Leading Discussions: Engaging Your Students Emotionally

By Peter Connor

Getting students involved in a discussion requires engaging them "emotionally" in the topic. To get the ball rolling, build the discussion around a physical demonstration or a case study; a news clipping or a provocative documentary; an intriguing reading assignment or a commonly shared personal experience.

Whatever emotional embers you stir up, remember the fire you spark will die back down. Emotions are fleeting. Take advantage of them. To be productive, the discussion must follow immediately. Consider also that purely emotional issues have little educational value in and of themselves. To aid learning and to make what is said more salient these issues must be used to enhance your students' involvement.

One way of engaging students emotionally is to ask them to argue for a position with which they don’t agree, or to argue against one to which they are strongly bound.

Initiating discussions will become easier as the semester progresses. Once students have become accustomed to frequent discussion, an engaging and interesting lecture will generally be sufficient to create the emotional involvement necessary to get the ball rolling.

Having students write down their reactions to the "discussion question" helps initiate the process. Asking them to work with another student, solving a problem, or answering a question, will also help. Such collaborative "pairing" increases individual confidence about speaking in front of fellow classmates, providing a sense of "in-it-togetherness," which is empowering, in and of it self.


Lowman, J. (1995). Mastering the technique of teaching. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

University of Oklahoma Program for Instructional Innovation. (n.d.) Leading discussions: How do I get students to speak up? In Ideas on teaching. Retrieved August 14, 2008, from the University of Oklahoma Program for Instructional Innovation Web site: http://www.ou.edu/pii/tips/ideas/discussions.html

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This Teaching Tip was adapted from material developed by the Program for Instructional Innovation at the University of Oklahoma.


Peter Connor - TILT Web Content Editor