3 Strategies to Improve Classroom Discussions

Untitled drawing (1)Students who are actively engaged in the classroom hone critical thinking skills and retain more information then passive learners. Classroom discussions are an effective way to engage students and provide a space to demonstrate understanding, articulate an argument, or grapple with difficult concepts. During the exchange, substantive conversation helps students construct knowledge while gathering further ideas and evidence to assess and keep or toss. These interactions can be used as formative assessment; gauging student understanding.

The following are a few of my favorite, and more unique, discussion strategies. Many of these ideas have been borrowed and modified for my own use.

First Things First – 

Establish classroom norms for discussions. Ask students for input; they always have great ideas. Limit the norms, keeping the number at 5 or under and use accessible language so expectations are clear. The following is a common list of norms that I used in the classroom, along with brief explanations:

1. No Hands – when discussing, students must negotiate their own time and not speak over each other. They are speaking to EVERYONE in the classroom, not just to me.

2. Stay on Topic – although I love when discussions grow organically, if Ophelia’s death quickly turns to school gossip I step in and refocus the group,if a student hasn’t already done that for me.

3. Disagree with the Comment, DO NOT attack the person – Differing opinions makes life interesting and classroom discussions fruitful.. One of the most difficult things for students to understand is another student’s TRUTH is just as right and as strong as their own TRUTH.

4. No yelling, swearing, throwing chairs, etc. -discussion topics vary, and if one leads to religion, politics, gender, etc. where opinions vary and tug at personal beliefs, they have the possibility to become heated. This norm is necessary for the safety and climate of the classroom. Click this site http://www.trusted-roofing.com and learn more.

5. Ends at the Bell – nothing excites me more than when students are still talking about the class as they walk out the door, toppling  into lunchroom conversations or is brought up at home with parents; but, students are not to use anything that was said in the discussion in a negative way, whether in a different class or on the athletic field.  We all agree to disagree.


1. Fishbowl Tap-out   

*A small group of chairs (usually 4) are placed in the middle of the room. Remaining students form a circle around the middle group, thus forming a “fishbowl”.

*The 4 middle students are the only ones allowed to speak. The discussion is focused, student-centered, and related to the designated concept or reading.

*If a student on the outside of the circle would like to share their thoughts, they must “tap-out” (on the shoulder) one of the 4 people in the middle. That person must stand and move to the outside circle. There is no refusing to leave once tapped-out.

*Students on the outside can be listening, backchanneling on a TodaysMeet, or taking notes on paper.

TIPS – Students should try to be in the “hot seat” at least once during the discussion, allow students 2 min. minimum before being tapped out, teacher may have to ask a question if discussion is stalling (otherwise they are a silent observer as well)

2. Body Voting   

*Provide students with a list of statements. Have them silently go through each one marking if they “Agree” or “Disagree”.

*Designate opposite areas in the classroom as “Agree” and “Disagree” zones

*Teacher reads the statement and students move to the area that represents their response.

*Discussion can ensue collaboratively, developing strong arguments to refute the opposition.

TIPS – This strategy takes up a lot of time, have students mark on their paper the top 3 or 4 statements they would like to discuss. Give students one minute to organize thoughts and points as a group before starting discussion. Make students choose a side, there is no neutral.

3. SSC (Small Silent Collaboration)

*Divide students into small groups – no more than 4 per group works best.

*Have one student create a Google Doc and share it with the group members AND the teacher.

*Students silently type important topics from their reading, questions they had, surprises from the passage, etc.

*Teacher monitors all groups’ documents, noting important discussion topics that emerge.

*After a designated time (typically 3-5 mins.), students discuss as a large group. The teacher has all the student- generated topics at hand.

TIPS – If class is unfamiliar with Google Docs, premake a document for each team that is accessible by one-click. This strategy allows every student to have a “voice” allowing the teacher to view the thoughts of all students.

The three strategies I mentioned above were ones that the students engaged and were highly effective in my classroom.