Student Engagement

How to Get Students Talking About Their Learning

These simple strategies can help motivate middle and high school students to have engaging and productive classroom discussions.

November 14, 2023
AzmanL / iStock

The best part of my position as a senior managing consultant is the opportunity to co-teach or model strategies in classrooms all over the United States and in the Pacific region. The many opportunities I’ve been granted to step into someone else’s classroom and engage students in meaningful learning conversations have kept my love of teaching alive. 

Sometimes teachers at the middle and high school levels may be reluctant to take that leap and allow their students the freedom to talk. There’s a plethora of reasons why this is the case, and it’s often because they’ve tried it in the past and it didn’t go so well. Here are some of the reasons I’ve heard for why teachers abandoned time for student discussion:

  • The classroom became too noisy.
  • The process felt out of control.
  • Students didn’t stay on topic when talking with one another.
  • There wasn’t enough structure.
  • The teacher was not confident in how to start the process or conclude it.
  • The process took too much time out of the class period.
  • The teacher was not sure what structures or strategies to incorporate.

It’s always important to go back to the “why” we want students to talk about their learning. When students talk about what they’re learning, it helps them process, clarify, connect, and solidify. If students only read or listen to new content, the level of learning can only go so far. Let’s not forget the critical role that engagement plays in learning. If students aren’t engaged, then save your energy and do something more effective.

Let’s get to the “how” we can incorporate ways to engage all learners through fostering learning discussions. The following strategies are quick and simple from years of use in my own classroom. They take little to no prep and require only four to seven minutes to complete.

Give two, get two

After students have finished reading, listening to your lecture, watching a short video, or simply recapping the previous day’s learning:

  • Hand out two sticky notes for each student. 
  • Have students write down one important detail on each sticky note.
  • Encourage students to stand, walk around, and move to different parts of the classroom.
  • Give a stop signal using what you and your students are most comfortable using. Sometimes I play upbeat music, and when I stop the music, it means they are to stop moving and pair up with someone they don’t normally talk with; other times, I’ll say, “Walk around until I say ‘freeze.’”
  • Have students share what they had written on one of their sticky notes and hand their partner the note they just shared.
  • Ask students to repeat the process for their second sticky note. Be sure to facilitate the room listening for understanding. It will take the students approximately three minutes for each one to share their important facts.
  • Have the students go back to their seats with their two new sticky notes and create a summary (three to five sentences) of yesterday’s topic, today’s lecture, the video, or what they just read.

You can collect their summaries as a formative assessment, as a launching point for the next day, or to simply see if your students are understanding the most important concepts from your lesson.


This is another favorite. After your students have taken in new information, it’s time to process it.

  • Have everyone write down three of their most important concepts from the content (article, book, lecture, video, or previous lesson).
  • When your students have their three ideas completed, ask them to remain seated and partner up with someone near them, or they can stand and partner with someone.
  • They will then each share their three big takeaways from their learning with one another. Collectively they will decide from among the six ideas what are the two concepts they believe are the most important from the content.
  • Have each pair then pair up with another partner group and share the two big concepts they found most important. Collectively the four will then decide what is the very most important takeaway from the lesson or content.
  • Then have them go back to their chairs and write a summary, draw an image, or write a complete sentence that encompasses the most important takeaway from the new learning.

You can use this as a formative assessment or to simply see if your students are understanding the key components of the lesson. Remember the purpose is to process the new learning.

Communication Skills

5 Activities That Promote Reflection in the Classroom

The metacognitive work of reflecting on learning boosts engagement and encourages the development of critical thinking skills.

Create it

If you want to see smiles on students’ faces, give them drawing paper, poster paper, markers, clay, or Play-Doh. Because we want students discussing and processing their new learning, it’s best to put your students into either pairs or triads for this strategy.

  • Tell your students they will have five minutes to create an image or product that encompasses what they just watched, read, or listened to. They’ll need to be able to explain it to others. What you should see and hear as you are walking about the classroom are the students discussing innovative ways to create or draw an object that will illustrate the new key concepts.
  • If time allows, you can have the students share their image or creation with another small group or the whole class.

Remember, the person doing the talking is doing the thinking and learning. We want our students to be thinking about the content we’re teaching, and what better way to do that than to talk about it? Each strategy will take four to seven minutes to complete. They don’t take long, but you really need to purposely plan for processing time if you want your students to retain their new learning.

Model the strategy for your students before you send them off to complete it with a partner or small group. This will set you and your students up for success.

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Filed Under

  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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