Setting the Stage for Effective Discussions


“A good discussion in one that leaves issues open for further inquiry and in which as many questions are raised as are answered” (Brookfield, 2006, pg. 119).

There is little doubt of the benefits associated with classroom discussion.  In fact, discussion is one of the most touted and applied teaching strategies in higher education (Dallimore et al., 2004).   Effective discussions can:

  • increase the learner’s understanding of the subject matter;
  • promote the development of effective communication, active listening, and presentation skills;
  • encourage a deep appreciation for diverse points of view;  and,
  • enhance each learner’s confidence in their ability to embrace both the subject matter and the learning process.

Discussion Norms

What are the characteristics of an effective discussion, and how can we ensure that these are present within this learning environment?

One of the most productive strategies for encouraging effective group discussion in any classroom setting is to establish group norms.   Brookfield (2006,  pg.124) recommends using a “Critical Incident Approach” where students are asked to establish these norms based on their personal reflections of the characteristics associated with their best and worst past discussion experiences.  The groups are then asked for a list of things that they could do to ensure that the positive characteristics exist, and the negative characteristics are avoided, thus forming a starting point to a set of common ground rules for future class discussions.

Shared Expectations

“Students should feel that you are genuinely interested in what they have to contribute” (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2006, pg. 24).

It is important to set the stage early by ensuring that everyone participates in the first class discussion.  McKeachie and Svinicki (2006, pg.24) encourage instructors to not only carefully review the course objectives with the students at the start of the semester, but to involve them in the process of evaluating these objectives based on their shared expectations, by asking the following questions:

  • What have you heard about this course?
  • What do you hope to learn from this course?
  • What are your expectations for this course?
  • What are your expectations of me as an instructor?
  • What are your expectations of yourself as a learner?

At this time, learners may be most comfortable contributing in small groups (3-5 people) prior to convening in an open class discussion (this strategy also helps encourage some level of participation from everyone in larger classes). The instructor then summarizes and lists common responses.  By having been asked for their contribution, learners become actively engaged in the importance of the syllabus and the purposeful organization and structure of the course.


Brookfield, S.D. 2006. The Skillful Teacher. Jossey-Bass, San Fransisco, CA.

Dallimore, E.J., Hertenstein, J.H., and Platt, M.B. 2004. Classroom participation and discussion effectiveness: student-generated strategies. Communication Education 53(1): 103-115.

McKeachie, W.J. and Svinicki, M. (2006) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.

Author: natashakenny

Senior Director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. Interdisciplinary academic and professional background in educational development, landscape architecture, urban planning and environmental science.

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