July 9, 2012

Classroom Discussion: Professors Share Favorite Strategies for Engaging Students

By: in Effective Teaching Strategies

Add Comment

In the typical college classroom a small handful of students make the vast majority of comments. As a teacher you want to create a classroom environment that helps students of various learning styles and personalities to feel comfortable enough to contribute as well as understand the importance of class preparation and active participation. To reach this goal requires a constant balancing act of encouraging quiet, reflective students to speak up and, occasionally, asking the most active contributors to hold back from commenting in order to give others a chance.

On The Teaching Professor’s LinkedIn Group we asked members to share some of the strategies they use to engage students in discussion, manage the dominant talkers and the nontalkers, and steer a discussion that’s gone off track. Nearly three dozen faculty members shared their techniques for prompting discussion. Below are excerpts of just a few of the strategies shared.

Bob Burdette, Assistant Professor of Accounting, Salt Lake Community College: No one method works for me to get my non-talking students to speak and the talkers to be quiet and listen. So, I try to change up the tool I use to get the desired results. On one day I will start working a problem on the whiteboard. I’ll then give the marking pen to a student and thank them for volunteering. They get to come to the board to work the next part of the problem. After they are finished they pass the pen to another student to continue work on the problem. We continue this process giving as many students the opportunity to come to the board and teach small parts of the problem to the rest of the class. To remove the anxiety of coming to the board we give the student at the board the authority to ask for help from all the students still seated.

Another day I’ll pass out two or three poker chips to every student. As we begin the discussion I ask each student to give me back a chip each time they answer a question. Rapidly the talking students use up their chips. Since they can no longer speak in the class it leaves the non-talking students to answer the remaining questions.

Another day I’ll bring a deck of cards to class and allow every student to select one from the deck. Once I begin working a problem I’ll stop and draw a card from the deck. Any student with a card higher than mine has to come to the board and continue working on the problem. If I have the higher card then I have to continue working the problem.

Warren Dittmar, Professor of English, Miami Dade College: A good foundation for interactive conversation is a relaxed atmosphere and an understanding by students that their ideas and opinions are important and will be accepted and entertained. Students must feel that their comments are going to be listened to and sincerely responded to. Establishing student trust and acceptance is an important aspect of their participation.

As an example of one technique that I use in my classes, I have a Burning Question Period that starts just before the beginning of class and runs through the first five or ten minutes. Students can ask any question about current world happenings, national problems, or any important issue to them. Their questions are always varied and create general discussion that includes vocal students as well as more reticent students. The issues are usual hot issues and generate strong reactions and controversy. They are required to substantiate their positions. This technique has generated regular interactions and open communication.

Erica Kleinknecht, Associate Professor of Psychology, Pacific University: I find that in lecture classes, most students don’t read before-hand, they do so after class. When I want discussion, I create a series of writing assignments due at the start of select class periods. This gets them to collect their thoughts before class so they don’t feel pressured to come up with something on the spot. Many students are afraid of being wrong. I also do what others on this list have suggested: small group discussion with one delegate who reports to the whole class. When I do both in one class, I get many more talkers.

Chitu Okoli, Associate Professor of Management Information Systems, Concordia University: Clickers are quite helpful. You ask a question, give people time to think about it (and they are allowed to discuss with their neighbours first), and then click in their multiple-choice responses. Before you tell the students the right answer, you ask people from each answer group (e.g. those who answered A, B or C) to justify their responses. This gets a wide variety of people to talk who wouldn’t otherwise because 1) everyone has time to think and commit to an answer before you ask them to talk to the class; and 2) different people give different answers, so it’s not always the same 5-7 people talking every time. Of course, even then, the 5-7 people problem pops up, so after these people have responded twice or so, you ask to hear from people who have not yet spoken. This approach has helped me hear from a lot more students, especially the more thoughtful but otherwise silent ones.

If you’re interested in joining The Teaching Professor’s group on LinkedIn go here »


Start your free subscription to Faculty Focus!
Sign up today and get articles like this one delivered right to your inbox.
Add Comment

Tags: , , , , , ,


professorh | July 13, 2012

I created a low-budget clicker alternative. I had giant A,B,C,D letters run on cardstock so that each student had to choose their answer from my multiple choice Skills Check & Vocab questions. There was no timer. To alleviate some stress, all the A-cards were on yellow, B-cards on green,… so that eventually even someone stymied could go with the majority color. I just watch for the students' reactions to determine if they are piggy-backing or if they really have the concept. It's not perfect, but it's better than the occasional head nod. And everyone is at least physically participating. Choosing someone with the correct answer is easier and asking them to demonstrate or explain is more likely to lead to a positive experience and greater confidence.

Mary Bahner | July 21, 2012

Love it! Thank you for sharing! I have used some of Chris Biffle's techniques in my basic skills class. The students have been engaged.

Caitlin | December 11, 2012

Socrative.com has web based clickers for free. Quick polling or Pre-made activities! We use it all the time for gathering student questions, anonymous polls and exit tickets.

Fen Chen | February 14, 2014

Hello Professor Bart:
Thank you for your sharing so remarkable effective teaching strategies. i will learning careful all of the strategies and use them in my future classes online. Fen Chen Date: 02/14/14.


  1. Faculty Focus: Classroom Discussion | TIPS for Faculty
  2. Faculty Focus: Classroom Discussion | TIPS for Faculty
  3. Onions and Learning Situations « Teaching Knowledge Test Prep
  4. Faculty Focus: Classroom Discussion | TIPS for Faculty
  5. Pedagogy: Maintaining Student Engagement | World Politics News Review
  6. Classroom Discussion: Strategies for Engaging Students | Faculty Focus | Jjendzejec's Blog
  7. Five Things on Pinterest | Forever Within the Numbered Pages
  8. Classroom Discussion: Professors Share Favorite Strategies for Engaging Students | Ravinder Tulsiani CTDP

Add a Comment

Logged in as . Logout »