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What is Discussion? 

Defined broadly, discussions are when two or more people to share and engage in one another’s viewpoints. Instructors often turn to discussions to promote active learning in the classroom. Inclusive instructors see the many benefits of holding discussions in their classrooms and learning about their student’s perspectives, backgrounds, and approaches to class material. What, then, makes discussions an inclusive classroom activity? 

Discussion and Inclusion 

There are numerous benefits to incorporating discussions into your classroom, or to designing discussion-based courses or assignments, many of which help cultivate a more equitable and inclusive classroom environment.  

Discussions promote diverse students and viewpoints, and exposes students to diversity of thought and experience 

Every classroom is unique and diverse in its student body, students may differ by culture, class, sexual orientation, immigration status, veteran status, religious and political beliefs, disability, and personality. Your classroom may also have nontraditional students, such as older students or student parents. Students also differ in their viewpoints and approaches to class content and how it relates to their own lives. In promoting classroom discussion, your students will not only be exposed to diverse viewpoints but will better understand how the course content can be understood from a perspective other than their own. This enriches cultural competency and student comprehension of class material. 

Shows interest and respect for student’s viewpoints and perspectives 

A central component of creating an inclusive and welcoming environment is supporting student belonging and showing respect for students as individuals, starting from the first class meetings. By encouraging classroom discussion, you as the instructor can learn more about student’s viewpoints regarding course material and its relevance, and by doing so you have the opportunity to show students that you genuinely care about and respect their diverse viewpoints. Students, in turn, will have the opportunity to act as co-creators of knowledge in the classroom and are more likely to view their perspectives as respected and worthy of sharing. 


If discussions are to be engaging, active, and inclusive, it is important to ensure that students feel welcome in the classroom, that they feel comfortable sharing their viewpoints and engaging with other students and the instructor, and that they understand expectations and the importance of discussions for success in the course. Below are some strategies to supporting student success in discussions. 

Build rapport 

To ensure students are comfortable engaging in discussions with other students and you, it’s crucial that you support students building rapport with peers and you. This should happen at the very beginning of class or as soon as possible. You can help set the stage for great discussions on the very first day of class. Consider ways to begin the semester by having students actively involved in discussion either as a whole class with you or in small groups. The first day sets the tone for the remainder of the semester. Beyond the first day, make discussions a regular and predictable part of class sessions.   

Be transparent about expectations for discussions 

Include in the syllabus and any handouts for discussion the classroom protocols for respectful, productive discussions. This not only includes how discussions will take place and the format—will discussions be in small groups, the whole class, or a combination? Will students be called on randomly to respond to discussion questions? Will there be preparatory questions or readings posted prior to class to structure discussions?  

Also share why discussions are important for success in the course and for the development of relevant student skillsets like communication and public speaking skills, critical thinking, and problem solving. Beyond these broad skills, also share with students why discussions of various types you plan to employ will support their success in the class learning outcomes and objectives. What makes participating in discussion (through both speaking and listening) an effective use of their time to succeed in the course outcomes and goals? In addition to providing information on your syllabus, repeat during multiple class sessions your rationale, expectations, and, when applicable, grading for discussions.

Give students opportunity to co-create discussion expectations and questions 

You may also consider whether you would like students to co-create expectations for the discussions or other assessments or aspects of the course with you. This is an especially helpful way to ensure inclusive discussions, since you are giving students the power to shape outcomes of the course and provide input into how they are engaging with their learning experiences. Similarly, another option is to encourage students to craft questions that can be used in class discussions. For example, if you plan to discuss a reading assignment in class, have students propose potential questions for the rest of the class. These questions could be related to the reading’s author, themes, connection to other class material, and/or student’s personal experiences, etc. 

Model what productive and inclusive discussions look like 

In addition to providing clear guidelines for the importance of and expectations for classroom discussions, it is important to model what you—as the instructor—expect good communication and discussion to look like. If you want students to practice synthesizing ideas from their peers with their own ideas, you can model how to do this effectively. If you want them to make and share connections with their own experiences, you can model by sharing your experiences. Consider moments of meta-instruction, where you pause a discussion to highlight what made a particular comment valuable or insightful. 

Allow students to reflect and provide feedback 

When engaged in discussion there is a lot happening at once. This can be challenging for an instructor to track as an expert in the topic, and it is even more challenging for students who are trying to understand and make connections about ideas that are new to them in many cases. As described above, one strategy in dealing with this is to find opportunities for pausing to reflect on the discussion that has happened thus far. Even brief moments to reflect allow students to work on the process of synthesizing the different ideas they have heard and collect their own thoughts. You can also include more formal approaches either during or after class. For example, the Critical Incident Questionnaire created by Stephen Brookfield, co-author of the book Discussion as a Way of Teaching (2005), guides students through thinking about and sharing specific impactful moments from a class session.


Instructors may face challenges when choosing to facilitate discussions in their classroom and may initially be reluctant to do so because of this. Others are also skeptical that discussions are beneficial or that they might work in their own classroom. Some common objections to discussions are that they take time away from teaching content, that they are unrealistic or too difficult in large classrooms, and that they are more useful in disciplines where subjective ideas are debated, like humanities and the social sciences. With some effort and planning, discussions can be a great addition or even central component to any college classroom, large or small, humanities or STEM, online or in person. Below are some common challenges instructors may face when beginning to integrate discussion into their courses and what to do about them.  

Introversion on the part of instructors 

One of the most common concerns is that many instructors tend toward introversion, which may make discussion uncomfortable and/or alienating. In her book, Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers (2019), Jessamyn Neuhaus advises that an instructor should not approach the classroom in an attempt to be something they are not, which can be especially draining and unfulfilling. Instead, seek to understand yourself and why you are excited for students to learn about and engage with the material you will be teaching. Then create structures for class time and discussion that allow you to embrace your individuality. This might mean having moments for a pause or having more small group discussions where you are not the center of attention. 

Introversion on the part of students 

Like instructors, some students can lean toward introversion and may be nervous at the prospect of classroom discussions. Taking the time to know your students and helping your students know themselves can be valuable. By incorporating discussion early and being transparent about the role discussion plays in the class, you might ask students in the first week to share any concerns they have about this structure in addition to their goals for the course. If some students share that they feel extreme discomfort speaking in a live class, you might follow up and see if they feel more comfortable participating in small group discussions and/or if they may be able to demonstrate some of the same thinking skills by writing reflections about the class session (assuming this would align with learning outcomes). For students with less extreme situations, you might help them identify small-scale goals around participation and then follow up to help them achieve those goals or set a higher bar for themselves. You might also discuss structures that will support their engagement, like starting discussion with a brief reflective pause and guidance about prompts for the upcoming discussion, so everyone can gather their thoughts before some start immediately. 

Some students are too talkative 

While some people may be uncomfortable talking, others may be excited to share every thought that crosses their mind. While we don’t want to silence a student who is engaged with the class, we might also recognize that such a student may have other goals to help them develop around listening. When communicating goals and outcomes related to discussions and modeling types of responses, you might encourage these students to practice particular types of responses to their peers. Including time to reflect on goals and achievements and adding more structure to determine who speaks and in what order can also be useful for spreading opportunity. In smaller group discussions, you might have students assume rotating roles. Some example roles include: 

  • Facilitator: tasked with supporting even participation 
  • Recorder: tasked with capturing key takeaways from a discussion 
  • Presenter: tasked with sharing takeaways with the rest of the class verbally 
  • Questioner: tasked with asking others in the group questions to help explore a topic more deeply or challenge assumptions 
  • Supporter/Reflector: tasked with paraphrasing the thoughts of peers with supportive praise 

Dealing with micro-aggressions and difficult discussions 

In a classroom discussion that is designed to draw on students’ experiences and backgrounds and provide a space for them to explore new ideas and ways of thinking, there are bound to be moments of conflict and tension. Some of the most common of these moments emerge as micro-aggressions, putting students in a position of discomfort related to their identities, backgrounds, and/or experiences. As a facilitator, it is important to address micro-aggressions and empower students to address them in meaningful ways (we cannot assume we will catch every such statement). One important approach is setting and reinforcing ground rules and structures for discussions. These can be created with students and can provide structures for publicly or privately addressing concerns based on a student’s comfort level. It is also important to remember that, as the instructor, you are responsible for facilitating a meaningful conversation, which means creating, sharing, and upholding principles. You can find specific practical things to do and avoid in this brief guide by Derald Wing Sue. These ideas and more are included in his 2015 book, Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence. While Sue’s advice is specific to discussions about race, it is important to recognize that these are often the most fraught and challenging in American classrooms, and these principles can apply to other contexts and topics as well. 

Dealing with silence 

A particularly uncomfortable challenge of classroom discussions is dealing with the silence that often follows the instructor posing a question. Because of the discomforting atmosphere that silence can create in the classroom, instructors may struggle to deal appropriately with it. One study found that instructors waited only about 1.5 seconds after asking a question before answering it themselves, choosing a student to answer it, or asking another question! Even waiting 3-5 seconds (though much longer is recommended) is found to encourage more students to participate since it gives them longer to come up with answers. Their answers also tend to be lengthier and more complex. Becoming comfortable with silence also encourages more students to become involved in the discussion. Introverted students, for example, may be more likely to answer if they are given more time to process the question and prepare an answer. Silence also increases the chances that a select few students—those who raise their hands the quickest—will not be the ones answering all of the questions, thus increasing chances that more students will feel included in and engaged with class discussions. 

Next Steps 

As you think about ways to incorporate this content in a class, consider creating a plan using the attached template. 

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