George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

5 Discussion Strategies to Deepen Student Engagement

For teachers seeking to facilitate rather than lead discussions, these strategies empower students to share their ideas.

January 5, 2023
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy

Sometimes, as teachers, we struggle to help our students connect what they know to what they are learning. When we face this challenge, it can be helpful to examine our practice under a different set of lenses to uncover ways to reinvigorate learning. One of the easiest ways to do this, especially if you’re new to the profession, is to take a closer look at how you manage discussions. 

When facilitating a discussion, do you direct your students toward specific outcomes, or is there room for them to take ownership of the conversations and make them their own? There are differences, however subtle, between leading and facilitating discussions. The following five strategies, which are particularly suited for middle and high school students, empower student agency and offer a fresh approach to discourse.

CoFounding Environments of Shared Inquiry

When you lead a discussion, you begin with the end in mind—that is, you determine exactly what you want your students to know and guide them with focused questions. 

When you facilitate a discussion, you begin with a prompt or a framework such as Socratic Circles and interject only if the conversation starts to wane. Both methods have their place, yet facilitation has been shown to increase motivation, develop persistence, and cultivate curiosity.

Rather than provide you with a list of strategies that you can use to increase student engagement, our intention is to demonstrate how combining gold standard discussion strategies, such as Turn and Talk or Think-Pair-Share, can energize your teaching practice and produce powerful results. 

The following discussion sequences, or dialogic archetypes, can be applied to subjects across the curriculum. They can be disassembled, rearranged, and reconfigured to create new instructional arrangements that appeal to your students’ strengths and needs and to your own teaching style.

1. Quick Write, Turn & Talk, Modified Jigsaw, Quick Draw

Here’s a sequence that works well when discussing short texts such as case studies: Distribute a number of short texts (three or four should suffice) and blank note cards among your students, so that each student has one text. Ask students to read the texts and respond on the lined side of their note card; you might invite open responses or offer a prompt.

Once students have responded, pair them by text, and ask them to share what they wrote. You might also create discussion groups in which students have read different texts and invite them to explore similarities and differences in themes, characters, conflicts, or other relevant topics, moving from pair to small group work.

Finally, ask students to draw something they learned from their discussion group on the blank side of their note card to share with you, their group mates, or the class as a whole.

2. Four Corners, Think-Pair-Square, Sticky Chat, Gallery Walk

To integrate kinesthetic engagement into classroom discussion, post images related to what you are teaching in the corners of the room, and direct students to stand next to the image that they find most appealing.

Pair students by image, and ask them to conduct some independent research about their chosen picture. If your students do not have ready access to computers, you can provide them with books to explore, or simply ask them to record their thoughts on the images. Create discussion groups of four by combining pairs assigned to the same image. Finally, ask students to write what they learned on sticky notes, and post them on the images. The class might then engage in a gallery walk to learn from one another’s findings.

3. Group Roles, Team Pack Discussion, Classroom Mingle, Classroom Poll

For a discussion sequence that connects students with multiple classmates, create groups of three, and provide each group with a different discussion prompt on a note card. Assign each member of the group a role: speaker, scribe, and timekeeper. Ask students to respond to the prompt on their note card before passing it to the next group.

Then, rotate speakers one group to the right and scribes two groups to the right. After the timekeepers have discussed all of the prompts, poll the class for their favorite.

4. Pick a Side, Snowball Discussion, Debate, Graffiti Wall

To lower the stakes and boost participation during classroom debates, ask students to pick a side on a given issue and to write their thoughts on a piece of paper. Direct half of the students to fold their papers lengthwise, the other half widthwise. Collect the papers, assign a side of the issue to each type of fold, and redistribute the papers randomly.

Facilitate debates of two, then four, then eight students, with each side evenly represented. Ask students to record their thoughts on the paper again, and then tape them on the wall to showcase students’ engagement.

5. Stoplight Sticky Notes, Affinity Mapping, Gallery Run, Web Discussion

Make learning visible with an archetype that centers the use of maps: Provide students with a prompt connected to a short video or text. Ask them to write their thoughts on color-coded sticky notes: green might mean “interesting,” red “challenging.” Create small groups, and direct participants to identify similarities and differences between their notes. After small group discussion, arrange the class in a circle, and have them create a “web” by passing a ball of string when they connect with a fellow student’s reflection.

Moving Beyond These Discussion Sequences

These instructional sequences can be followed by whole group discussions or some other kind of low-stakes assessment to measure student understanding. However you decide to progress, the point is that strategies that usually stand on their own, or that are simply framed as standing on their own, can be combined to create unforeseen opportunities for engagement. While it is important to have a plan, good teaching is about leaning into the unexpected. It’s about taking risks and creating space for your students to actively participate in the meaning-making process.

Even if the archetypes presented here do not appeal to your particular style of teaching, we encourage you to experiment with the strategies that do. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been teaching for three months or 30 years. Education is unmapped terrain, and there will always be something new to discover.

The strategies in this article were developed with Cayla Cosner, an elementary and special education specialist.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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