Center for Teaching and Learning

Tips for Leading Discussion Sections

Use backward design

  • Think about the goals you want to achieve by the end of the discussion. (What do you want your students to learn or know how to do or think about by the end of section?)
  • Consider your role as a facilitator of the discussion: how can you prompt students to have a conversation that achieves your goals?
  • Think about what a successful discussion would look like, and think about which guiding questions you should ask to promote the discussion that you envision.

Start with where the students are

  • What values and interests do they have, and how do those intersect with the content of the course?
  • Whenever possible, try to make the course material immediately relevant in a real-world way to them.

Toggle between small group work and whole class discussions.

  • Give students a chance to work with a neighbor or in groups of 3-4 before sharing their ideas in front of the whole group.

Explicitly foster an inclusive environment

  • Explicitly tell the students you care what they think and you want to hear their voices 

Ask provocative questions and have students defend positions in their own words.

  • Start simple and get more complex. You may want to begin by getting just the facts down, but then you can start analyzing, evaluating, compare-and-contrasting different topics, different frameworks, different analytical approaches, applying an approach used in one context to another context, etc.

  •  Ask for people to represent different points of view: How would one person see something from their standpoint? How would someone in a different position or from a different school of thought see it from their standpoint?

  •  Ask for benefits/disadvantages of a position for all sides.

  • If you’re discussing a crisis or a problem in your class, you can ask questions like

    • How could this situation have been different?

    • What could have been done earlier to head off this conflict and turn it into a productive conversation?

    • Is it too late to fix this?

    • What are possible leverage points for a more productive discussion?

    • What good can come of the existing situation? 

  • Apply what you’re discussing to another context.

  • Ask follow-up questions, like:

    • Could you tell us more about what you mean by [whatever they just said]?

    • Could you clarify what you said about ___?

    • How would you square that observation with what _____ pointed out?

  • Reincorporate topics from previous weeks

Establish ground rules (and co-develop them with your students), for example:

  • Everyone here has something to learn.
  • Everyone here is expected to support their colleagues in identifying and clarifying their confusions about course material.

  • Ideas shared during class will be treated respectfully.

  • Listen actively and attentively.

  • Do not interrupt one another.

  • Critique ideas, not people.

  • Challenge one another, but do so respectfully.

  • Do not offer opinions without supporting evidence.

  • Build on one another’s comments, work towards a shared understanding.

  • Ask for clarification if you are confused.

  • Avoid put-downs (even humorous ones).

  • Take responsibility for the quality of the discussion.

  • Do not monopolize discussion.

  • Speak from your own experience, without generalizing.

  • If you are offended by anything said during discussion, acknowledge it immediately.

  • Consider anything that is said in class confidential. (ie, "What's said stays here, but take what you learn with you.")

  • Always have your book or readings in front of you.

  • Request that if participants challenge others’ ideas, they back it up with evidence, appropriate experiences, and/or appropriate logic.

  • Avoid making assumptions about others.
  • Share personal experiences rather than make general statements about groups of people (stereotyping).

  • Ask students to discuss constructive and destructive group behaviors from their own experiences generally.

  • Ask dominant participants to allow others to speak.

Give all participants a voice

  • At the start of class, highlight the value of a diversity of perspectives as an essential part of any learning process.

Have students develop and sign a group contract

  • For example, from Portland State University:

    • Start by asking each student to list 1-4 specific things that they will want to do in their group;

    • 3 things that they have experienced in groups that they DON’T want to happen; along with how you think it can be prevented;

    • Finish this sentence… “I function best in groups when…”

    • Finish this sentence… “I really hope our group can…”

To avoid "conversation monopolizers"

  • After asking a question, but before calling on any students, tell your students that "I want to see 5 hands up before I’ll call on anyone."
  • Give students a chance to collect their thoughts in writing before asking anyone to volunteer their thoughts out loud.

A bunch of short cool videos on leading discussions can be found here: