Introduction to Facilitating Discussions

The following points are things you can do as you are planning and facilitating a discussion.

  • Build community: Use names and encourage everyone to become familiar with each other (using name cards can help if you are in person, and if you are teaching online, you can share instructions for how people can change their display names). What are their interests, why are they taking the course, do they have any experience relevant to the course? Allow for fun and creativity.
  • Collaboratively establish classroom discussion norms. Ask your students “What are the characteristics of an effective discussion and how can we ensure that these characteristics exist within this seminar?”
  • Discuss the benefits of active listening. Encourage students to give their full attention to the speaker, to avoid the temptation to interrupt, to paraphrase the comments of the speaker prior to adding their own comments and to take notes when appropriate.
  • Everyone should have the opportunity to participate. Plan and design the first discussion to ensure that this is possible.
  • Seating arrangements: If you have non-fixed seating, consider arranging the seating to promote discussion (e.g., semi-circle, round table). Be sure to restore the original seating configuration for the next class.
  • Breakout rooms are helpful to allow for small group discussions when facilitating discussions online.
  • Review main points related to the subject matter before you start a discussion on a certain topic.
  • Record key points and provide intermittent summaries of the discussion, ideas, and concepts. Ask students to help record ideas (e.g., on the whiteboard) and to provide summaries so they can actively reflect on how the discussion relates to the course material and learning outcomes.
  • Clarify the learning outcomes and the format of the discussion (e.g., open free-flowing, closed and structured), as some students may not have experience with seminar discussions.
  • Use a variety of active learning strategies and discussion formats to encourage participation. For ideas, see the section Introduction to Active Learning or the Facilitating In-Class Discussions resource from the Office of Teaching and Learning.
  • State a goal for the discussion at the beginning so that you can review and evaluate the effectiveness of the discussion at the end. Involve students in evaluating the discussion. What went well? Where can we improve?
  • Silence is OK. After posing a question, give students a minute or two to synthesize and record some of their thoughts prior to opening the discussion.
  • Don’t respond to every comment. Encourage students to develop their own ideas and to respond to each other.
  • Open-ended, opinion-based questions are useful to draw students into the discussion.
  • Allow time for a general wrap-up of the important points that way everyone can synthesize the information discussed. For example, you could have the students develop an exam question related to the main topics of discussion, submit these at the end of the session, and use them to guide a short review at the beginning of the next class. Be sure to relate the wrap-up back to the initial goals of the discussion.

Facilitation Techniques for Different Scenarios

Below are some facilitation techniques that can be used in scenarios commonly encountered during discussions.

If one or two people consistently dominate the discussion, wait for other hands to go up before deciding who to call on. You can also speak to students who dominate discussion outside of class. Point out that you appreciate their enthusiasm and ask them to contribute by formulating good questions that draw other students into the discussion.

Remember that if a student is quiet, it does not necessarily mean they aren’t involved. Here are a few ideas you can try to encourage everyone to participate in discussions:

  • At the beginning of the semester, address the whole class and let them know that you are committed to hearing every voice and that you understand that not everyone feels comfortable speaking publicly.
  • Provide multiple ways to participate in discussions other than speaking in front of the whole group, e.g., allow students to submit ideas in an online poll or on a sticky note, use the chat function when facilitating online, use chart paper or collaborative documents to allow students to record their ideas.
  • Provide opportunities for students to discuss their ideas in small groups or with a partner
  • Reach out to quiet students to ask what you can do to help them participate and make sure their ideas are included.

To encourage preparation, ensure students make use of the assigned class readings from the outset of the semester. By setting these expectations for preparedness from the beginning, a productive classroom culture can be created. Help students read with a purpose. Provide guiding questions, ask them for a summary of the article or ask them to develop questions of their own related to the material. Share discussion questions prior to the seminar to encourage preparation.

It’s important that you, as the TA, make the classroom an environment for effective learning, where students do not feel intimidated or attacked. When sensitively handled, conflict can help students to understand other people’s perspectives and why issues themselves are so controversial. Consider the following points when facilitating discussions and addressing conflict and disagreement:

  • When sensitive issues arise, make sure that all sides of an issue are presented and that students discuss the subject in a respectful way. If an argument ensues, try to figure out what the disagreement is. Is it over a definition? A factual matter? An issue of interpretation? Make sure students define their terms.
  • Model the way by staying calm. If the discussion gets off-track or too heated, pause and take some time to reflect and restate the issue. “Let’s take some time to slow down and focus the discussion.”
  • Pause and review the main points of agreement/disagreement in two separate columns on the board to initiate a democratic review of the issue, have a formal debate, ask students to argue against their position, assign students to research and present position papers, or have students collaborate in pairs or small groups and refer to the course material to resolve disagreements based on specific content.
Feelings can impact the tone and success of a discussion so, when appropriate, you can acknowledge and discuss students’ feelings. Use phrases that start with “I” when giving opinions or when responding to feelings and encourage your students to do the same. For example:
  • I noticed you were quiet in today’s discussion.
  • When we discuss morality in this text, I feel upset because I do not agree with the position in the article.


Lightbulb symbol for Introduction to Grading and FeedbackNow it’s your turn! Check out the complementary activities to reflect on how you can provide effective feedback for your students this semester.

Adapted From:

  • Davison, C.I. and Ambrose, S.A. (1994). The New Professor’s Handbook: A Guide to Teaching and Research in Engineering and Science. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company.
  • Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.
  • McKeachie, W.J. and Svinicki, M. (2006). Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Miffin Company, NY.
  • Marincovich, M. (1998). Teaching at Stanford: An Introductory Handbook for Faculty, Academic Staff, and Teaching Assistants. Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University.
  • Facilitating In-Class Discussions Office of Teaching and Learning, University of Guelph.