Leading Discussions

Having trouble getting students to speak up in class? This is one of the most common challenges we hear about when consulting with faculty about their teaching. Below are some resources you might find helpful if you're trying to increase student participation in your classes.

This section of the "Solve a Teaching Problem" tool at Carnegie Mellon's Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence offers a range of teaching strategies to encourage student participation. The site invites teachers first to consider why students might be reluctant to join the conversation (Are they unprepared? unaccustomed to contributing in class? uncomfortable sharing certain kinds of ideas with their peers? unsure what you're looking for as an instructor?) and then suggests tailored solutions. 

Here on the CRLT website, we provide a range of resources to support your success in teaching discussion-based classes. See this page of Discussion-Based Teaching Strategies for ideas about how to get good conversations started, develop a classroom environment in which students engage readily, and manage several issues that can arise in a discussion--from dominators to classroom controversy.   Read more »


The following guidelines can help instructors facilitate classroom discussion around controversial issues. Whatever the context, it is helpful to structure such discussions in a way that defines boundaries for the process and provides some degree of closure within the classroom. Such discussions are an especially important time to explicitly discuss expectations for respecting a range of perspectives and experiences in the room.

Spontaneous Discussions: Dealing with the Unexpected

It is wise to be prepared to respond to the possibility that a student will raise a controversial issue in class unexpectedly. Immediate response is called for, if only to decide what to do next:

  • Acknowledge the student who raised the issue while noting that students may vary in their responses.
  • Decide whether you are ready and willing to engage with the topic right away.
  • Quickly assess whether the class would like to spend time sharing views about the topic.

If students want to have a dialogue, and you want to wait on it, schedule a discussion for a later class and suggest ways that students could prepare.

Click here for further resources for making the most of 'hot moments' that emerge in your classroom when you do not anticipate them. 

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