The Big List of Class Discussion Strategies

When I worked with student teachers on developing effective lesson plans, one thing I always asked them to revise was the phrase “We will discuss.”

We will discuss the video.

We will discuss the story.

We will discuss our results.

Every time I saw it in a lesson plan, I would add a note: “What format will you use? What questions will you ask? How will you ensure that all students participate?” I was pretty sure that We will discuss actually meant the teacher would do most of the talking; He would throw out a couple of questions like “So what did you think about the video?” or “What was the theme of the story?” and a few students would respond, resulting in something that looked like a discussion, but was ultimately just a conversation between the teacher and a handful of extroverted students; a classic case of Fisheye Teaching.

The problem wasn’t them; in most of the classrooms where they’d sat as students, that’s exactly what a class discussion looked like. They didn’t know any other “formats.” I have only ever been familiar with a few myself. But when teachers began contacting me recently asking for a more comprehensive list, I knew it was time to do some serious research.

So here they are: 15 formats for structuring a class discussion to make it more engaging, more organized, more equitable, and more academically challenging. If you’ve struggled to find effective ways to develop students’ speaking and listening skills, this is your lucky day.

I’ve separated the strategies into three groups. The first batch contains the higher-prep strategies, formats that require teachers to do some planning or gathering of materials ahead of time. Next come the low-prep strategies, which can be used on the fly when you have a few extra minutes or just want your students to get more active. Note that these are not strict categories; it’s certainly possible to simplify or add more meat to any of these structures and still make them work. The last group is the ongoing strategies. These are smaller techniques that can be integrated with other instructional strategies and don’t really stand alone. For each strategy, you’ll find a list of other names it sometimes goes by, a description of its basic structure, and an explanation of variations that exist, if any. To watch each strategy in action, click on its name and a new window will open with a video that demonstrates it.

Enjoy!