Leading Discussions: Getting the Whole Class Involved

By Peter Connor

From those students who need no prodding when it comes time to sharing their thoughts—to those whose thoughts can’t be pried out of their shells with an oyster knife—there's likely to be a mixed bag of personality types in every class you teach. So, with that, how do you get everyone to participate?

Here are a few suggestions from the Program for Instructional Innovation at the University of Oklahoma:

Reinforce, in a positive manner, every student comment made—even if it’s dead wrong. Look for and emphasize the parts that are insightful, or creative. This may require insightfulness and creativity on your part. Consider it a challenge. When creativity fails, and you really don't know what to say, fall back on acknowledging the effort made: “Thanks for taking a stab at it!” or words to that effect will do.

And mean it when you say it: Be sincere! Use the right tone of voice so as not to offend. Being right isn’t the point in a discussion: Discussion is the point in a discussion. Concentrate on “building” on each student's contribution.

In the midst of the hands that you can always count on when you pose a question, scan the classroom frequently for those who are shy or seem to consider your prompt more thoroughly and deliberately. Be on the lookout for students who appear to have something to say but are more tentative in signaling their intention.

It’s easy to overlook such students: They don’t raise their hands or pipe up as quickly as others when you invite discussion. Consider this: that those who are silent—or simply more comfortable being an observer—are not necessarily uninterested or uninvolved. Often they are as intellectually active as the more vocal participants.

To engage the “observer” student more fully, here’s an idea:

Have your students each write a response to a question or a ”finish-this-statement” prompt, fold it in half and pass it along to a neighbor who must, without opening it, pass it along to the next, who again must pass it along, until everyone in the room has an anonymously written response that can be shared with the class.

The original authors are protected by anonymity. No one is threatened: No one knows who wrote what. Perfect! Everyone’s ideas can be aired and discussed. This is especially effective with issues that are controversial, sensitive, or when a response requires a certain amount of creativity.


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

University of Oklahoma Program for Instructional Innovation. (n.d.). Leading Discussions. In Ideas on teaching. Retrieved August 26, 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 Site Content Writer/Editor