Office of the Faculty Teaching Fellow

Strategies and Language to Prompt Effective Discussion

[Source:  Email from the POD Network, Roben Torosyan, Fairfield University, 9-10-06, some examples added and formatting changed for document by Michael Dabney, retired director of the Teaching and Learning Center, Hawaii Pacific University]
Use ungraded writing to deepen thinking (and to encourage and model preparation before speaking):

  • Have students write for 5 minutes, then read their writing aloud (and/or put on board).
  • Offer a question to which students respond by writing briefly, then reconstructing a new answer with a partner.
  • For homework, have students write what questions they have about reading.
    -  "What are you wondering about? What does this make you think about?"
  • Have a volunteer note questions on the board or flipchart (number them for reference)
    -   Use helpers; free yourself up to notice more discussion dynamics
  • Offer a question you wonder about, one you don't know the answer to (models thoughtful inquiry, and the vulnerable stance of an "ignorant" questioner)

Slow the flow, probe deeper:

Probe for more meaning by 1) extending wait time, 2) repeating the question, 3) asking for more:
-  "What did you say, Melanie?  Hmm, interesting-why do you think that?"
-   "Good. Can you say what your reasoning is?"

  • Transfer responsibility away from you to class:
    - "Mmm-hmm. What is John getting at?"

- "OK you didn't hear something. What can you do?"
- "Others, what does that mean to you?"

  • FYI: Most teachers wait less than 1 second after asking a question. Increasing to 3-5 seconds yields more and fuller responses, and more
    spontaneous speaking up, use of evidence and student questions.

Balance students' voices:

  • "Others we've heard from less?"      *  If it's already been said, how would you say it?
  • Repeat the policy: "No question is stupid." (Say it so much you as teacher sound stupid.)
  • Email students by midterm about their participation: "If this were end of term, you'd be failing because..."

Track themes to bring discussion back on track or reframe it:

  • Nudge a group to move on: "Why don't we look at the fourth question now?"
  • Prompt for links: "Wait, what was the connection between this and Jack's question?"
  • Use evidence to support or challenge ideas: "Do these lines answer Kanisha's question?"
  • Offer your own dawning discoveries to encourage reframing:
    - "Oh, I just realized! Maybe Hector is the real hero of the poem."
    - "What if we solved the problem this way?"  (Model the life attitude of vulnerably asking

questions, wondering aloud, not knowing.)

Summarize what was learned (while valuing uncertainty, depending upon your discipline):

  • "Did you learn anything, or are you left thinking about anything?"
  • "What struck you?" "What do you want to remember?"
  • "In general, use open questions ("What" and "Why") [questions that do not lead to YES/NO answers] over closed questions ("Is this clear?" or "Does that make sense?"), to give students practice at putting complex ideas into language.
  • At end of class, give a "Minute Paper" or ask for the "Muddiest Point" and go over next session.



  1. Privately, tell students there are others in the class who have opinions, comments, etc., and ask they we are mindful of their wish to participate. Repeat as needed.
  2. In response to any discussion-mechanics problem, one can ask a question of the class, "What are the good things happening with the mechanics of our discussion?" and "What can we do to improve?"  Students politely mentioned—in answer to the second question—that all voices need to be heard and students need to police themselves from dominating.  Students who were dominating got it and I enjoy watching them start to want to dominate but keep themselves in check for "good of the order."


  • Further Reading:  (1) Brookfield, Stephen D., & Preskill, Stephen. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.   (2) Finkel, Donald L. Teaching With Your Mouth Shut. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2000.    Also see and click From Controversy to Empathic Discourse
  • Strategies for facilitating discussions in an online environment can be found on the Instructional Technology resource.