Five Techniques for Better Class Discussions

Students discuss Post-it notes on board

In a recent New York Times opinion essay, University of Virginia senior Emma Camp asserts that she “came to college eager for debate . . . but found self-censorship instead.” While there are subtleties and nuances, surveys do suggest that many college students censor themselves for a variety of reasons.

What can we as faculty members do to foster rich scholarly discourse? How can we create “safe enough spaces,” as Michael Roth calls them, for better class discussions? How can we meet students where they are and help them improve their skills?

Finding a way is crucial. We know from research that diverse perspectives lead to deeper learning and better problem-solving but only if all voices are heard. To make the most of societal heterogeneity and avoid retreating into echo chambers, we must have better conversations. Simple encouragement, however, will not suffice. Instead, I suggest we draw upon decades of research on inclusive teaching to provide onramps for self-censoring students to merge into the traffic of scholarly debate.

Sources like Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill’s The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking, James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, and Peter Felten and Leo Lambert’s Relationship-Rich Education provide many ideas.

From these and other sources, as well as my own experience, I highlight five techniques, all of which should be preceded by co-creating community guidelines with students on the first day of class. While some of the following techniques are designed simply to make students more comfortable with engagement, all can be leveraged to foster divergent thinking.

1. Warm calling

Barbara Walvoord taught me long ago to explain to students that we are going to try warm calling to get conversations started in our class. By contrast, cold calling is when the professor asks a question to a student at random, and without warning, to answer. Hot calling is when the professor calls on the student who raises their hand first, as Hermione Granger does routinely at Hogwarts. The problem with cold calling in most undergraduate classrooms is that it stresses out students. The problem with hot calling is that it ends up encouraging a few students to carry the discussion while letting most students hang back.

Warm calling requires the professor to give everyone the opportunity to think after asking a question. We might give students a chance to write for a minute, or we might give them a moment to consider their thoughts on their own before turning to a classmate to exchange ideas. This is their warm-up. Then, the professor must call on random students to speak. Usually, I ask at least two students from different parts of the classroom to start, and I let the warm conversation heat up by inviting students to raise their hands to offer their thoughts. Cathy Davidson shares her similar technique here.

If a student absolutely does not want to speak in front of the class, I do allow them to pass. In that case, I’d invite them to share their thoughts with me later via appointment or an email; we could then decide whether they’d like me to share it for them in some mutually agreeable way.

2. Half-formed thoughts

On the first day of class and in my syllabus, I share with my students R. Keith Sawyer’s idea that the “best learning takes place when learners articulate their own unformed and still-developing understanding and continue to articulate it through the process of learning.”

I tell them the story of how in contemporary American society, we tend to allow people in power (i.e. professors, CEOS) to think out-loud, but those with less power (i.e. students, employees) rarely get the chance to talk out their ideas. Instead, the latter must compose their contribution to a discussion in toto before they risk sharing it for fear of judgment or worse. I then explain that our class provides a chance for all of us to practice thinking out-loud and making meaning together. Most of the time, I hear a gasp of realization of this truth and a rustle of excitement as they begin to realize that it will be okay for them to try out their ill-formed questions and even half-baked notions in class.

I then take it as my job to help students clarify their questions and thinking and, when appropriate, offer a mini-lecture regarding points of fact, while also trying to get other students to build on one another’s ideas. Admittedly, this strategy produces messy conversations that sometimes don’t have clear conclusions. I warn my students about this and reassure them by saying that solving real problems requires experimentation, false starts, failures, and risk. We use class discussions to figure out the subtleties of a problem and try out possible approaches. I explain that each of us has the chance to practice producing linear, fully-formed arguments in our essay writing. In class, however, we have a precious opportunity to think out-loud together, one that, if practiced now, will serve them well in group settings in the future.

3. Doubting-and-believing squares

Alison Cook-Sather shared with me her technique of creating a 1×3 grid on a sheet of paper. The professor pre-fills the first box with a debatable statement like, “Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack” or “Letter grades support student learning.” In the second box, every student must write for themselves a few reasons to doubt the truth of the statement. In the third box, they write a few reasons to believe in the statement. Whether they personally doubt or believe in the statement doesn’t matter. This is an exercise in thinking through at least two sides of an argument.

Next, the professor goes around the class, perhaps from one side of the room to the other, asking for students to share reasons to believe. The professor writes these on the board in a column. If a student says that their idea is the same as a previous student’s, it’s still important to add a checkmark or underline on the board indicating their concurrence. One of the simplest ways to include all students is to make sure their contributions show up on the board. Afterwards, go around again, perhaps in the opposite direction, asking for reasons to doubt the statement.

Once all of the ideas are on the board, I usually ask students how the exercise felt. Inevitably, some will say that it was hard. They often admit that they never give thought to the side of an argument that they don’t believe in themselves.

After this quick debriefing, we have a substantive conversation about the ideas on the board. Students normally feel safe enough to support or critique the ideas because they have been aired already and they are not personally invested in each idea. Of course, this is not the most organic way of having a debate, and I would not do it more than once or twice in a semester, but it does serve as an onramp.

4. Page-number lines

My colleague Christen Mucher and I devised this technique when we were team-teaching an American studies class a few years ago. That day, students were assigned to read pages 1-100. We gave each student a few blank Post-it notes and asked them a question such as, “What passage in this text perplexes you the most?” Of course, other and additional questions are possible like, “What passage, if any, made you laugh?” and “What passage do you find most illuminating regarding X?” Students would write a few words about their chosen passage on their Post-its without their names. Next, they’d attach their Post-its under a number line on the board stretching from 1-100.

We then asked, “What do you notice?” Inevitably, there are clusters of Post-its and a few outliers. Professors can then use these patterns to zero in on passages that students find confusing, illuminating, and so on. The Post-it comments initiate conversation, and we can then invite students to say more. It is important, of course, to touch on both clusters and outliers. It is also advisable to take photos of the Post-its and upload them to a shared Google photo album. This makes it possible to return to the Post-its should class time run out, and it has the side benefit of including everyone’s ideas in a common archive.

5. Preparatory notes

I’ve written an essay for The National Teaching and Learning Forum about this technique. Briefly stated, this idea requires students to write an email to the professor ahead of class about what’s on their mind. This requires time on the professor’s end, but it enables an exchange that makes students feel seen and heard. Furthermore, it introduces the opportunity for the professor to invite a student to share their idea in class or to represent it for them anonymously should they feel uncomfortable doing so themselves.

The professor can also report on patterns or common questions. Sometimes, students think they’re the only ones who don’t understand something, yet often others have a similar concern. This technique enables students to share safely and for us as professors to address issues that matter to students that we may not have considered important ourselves. Additionally, sometimes a single student has a brilliant and/or controversial contribution or question that they may not have made or asked if we didn’t encourage them to do so.

None of these techniques magically transform your class, but they do help create safe conditions for students to begin generating and listening to diverse ideas. Because any contributor might create a hostile environment, intentionally or not, it is best to be prepared. Learn Tasha Souza’s ACTION response protocol, for instance. I also recommend Peggy O’Neill’s critical conversations model.

Most of the time, we can move a class discussion from a promising start toward true scholarly debate. Soon enough, students might even begin sharing thoughts in a productive way without our scaffolding. May it be so.

Floyd Cheung is a professor of English and American studies, former director of the Sherrerd Center for Teaching and Learning, and current vice president for Equity and Inclusion at Smith College.


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