Although posing a question to the entire class is the most common way to launch a discussion, other techniques can be used at the beginning or during the course of a discussion to challenge and engage students.

These activities can be carried out in classes of any size in almost any discipline. Some require advance planning and preparation. The ideas described in this section are adapted from Barkley et al. (2004), Davis (2009), Habeshaw et al. (1984), and Jaques and Salmon (2007).

Below is a list of different discussion techniques and some explanation of how they may be used. Some techniques are more suitable for certain types and sizes of class or group. For others it doesn't really matter.

(More specific information about online discussion strategies and activities is given later in the course.)

First, consider the following four criteria.

1. Class size

  • Small (fewer than 30 students)
  • Medium (30-100 students)
  • Large (more than 100 students).


2. Type of class

  • In person
  • Online
  • Hybrid.


3. Level of instructor preparation

  • Some work required in advance of class
  • Minimal work required in advance.


4. Size of groups

  • None (the technique involves the whole class)
  • Small groups within the class
  • Pairs
  • Individuals.


Bear these points in mind as you work your way through the different discussion techniques. For each of the techniques described, consider how important these criteria are. Then move on to our suggestions.

Brainstorm

Brainstorming involves generating a great number of ideas – no matter how far-fetched and without explanation – in a fixed period of time, say five minutes. The goal is free association and creativity; all ideas are received neutrally, with no praise or criticism. The more ideas, the better, because more means a greater likelihood of original thinking. Each idea is captured on the board or screen. Online brainstorming is most effective in a synchronous mode, such as real-time chat. Brainstorming encourages students to generate many possible causes, consequences, or solutions. If used online, this is best conducted synchronously so that everyone has the same amount of time. If used asynchronously, students should be asked to spend only a fixed amount of time on the task (say three minutes) to submit their ideas.

Suitable for:

  • small or medium classes
  • any type of class
  • minimal preparation
  • whole class.


Buzz groups

In buzz groups, teams of two to four students exchange ideas informally in a limited period of time, typically five minutes or less. They are not required to reach agreement or to report back to class. All groups can discuss the same question, or each group can have its own topic. Buzz groups can be used as a warm-up exercise before class discussion to encourage students to think about a topic (e.g. "Where do you stand on the question of online plagiarism?").

Suitable for:

  • any class size
  • in person
  • minimal preparation
  • small groups.


Case study

Good case studies describe a realistic situation – although it may be invented rather than factual – including relevant background, facts, conflicts, dilemmas, and a sequence of events leading up to a decision or action. Working with case studies, students analyze the characters' actions, propose possible solutions, and predict the outcome. Good cases can lead to a variety of actions and have no single solution. Online case studies can be used by different students – typically, four to six – at different times and involve document sharing sites, blogs, or wikis. Take a look at the 'Resource bank' for a link to more information.

Suitable for:

  • any class size
  • any type of class
  • some preparation
  • small groups.


Concept maps

In constructing a concept map, students work alone or in groups to show the connections between terms, ideas, or concepts. Students connect individual terms with lines and add labels to describe the relationship between terms. To develop a concept map, students must acquire and organize information in a way that establishes relationships between ideas. Some studies show that students using concept maps achieve at higher levels and retain information longer than those who don't. See the 'Resource bank' for websites devoted to concept maps.

Suitable for:

  • any class size
  • any type of class
  • some preparation
  • small groups, pairs or individuals.


Controlled discussion

In a controlled discussion, the teacher is the focus of the discussion, asking students questions and answering their inquiries. This strategy might be used to learn whether students have completed an assignment. It is a quick way to get feedback on what students know, but peer interaction is minimal. This activity can be used asynchronously or synchronously.

Suitable for:

  • any class size
  • any type of class
  • some preparation
  • whole class.


Fishbowl

During a fishbowl discussion, part of the group observes while another group discusses a topic. Fishbowls can be used when an instructor wants to have a discussion with very large groups; it's a way of involving an audience in a small group discussion. Observers are looking for specific themes (e.g. soundness of argument) or more general patterns (e.g. types of issues raised), and roles can be reversed. In one variation, the discussing group leaves an 'empty chair' where an observer can sit momentarily to make a comment or ask a question.

Suitable for:

  • small or medium classes
  • any type of class
  • some preparation
  • small groups.


Informal debates

Informal debates help students develop their skills in critical thinking, persuasion, public speaking and teamwork. For an informal debate, students hear a proposition and are asked to sit in different sections of the room according to whether they agree with the proposition, disagree, or are undecided. Groups get 15 minutes to prepare arguments on their position in order of importance; then each group makes one statement that the other side disputes. Every ten minutes or so, students who have changed their minds relocate in the appropriate section. In one variant, students are asked to argue for the opposite of their original position.

Suitable for:

  • small classes
  • in person
  • some preparation
  • small groups.


Jigsaw

In a jigsaw activity, each small group meets to share expertise on its own topic. Then new groups are formed bringing together one person from each of the original groups. In this way, each individual becomes expert on a single topic, and students learn from their peers. A whole class discussion may follow. In a 20-member English class, for example, students are studying how different authors use autobiographical material in their writing. Students break into groups of four, selecting one of five authors to discuss. When they move on to crossover groups, each has expert on one of the five authors. Take a look at the 'Resource bank' for a link to more information.

Suitable for:

  • small or medium classes
  • any type of class
  • some preparation
  • small groups.


KWL

KWL is an exercise that helps teachers determine what students know and what interests them about a topic. KWL is an acronym for 'what I Know,' 'what I Want to know,' and 'what I Learned.' Students are asked to list anonymously, either in class or online, what they know and what they want to know about a new topic. Reviewing the lists, the teacher uses them to correct erroneous ideas and to adjust the focus to reflect students' knowledge and interests. Later, students anonymously list, either in class or online, what they have learned, and the findings are collected and read to the class. This can be done asynchronously.

Suitable for:

  • small classes
  • any type of class
  • some preparation
  • individuals.


Learning cell

To increase interaction among students and give them opportunities to reflect on and use the course material, consider learning cells. In learning cells, students pair off to discuss homework assignments, perhaps reading an article or chapter, solving a quantitative problem, visiting an art exhibit, or some other activity. As part of their preparation, students prepare two questions about the assignment, such as 'During the citric acid cycle, what reactions increase or decrease the carbon chain?' 'What experiments are needed to determine if an amino acid is polar?' In class or online, the student pairs ask and answer each other's questions. In another variation, students may read the same piece and compare and clarify their understanding of the material. In another, students read different pieces and then share what they learned and their perspectives. This can be used asynchronously.

Suitable for:

  • any class size
  • any type of class
  • minimal preparation
  • pairs.


Line up

In a line-up, students are asked to organize themselves in a line according to their position on an issue. Online, students check a box that most closely corresponds to their perspective. This can be done asynchronously. Line-ups help to make the group's opinions and attitudes more clear.

Suitable for:

  • small or medium classes
  • any type of class
  • some preparation
  • whole class.


Milling

Milling directs students to move around the classroom, open space, or synchronous online environment, asking a question or sharing information with each person they pass. The brief exchanges – no more than 30 second each – might involve questions about the course material or about their personal difficulty in understanding it. The intent is to increase student interaction, and, in in-person classes, shift the tempo.

Suitable for:

  • small or medium classes
  • any type of class
  • minimal preparation
  • whole class.


Mind maps

Whereas concept maps use words, mind maps use images. Mind maps have a central image with branches representing major categories related to that central idea. The relative importance of categories can be represented by different colors or line thicknesses and by distance from the central concept. Students can create mind maps individually, in pairs, and in small or large groups. Mind maps are visual, helping students explore an issue and organize their thoughts. See the 'Resource bank' for websites devoted to mind maps.

Suitable for:

  • any class size
  • in person
  • some preparation
  • small groups, pairs or individuals.


Role play

Role-playing gives students a chance to apply acquired knowledge, develop problem solving skills specific to the course content, and increase their understanding of the subject matter. In role-playing, students get a situation and a cast of characters and improvise dialogue to act out the event as if they were participants. For example, in a city planning class, students might stage a meeting of the local landmarks commission, with students playing the role of commissioners and hostile neighbors.

Suitable for:

  • small classes
  • in person
  • some preparation
  • small groups.


Rounds

Rounds offer everyone in a class – including the teacher – an opportunity to make a statement about a topic without being interrupted for a specific interval – 30 seconds or so. In classrooms, rounds can go clockwise or counterclockwise, or the first speaker can pick the second speaker, the second the third, and so on. Any member of the group may propose a topic, related to the subject or the group process. Rounds can be planned or spontaneous responses to a situation, and participants can pass or repeat what another speaker said. Rounds demonstrate different viewpoints in the class and can help you see how well students know the material.
Examples of topics for Rounds: The worst thing that could happen when it's my turn to lead the discussion... Something I learned that I didn't know before... The question uppermost in my mind at the end of today's session...

Suitable for:

  • small classes
  • any type of class
  • minimal preparation
  • whole class.


Snowball

Snowball activities provide students with a chance to progressively tackle more challenging tasks and ideas. In a Snowball activity, the size of the group doubles as the task becomes more difficult. During the first round, students might share ideas in pairs, moving along to a second round of small groups identifying common patterns in the ideas. In the third round, the groups of eight develop guidelines or action plans, and each of these groups report to the whole class. There are several benefits of this structure: in the first group, students can try out ideas with just one other person; then, as the group grows in size, students hear about ideas different from their own.

Suitable for:

  • small or medium classes
  • in person
  • some preparation
  • small groups or pairs.


Turn to your neighbor

This activity asks students to consider a problem or question for a few minutes, then discuss it with the person next to them. After a few minutes, several pairs share their ideas with the class. Also called 'think-pair-share,' this strategy promotes the exchange of ideas and helps students clarify points or apply concepts to a problem or situation. In a large enrollment course, this exercise might conclude after the pairs have discussed the question. If the question is factual, the teacher should provide a brief answer after the pairs report to address any errors in thinking.

Suitable for:

  • any class size
  • in person
  • minimal preparation
  • pairs.


Two-column lists

A two-column list compares views or presents the pros and cons of a position, including every relevant viewpoint students can think of for each column. Being required to generate ideas on each side helps promote a more thorough discussion and can be used as a pre-discussion activity. This can be used synchronously or asynchronously.

Suitable for:

  • any class size
  • any type of class
  • minimal preparation
  • individuals.


WebQuests

A WebQuest sends students to the Internet with a specific task, a list of Web-based information resources, and questions to address. The goal is for students to evaluate and interpret information, not merely search for it. Teachers have used WebQuests on such topics as human cloning, deciding whether to choose paper or plastic, and reducing whale mortality. This can be used synchronously or asynchronously. Take a look at the 'Resource bank' for a link to more information.

Suitable for:

  • any class size
  • online
  • some preparation
  • small groups, pairs or individuals.


Writing

Writing is one way students can express themselves, and it is particularly effective before a discussion because it helps students articulate their ideas. If you join in yourself, both you and your students will benefit. Here are some ways of incorporating writing into the discussion:
Key words: Give students five minutes to write down a set number of key words related to the discussion topic. These can be posted, categorized, and organized for discussion. This strategy generates a lot of material in a short time, focuses students' attention on the essentials, and provides a structure for discussion.
Write before you speak: pose a question but instead of having students answer, give them a few minutes to write their response.

Suitable for:

  • small or medium classes
  • any type of class
  • minimal preparation
  • individuals.


For best results, avoid overusing any one activity or bombarding students with a different structured activity each class session.