teaching and learning?

Fostering classroom discussions allows students to do the teaching, while everyone listening is doing the learning. The instructor is not the only one in the room with good ideas or valid thoughts. Multiple students with great insight could be sitting in every classroom on campus and without the opportunity to share, their knowledge might go unnoticed. The instructors are able to learn what discussion activities work well for certain classes. They are able to experiment with their creativity by coming up with ideas and then asking for feedback from the class. There is room for improvement with every classroom. Allowing the students to practice skills that are relevant for their future endeavors is a huge opportunity to set them apartment from future colleagues. 


Dreon, O. (2012, February 14). Cultivating Collaboration [Web log post]. Retrieved November 15,                 2016, from

Dreon, O. (2014, August 19). Three easy steps to build more student engagement [Web log post].                Retrieved November 15, 2016, from               steps-to-build-more-student-engagement/  

Ellman, S. (2015, December 30). 4 techniques for fostering fruitful discussions in your classroom                  [Web log post]. Retrieved November 1, 2016, from             ways-to-spark-classroom-discussions-and-ke  ep-students-engaged/

Hemingway, K. (2015, June 15). Fostering student talk and classroom dialogue - part 5 - inquiry by               design [Web log post]. Retrieved November 1, 2016, 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

NIU Faculty. (n.d.).Classroom discussions[Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center ].                 Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.