Leading Discussions: Getting the Ball Rolling

By Peter Connor

So, you’ve got your students’ attention, aroused their interest, and gotten them emotionally engaged. Now what? You want to get them engaged in a discussion, right: But how?

The Program for Instructional Innovation at the University of Oklahoma offers the following method for getting the ball rolling. You’ll only have to do this a few times before most students get in the habit of responding to discussion prompts and comfortable with the idea of regular classroom participation.

You will need a well thought out, well phrased question—or prompt—to begin with. Be direct, but put it out there in a relaxed and confident manner. When finished, wait silently, counting to yourself: "one thousand one—one thousand two—one thousand three," etc., until you reach ten.

Scan the room patiently as you mark the time, observing your students. In hide-and-seek ten seconds may seem an eternity, but it’s not. If your students are interested and emotionally engaged in the topic, it won’t be long before someone “takes a stab at it.”

Try not to become irritated when the count gets close to or goes past ten. Expect this to happen several times throughout the semester, especially in the first few weeks when your class control isn’t well established. Don’t let it bother you.

Remain calm. When a response does not appear forthcoming, and you’re getting close to ten, select a table, chair, window, or wall in the classroom and begin moving slowly in that direction. At ten, try modifying your probe—rephrasing it in a shorter version.

If you sense a general reluctance to speak up—too many students afraid of giving the wrong answer—reduce your probe even further. Perhaps something like: “Give me any association that comes to mind.”

Now, lean or prop yourself up against whatever you were maneuvering yourself toward and begin counting again. Cross your arms and wait. Continue scanning and observing your students. Your body language speaks volumes: “See here, I’m comfortable. I have all day.” It won’t be long before this sort of two-tiered probing/prompting approach pays off. 

This, of course, is predicated on the notion that your original question is well thought out and well phrased. Be careful, in your rephrasing, that you not inadvertently ask a second or third question. You must stay on task for the discussion to have dividends.


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. In Ideas on teaching. Retrieved August 27, 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 Writer and Editor