Suggestions for Leading Small-group Discussions

Suggestions for Leading Small-group Discussions

Prepared by Lee Haugen
Center for Teaching Excellence, Iowa State University
March, 1998

Related Resources

Leading Classroom Discussion
Managing a Discussion in a Large Class

The following general concepts are applicable for all teaching.

  • Formulate clear objectives for the course (other than covering X number of chapters) which are clearly communicated to the students. It’s helpful if you can state the objectives in “action” terms but not necessary. Useful objectives relate to what students should know, understand, be able to apply, or use effectively by the end of the semester. The memorization of a list of facts or dates is not in itself a very useful objective but being able to identify how current events both resemble and differ from an historic event, for example, would be a workable objective. The objectives should be explained to the students at the beginning of the semester and reiterated periodically.
  • Use a variety of approaches to teaching during each session and over the course of the semester according to what is most appropriate for the material being presented. An entire course session of only lecture or only slides becomes tedious, not only for the students but for the instructors as well. But don’t just jump from one thing to another. Try to load up the first 10 to 15 minutes with the important factual information. Then follow that with illustrations which give visual reinforcement to the facts. Then, maybe a short discussion of implications, etc.
  • Develop clear expectations for what you expect from the students and how they will be tested. These expectations should follow logically from the objectives you formulate for the semester. Students need to understand what they will have to know, how well they need to know it, and how they will have to demonstrate what they know. Far too many students today have had twelve or more years of educational experience which has required very little of them. You can’t assume that their educational preparation was like yours or that they have any experience with the kinds of performance that you expect. Also, remember that students have very different learning styles and some may respond best to multiple choice exams while others are better at answering essay questions so try to prepare different kinds of exams for different parts of the semester.
  • Students learn the most when they can take an active part in learning instead of being passive recipients of information. But you will have to let them know what you expect. Most students have primarily been in lecture-style courses and have gotten used to being passive in the classroom. It make take some coaxing at first, but if you explain what you want students to do and why you are designing the course this way, they do tend to become involved. For example, having students each prepare a presentation for the class on specific topics is a useful active learning strategy. But if you do not explain why you are making this assignment, many students are likely to assume that the instructor is just lazy and is having the students do his/her work. And most students resist group or team projects because the logistics of getting together can be difficult, they’ve had negative experiences with teammates who do not pull their weight, and they are used to being competitive rather than collaborative. But when students can clearly see how team projects prepare them for professional life, most are more enthusiastic.
  • If you want students to learn critical thinking skills or be able to synthesize several sources of information into a coherent perspective, you need to model those processes and give students a chance to practice them. For example, teachers who sometimes encounter something that they do not understand or for which they do not already have a rehearsed answer, should use that opportunity to demonstrate how they gain understanding or solve problems. And if they also involve the students in that process, they are providing a valuable lesson about how one thinks in the discipline. Students also need time to reflect on what they are learning, clarify what they do not understand in a non-judgmental environment, and have meaningful discussions about how they fit what they are learning into their construct of the world. If you want students to be able to have intelligent discussions, you need to model that behavior. In other words, don’t just talk to the students, but engage them in a two-way exchange that lets them explore ideas rather than just answer questions. And when you are presenting new information, remember that the students need some time to think before you expect them to voice their thoughts.

If you expect students to keep up with the readings for the course, then make sure that those readings are relevant to what you discuss in class but not a substitute for the readings. In other words, the readings should be the basis for thoughtful discussion, real-life application, questions about implications or hypothetical situations, etc. Most students will come to realize that they are left out of the discussions if they haven’t read the assignments. But if you cover the content of the readings in class, students will also learn that they do not have to keep up with the reading because you will give them the information in lecture. Some instructors grade preparation in order to make it a requirement that students will take seriously. This tactic probably works best for the youngest students because of their developmental level.

Discussion is not always the most appropriate teaching method.

You will need to think about your objectives for the course and the discussion sessions and then compare them to the objectives below (taken from Teaching Tips by McKeachie).

  • Help students learn to think in terms of the subject matter by giving them practice in thinking.
  • Help students learn to evaluate the logic of, and evidence for, their own and others’ positions.
  • Give students opportunities to formulate applications of principles.
  • Help students become aware of and formulate problems using information gained from readings or lectures.
  • Use the resources of members of the group.
  • Gain acceptance for information or theories counter to folklore or previous beliefs of students. [Which implies that you find out what your students believe. This can be extremely useful at the beginning of the semester.]
  • Develop motivation for further learning.
  • Get prompt feedback on how well objectives are being attained. If you want to achieve any or some of the goals in this list, then discussion is usually an effective method.

It helps to prepare a background for small discussion groups.

(a synthesis of information from several sources and my own experiences)

  • Make a safe place. Students will not contribute to a discussion if they are afraid that they will be ridiculed for what they say. This needs to be done by an explicit statement and by demonstration.
  • Have clear objectives for the discussions and communicate them clearly. Are the small groups meant to discuss specific assigned readings? Are they where students ask questions to clarify what they do not understand (and if they have no questions are they all excused)? Are these “mini lectures” in which you are presenting new information?
  • Formulate and communicate your expectations of the students. Will they be graded on participation? This is not usually a good incentive because it’s difficult to coerce participation and students have the impression that participation can never be graded fairly, anyway. It’s better if they form more intrinsic reasons for participation such as a feeling of responsibility to the group or because it’s fun and interesting. Also, let students know that a discussion is not a series of two-way exchanges between the instructor and each student. Some students have not had much experience with group discussions and do not really understand what is expected of them.
  • Avoid yes/no questions. Ask “why” or “how” questions that lead to discussion and when students give only short answers, ask them to elaborate. Also, avoid questions that have only one answer. This isn’t “Jeopardy” and students shouldn’t be put into the position of trying to guess which set of words you have in mind.
  • Don’t fear silence. This may be the most difficult thing to do but it’s absolutely essential. When we are responsible for facilitating a discussion, we tend to feel that a lack of response within one or two beats is stretching into an eternity. But even if you have posed a very interesting question or situation, the students will need some time to think and formulate a response. If you have very reticent students, you can try asking them to write down one or two ideas before you open up discussion. Or try handing out a list of discussion topics at the end of the session for the next session to give them time to think. Even so, there may be times when there is just no response. That’s when you need to re-state the topic, use a different example, take only a part of it at a time, or throw out a “what if” scenario or devil’s advocate proposition. But the important thing is to learn to bide your time and bite your tongue and wait for the students to respond.
  • When possible, set up the room for discussion. A circle works best, especially if the group can sit around a table. If you can’t re-arrange the furniture, then move around the room, sit among the students; become a discussion participant rather than a teacher.
  • Get to know the students’ names and who they are. Students are more likely to be engaged with the group if addressed by name rather than by being pointed at. If you know the interests, majors, experiences, etc. of the students, it becomes much easier to think of ways to involve them. For example, if you ask “Jane” to contribute a perspective based on her semester in Rome, you’re more likely to get her involved in the discussion than if you ask if anyone wants to say something about the Coliseum.
  • Provide positive feedback for participation. If a student is reluctant to speak up and then makes a contribution that just lies there like a dead fish, that student is not likely to try again. If you can’t think of anything better, thank the student for his/her contribution. But it’s much better to build on what the student has said, add an insight, ask others how they would respond to what the student said, and otherwise weave that contribution into the fabric of the discussion. Feedback can be a good means of getting through a lull in the discussion also. A recap of what has been discussed so far lets students know that you heard what they said, helps to reinforce main points, and often stimulates further discussion.
  • Show enthusiasm for the subject. You can’t expect students to become interested in a discussion topic for which the instructor shows no enthusiasm. This usually means that the instructor has not done his/her homework, a part of which is to think about what is interesting, why the subject is worthwhile or relevant, personal experience with the subject, how the topic relates to current events, etc. If you are interested in the subject, then you will be interested in discovering what your students think and feel.
  • Teach your students how to participate. Many of them may have had little or no experience with small group discussion, and most of those who have experience have never been taught how to do it well. There are all kinds of resources in the library in the Speech/Communications area about small-group discussion. You could prepare a handout for your students or assign a project (preferably in small groups) that involves their preparing information for the rest of the group about small-group communications.
  • Ease students into discussion. One tactic is to arrive at the classroom early and engage the first students to arrive in “chit chat” about the weather, a recent sports event, something in the news, etc. The point is to get students comfortable and talking so that as you ease them into the subject for the day, you are not making a sudden demand for performance. You will also be establishing the idea that discussion is a natural process, not cruel and inhuman punishment, or something with which they have no experience.
  • Clarify for yourself how you see your role as a discussion facilitator. If you are uncomfortable, your students will also be uncomfortable. So don’t try to make yourself into the “Great Communicator” if you are not. Are you more comfortable with a prepared list of topics and questions or do you like a more free-wheeling atmosphere? Do you feel that some topics are strictly off limits or do you feel that you can manage even very “touchy” topics by keeping the discussion relevant and on course? Are you able to give over enough control to the students so that they feel some ownership and responsibility to making the course work?
  • Provide opportunities for students to talk to each other in smaller, unsupervised groups so that they get to know each other and become comfortable with sharing ideas. You can do this with small “break-out” groups which are assigned a specific task about which they will report to the larger group. You can assign group projects, encourage the formation of small study groups, or have the class form interest groups which are responsible for contributing something related to their particular interest periodically. The point is to encourage interaction that is not under the watchful eye of the instructor and helps students to become comfortable with each other.
  • Manage both process and content. This is often rather difficult at first but becomes much easier with practice. Good discussion is as much about process as it is about content and if you concentrate on one but neglect the other, you are likely to have problems. The tendency is to become caught up in the content and forget to encourage quiet students to contribute or forget to minimize your own contributions. But concentrating too much on making sure everyone contributes or on acknowledging and rewarding contributions can allow the conversation to stray too far afield or become mired in a tangle of irrelevant minutiae. To a great extent, you will need to take your cues from the students. While you are part of the discussion, you have the added responsibility of monitoring it as well. During the course of a class session, you will probably have to do some of each.
  • Bringing students into the process of the course and even having them contribute to content does not mean that you have to give over total control. It’s still your course and your responsibility to inform the students what information they should study, how they will be expected to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding, and your standards for performance. It is their responsibility to read, study, participate, and perform. When you ask students to participate, you are not asking them to simply voice their unformed and uninformed opinions. At the developmental stage for most freshmen and sophomores, students tend to believe fervently that everyone has a right to his/her opinion. Unfortunately, the corollary, for them, is that therefore all opinions are equal. Part of your mission, therefore, is to help them understand the difference.
  • Listen, learn, and adapt. There is no single prescription for all groups. Much like individual people, groups have individual characters and you will need to adapt your style to them as much as is comfortable for you. If you can be open to those differences, they will become part of what makes teaching an interesting challenge year after year after year.

A useful list from Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis.

  • Make certain each student has an opportunity to talk in class during the first two or three weeks. The longer a student goes without talking, the more difficult it will become.
  • Plan an icebreaker activity early in the semester. Games can work well for the first or second class meeting if they aren’t too childish or embarrassing. For an architectural history course, for example, you could ask students to bring a picture of a building from any source and describe to the rest of the class what they like about that building. Or each student could be asked to introduce themselves and explain which historical period they would most like to live in and why. Or students could introduce themselves and explain what they think they will learn from the course or what they hope to learn. The advantage of the above exercises is that the instructor can gain some useful insight while the students get to know a little about each other. Often the most effective icebreaker can be a field trip because it moves the students out of the classroom and gives them a common experience.
  • Ask students to identify characteristics of an effective discussion then ask them to list characteristics of poor discussions. Have the students contribute items from their lists in a “brain storming” method (meaning no criticism) while you make a list on the blackboard or on newsprint. Then encourage discussion about how the group can maximize the characteristics of good discussions while minimizing the characteristics of poor discussions. Students will take more ownership of the class when they have had a part in setting the expectation level.
  • Periodically divide students into smaller groups with a specific goal such as a question to answer, a problem to solve, or perspectives to list then report back to the larger group.
  • Assign roles to the students. You could have one or two students each session assigned to observe and assess the process of the group, with time set aside for their report and some group response at the end of each session. [This suggestion has its drawbacks because it tends to draw one or more students out of the discussion.] You could have one or two students assigned to summarize the discussion at the end of each session.
  • One method to both encourage participation and limit those who tend to dominate is to hand out three poker chips (or something else) to each student. Each time a student contributes, he or she puts a chip into the pot. Students must spend all of their chips by the end of the session but when they run out of chips, they have to keep quiet. [This may be helpful early in the semester but it could quickly become too artificial and stifling.]
  • Don’t forget non-verbal communication. Smiling and nodding are very positive reinforcers. Look at the student who is speaking to show that you are listening and appreciate his or her contribution. Sit upright and a bit forward to show your interest and anticipation. And watch for non-verbal cues form your students as well. If they look bored, sleepy, disinterested, then it may be time to change tactics, stand and stretch, move on to another topic, etc.
  • Be careful not to get into private conversations with one or two students which excludes the rest of the class. Where you stand or sit affects whether the entire class feels included so you may need to move away from one student to bring the rest of the students into the discussion.
  • Most of us are more comfortable in some kinds of situations than in others. Some people are the life of the party while others really shine in smaller, more intimate groups. Spend some time thinking about the kinds of groups in which you tend to speak up and the ones in which you’re more likely to keep quiet. Think about the conditions that increase your comfort level and those which inhibit you. Then think about how your students might feel. You’re not going to create the ideal environment for everyone but you’ll have a better understanding of yourself and your students.


Davis, Barbara Gross (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. (LB 2331.D37)

McKeachie, Wilbert J. (1986). Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for the Beginning College Teacher, 8th Ed.. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company. (LB 1738.M35)

Tiberius, Richard G. (1995). Small Group Teaching: A Trouble-Shooting Guide. Ontario: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.