How do I lead a group discussion in class?

A prototypical activating teaching activity is a group discussion: a discussion about a topic, issue, problem or question, that invites students to actively contribute to the lesson and enables the lecturer to immediately discern and correct misunderstandings.

Getting started

To get a discussion going, the question or statement to be discussed deserves careful attention. Different types of questions, likely to lead to different discussions:

  • Questions for memorization (what do you know about X? What does concept X mean?), likely evoke a discussion about the (prepared) literature, or general declarative knowledge. They can be used to check students’ preparation and establish students’ prior knowledge.
  • Questions for understanding (how would you explain X in your own words?) evoke a discussion about different interpretations and are useful to reveal misunderstandings.
  • Questions for analysis (how does X compare to Y?) and evaluation (what are the advantages of X?) likely evoke a debate and are useful when the goal is to explore different perspectives or formulate an informed opinion.

To get a group discussion going, your role as a lecturer should not be that of the expert answering questions or responding to statements (i.e. not lecturing), but that of a facilitator, encouraging students to participate, while maintaining focus on what is important. In a group discussion, students interact with each other: it is your job to redirect questions and statements to the group (e.g., who (dis)agrees? What would an alternative explanation be?). You can also use this technique to correct wrong statements, by actively encouraging students to correct each other’s misunderstandings.

Risks and challenges

A risk in group discussions is getting sidetracked: focusing too much time on irrelevant issues. Your job is to shift the focus back to the core of the issue by paraphrasing and summarising.

A challenge in group discussions is keeping track of everything that is said. Having a student take notes, or taking notes yourself, that are visible to the whole group (e.g. on a flip chart, white board, or on a computer being projected onto a screen), visualizes the breadth of discussion and highlights missing elements.

Another challenge is dealing with students who do not participate in the discussion. Depending on the reason (e.g., fear of being embarrassed, lack of preparation, do not see the added value), different solutions might work. For instance, you can establish communication ground rules and/or explicate why you choose a discussion over a lecture.



Further reading

  • Linda B. Nilson (2010), Teaching at its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (3rd). Jossey-Bass, San Francisco: chapters 13 en 14.
  • Wilbert J. McKeachie, Marilla Svinicki (2006). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Strategies for College and University Teachers, College Teaching Series, Twelfth edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston New York, Chapter 5, p.35-56.