One of the most useful things teachers can incorporate into their lessons is class discussion with engaging discussion questions. Students aren’t always interested in the topic at hand or inspired by the opportunity to collaborate and debate with peers. They may drift off topic, get distracted, or minimally participate with glazed-over expressions—and the students who are genuinely engaged may rightly complain about doing most of the work.

While these aren’t new problems for teachers, effective discussion questions can go a long way toward getting students interested in the topic and in hearing what their classmates think.

Creating discussion questions

Effective discussion questions don’t just ask for the “right” answer. Rather, they encourage critical-thinking strategies and conversation between peers. When designing questions, you should keep in mind various strategies like synthesis of information, analysis, comparison, and evaluation.

The best discussion questions are open ended. The goal isn’t to reach one answer or even a consensus among students, but to inspire debate and critically minded conversation so that a variety of answers and questions are at play. Students will bring different perspectives and life experiences to class; encouraging them to think through topics with their peers will allow for a greater variety of responses—and can help students build the confidence to share their thoughts with others as well as see things from a different perspective.

Make sure discussion is always focused on the topic at hand by incorporating something concrete for students to interpret, like a short story, video, or podcast—or even a single passage from a book. When students are able to cite exactly what they’ve based their interpretations on, it’s easier for them to maintain focus. In addition, they’ll learn the importance of backing up their ideas with evidence.

A good discussion question should encourage connections between the material and other works about the topic. Showing students that multiple people are involved in a topic provides a greater diversity of interpretation and allows students to imagine themselves being part of a larger conversation. It’s also important for students to consider how they can apply the concepts they’ve developed to different situations and make other connections in this way.

Types of discussion questions

The types of questions you ask can be just as important as their content.

Comprehension questions help students form a foundation of evidence to base more specific interpretations on. These are usually more obvious than other types of questions, but provide stability for students if they need to rethink how they’re interpreting things. For example, you could ask students “What is the meaning of ‘break down’ in this sentence?”—and thus foster a clearer understanding so everyone is on the same page.

Analysis questions usually have something external that students can react to and base their interpretations on, like a series of graphs or a specific quotation. These questions can also be used to have students consider personal experiences as evidence.

Evaluation questions provide an opportunity for students to take their time when considering an answer, make connections, and consider other points of view. These might include questions like, “After learning about X, does this change your opinion about Y? Why or why not?”

Structuring class discussion

It’s best to focus discussion on specifics. These might include themes, arguments, specific sections of a piece of writing, or isolating different sides of a controversial topic and directing students to represent their side as best they can. This keeps discussion topics from being too broad and encourages students to tackle difficult subjects by breaking them down into manageable parts.

The following suggestions are some other great ways to keep discussion respectful, inspiring, and focused:

  • Hand out focusing questions about the topic before discussion starts. These shouldn’t include elaborate descriptions, but concise questions students can come back to so they don’t drift off topic as easily.
  • Allow students enough time to fully understand and articulate their positions. Students aren’t always familiar with a given topic, so the extra time to ask questions and consider why their own and their peers’ interpretations allows for better class engagement.
  • Don’t take over the reins on discussion. Students will expect that your statements reflect how they should be thinking, but allowing students to take the lead is the best way to get them thinking on their own and actively communicating with classmates. You should certainly intervene if things get off topic, but act purely as a facilitator otherwise.
  • There should be real benefit for students to engage in discussion, not just in terms of personal growth or understanding. Engagement should comprise one aspect of class participation marks, and thus positively affect students’ grades depending on performance. How well students critique and support peers during discussion—as well as the quality of their own contributions—is a good way to evaluate participation.

Online class discussion can also be a great tool for students since it allows them more time to organize and revise their thoughts. An online discussion should stick to topics covered in class. Exchanges between students online can often be more concise, on topic, and critically minded, but the teacher does need to be very involved to guide discussion when needed and ensure that students are participating thoughtfully.

Leading group discussions

Consider which questions should be asked of individual students and which should address the class as a whole. A single student can really get the class going, but other students might feel like they don’t have to consider the question since someone else is answering it. Putting one student on the spot can also be risky, since they may feel uncomfortable sharing with the group at that moment—or may feel like they have nothing to say just yet. The goal is to strike a healthy balance between engaging students as a group and calling on individuals for input.

Give students enough time to contemplate and articulate their thoughts. After asking a question, make sure to leave about 15 seconds for students to respond before you rephrase or otherwise change your question.

Avoid rewarding students too quickly for responding during discussion. Make sure to wait a few seconds before choosing students who have their hand up or affirming the accuracy of a student’s answer. Being too quick to call on students for their answers (such as the first student to raise their hand) or immediately approving of an answer and then moving on can discourage other students from thinking through the question themselves.

More than anything else, don’t feel like you should completely depend on your discussion guide! Improvising is a natural part of conversation and an important aspect of the learning process for students. Although it does help in facilitating focused discussion, you don’t have to go through your guide in any one order or only ask questions that are included in it. The more that students feel like discussion is organic, the more comfortable they’ll feel risking answers they might be hesitant to articulate otherwise.

A great discussion leader should be able to react quickly to student questions and comments by relating them to the general discussion topic and pushing dialogue forward. Thinking on your feet and sometimes taking the lead from your students can result in a more engaging and far more valuable exploration of ideas than anything you could have come up with beforehand.

In the best class discussions, you are a facilitator more than anything else, with a wonderful opportunity to let your students shine.