Skip to content

Specific Strategies for Engaging Students in Class Discussions

One of the most common complaints from instructors is that students are unprepared for class discussions. There are many possible explanations for students failing to prepare for class; however, there are also specific strategies for increasing the number of students who complete their homework and who come prepared to participate in meaningful discussions and other learning activities.

  1. On the first day of class, clearly state your expectations for student participation and describe the behaviors you expect from them. Include this information in your syllabus.
  2. Provide students with an unfinished "outline" of the reading that includes headings and subheadings to give them some direction. This can be particularly helpful in introductory courses.
  3. If you’d like students to engage in class discussion over a challenging topic, consider distributing some of the questions in advance.
  4. Do not answer your own questions. Wait at least fifteen seconds before calling on someone. If no one volunteers an answer, rephrase the question.
  5. If students appear confused, or if you ask a question that seems to be too difficult, backtrack. Ask them what they would need to know in order to answer your first question.
  6. If possible, arrange chairs so that students can make eye contact with one another. During discussions, sit among the students, rather than standing behind the desk or podium.
  7. Give a reading assignment based on the class discussion planned. For example, in a literature class, you might ask each student to identify the character in the novel who most appeals to him or her and share why.
  8. Consider breaking the class into smaller discussion groups before the large group discussion. Assign meaningful work to the small groups with well-defined outcomes, so that students know what they are supposed to accomplish.
  9. To help students prepare for a class discussion over more complex material, give a specific preparation assignment. For example, if you are going to discuss competing theories in a psychology class, require students to complete a one page paper contrasting two of the perspectives.
  10. As a homework assignment, have each student prepare an application question from the reading material. You may need to provide an example. In class, have students work in small groups to respond to these questions. Follow this up by having each small group "report out" to the whole class.
  11. Have students work individually, in pairs, or in small groups to develop a concept map of a chapter, unit of study, or the entire course.


Berdine, R. "Why Some Students Fail to Participate in Class". Marketing News (1986): 20, 23-24. Print

Girgin, K. Z., and D.D. Stevens. "Bridging In-Class Participation with Innovative Instruction: Use and Implications in a Turkish University Classroom." Innovations in Education and Teaching International (2005): 42, 93-106. Print.

Kearney, P., et al. "Colleve Teacher Misbehaviors: What Students Don't Like about What Teachers Say and Do." Communication Quarterly (1991): 39, 309-324. Print.

Rocca, Kelly A. "Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review." Communication Education 59.2 (2010): pp. 185-213. PDF file.

"Student Participation/Active Learning." Teaching Tips. University of the Sciences. Web 30. Jan. 2013.

"Teaching Tips." Teaching and Learning Resouces. Lansing Community College. Web. 30. Jan. 2013.

Center for Teaching Excellence
TLC Building
400 N. Capitol, Suite 324
Lansing, MI 48933
Phone: (517) 483-1680
Additional contact information

Facebook Teaching Innovation Blog
Open Hours
Monday - Friday: 9 am - 5 pm

To send an APPLEGRAM online,
fill-out the Applegram form.