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Classroom Management for Discussion Methods

Jordan Catapano

I’ve sat in many circles and watched students stare disconcertedly at one another without saying a word; or I’ve hogged the conversation as the “Expert teacher” and not let students voice their thinking much.

In fact, I’ve spent countless class periods train-wrecking potentially great conversations, and have fortunately learned some classroom management basics for facilitating successful class discussions.

It’s not enough to just ask questions and expect rapid student engagement automatically. Students can feel shy, disinterested, distracted, or confused. Engaging in a spontaneous intellectual conversation might not be at the top of their priority list or their comfort zone. I’ve spent years making mistakes, modifications, more mistakes, and more modifications.

Here are a few classroom management factors to consider as you’re preparing for your next discussion with your whole class.

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Classroom Management: A Few Important Principles for Discussion

Consider your objectives. Any class activity should be aligned with your overall objectives. Sometimes it turns out that a discussion isn’t the best path to accomplish my objective; but when it is the ideal route, focusing on the overall goal is important for how I facilitate the discussion. Before engaging with any class discussion, ask yourself:

  • “What do I intend on this discussion accomplishing for my students?”
  • “How might a discussion help my students accomplish the objectives of this unit/course/standard?”

Align discussion with previous and future work. A good discussion by itself is positive, but the effects of that discussion are amplified when it’s linked to the previous and upcoming work students do. Ask yourself:

  • “How will this discussion build off of the recent work we’ve performed?”
  • “How will our next work build off of this discussion?”

Look at each other. Students are more encouraged to openly converse with one another -- rather than stare at the teacher -- when they are facing each other. Consider how you arrange chairs to encourage conversation between students instead of imply a reliance on the teacher. Ask:

  • “How can I arrange their chairs/desks to have students look at one another?”

Wait time. Whenever I pose a question, I begin a silent count in my head up to seven (or higher). If we ask engaging questions, it should take a little time for students to process the question and derive an answer; but some teachers grow uncomfortable with the silence and begin rephrasing the question, answering it themselves, calling on the very first hand raised, or just moving on. Remember that, “Silence is the sound of thinking” and give your students enough time to each individually process what you’re asking. During discussions, ask yourself:

  • “Have I given enough time for students to think?”
  • “Do I absolutely need to interrupt the silence right now?”

Need to think. Discussions are not for students to arrive at the correct answer; they are to encourage live interaction between students. Discussions stimulate thinking and lead students to build off one another’s input. So the right work before, during, and after the discussion needs to be facilitated for students to maximizing their mental activity. When planning your discussion, consider:

  • “How can I frame questions or tasks to challenge students to think deeply?”
  • “How can I encourage students to think out loud, openly and productively?”

Encourage openness. No interaction works when individuals feel uncomfortable. While we definitely want students to feel like they won’t be judged, we further want students to anticipate an atmosphere of positive interaction. When students put away distractions, learn to listen and respond, and mutually encourage one another’s ideas, students’ thoughts will rush from their lips. Ask yourself:

  • “How can I help students value one another’s perspectives?”
  • “What currently inhibits some students from feeling comfortable sharing their thoughts aloud?”

Bring it back individually. Sometimes it’s easier for students to “hide” within a group discussion, allowing more comfortable or aggressive peers to have their say while they fade into the background. Even engaged students might immediately forget what their own or their peers’ thoughts. That’s why it’s important for students to individually respond to the content of the discussion once the discussion ends. When planning for discussion follow up, ask yourself:

  • “How can I get each student to take responsibility for expressing their conclusions or thoughts?”
  • “How will the content of our discussion relate to future content necessary for each student to know?”

Effective Methods for Facilitating Discussions

Since great discussions rarely just “happen” when a teacher says “Go,” careful consideration must be given to how exactly to host the group discussion. Take a look at some of the following approaches teachers have used to facilitate successful conversations between students.

  • Pose questions that actually require thinking and discussion.
  • Have students write out their thoughts individually first. This way they’ll be prepared for discussion and, for more reserved students, comfortable reading what they already wrote.
  • Have all students write notes first, then share notes with a partner, then share their partner’s ideas (not their own). This is a great way for students to all participate and comfortably chat with the group without personally putting their own ideas in the spotlight.
  • Instead of speaking together, have students write together by having their compose their initial thought, then passing their paper to the person next to them to read and add. Repeat this many times, and then pass the sheet back to the original owner to see where their thoughts led others.
  • Or take the previous written discussion and add a tech component. Have students discuss using an online forum, social media, or shared document.
  • Call on those who don’t have their hand raised. Just simply asking, “What do you think?” can help a student share their thoughts when they might have otherwise stayed silent.
  • After a student shares an idea, ask follow up questions that push their thinking even further.
  • Get students to guide the discussion by training them to take the lead without the teacher having to interject.
  • Make sure that students take notes on others’ thoughts. Too often they only write down what they’re told to, but encourage them to value others’ statements enough to record them in their notes and come back to them later.

What are your favorite methods for facilitating class discussions? Share your ideas with our TeachHUB community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.