Skip to main content

Cornell University


"A scientist's aim in a discussion with his colleagues is not to persuade, but to clarify."
- Leo Szilard, Austro-Hungarian Physicist

Why use discussions?
When might you use discussions?
How can you effectively integrate discussions into lectures and other classroom settings?
How can you facilitate effective discussions?

Why use discussions?


  • Allow instructors to assess student learning through performance.
  • Make learning active.
  • Help build community.
  • Allow students to learn about and evaluate different positions and receive feedback on their own.
  • Enable students to participate as co-constructors of knowledge.
  • Provide opportunities to develop conventions of discourse within a discipline.
  • Can expose students to complexity and ambiguity in a supportive environment.
  • Allow students to synthesize and integrate new knowledge.
  • Develop studentsí ability to articulate ideas and meanings clearly.
  • Enable students to work through complicated ideas and concepts collaboratively.

When might you use discussions?

Discussions provide opportunities for students to achieve the following learning objectives (Nilson, 2010, p. 127-128):

  • Examine and alter perspectives, beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors.
  • Explore new topics with an open mind.
  • Think critically.
  • Solve problems.
  • Listen actively.
  • Communicate orally.
  • Apply knowledge to new situations.
  • Retain course material.
  • Desire to learn more about a subject.

How can you effectively integrate discussions into lectures and other classroom settings?

  • Involve students in a discussion on the first day and explain the value of discussion to your course.
  • Communicate your expectations for participation. If grading participation, explain clearly how you will do this. Use a rubric to illustrate what a good contribution to a discussion looks like.
  • Use icebreakers to increase students' comfort level with each other.
  • Consider how you will structure smaller discussion groups.
  • Use a visual aid to help direct discussions in larger classes, and instruct students to refrain from sitting in certain rows to allow you and your TAs to circulate and guide students as needed.
  • Clarify the difference between debates and discussions to students. Discourage the need to reach a consensus, and encourage students to explore possibilities and present evidence to support their points.

How can you facilitate effective discussions?

We offer many online resources and address common questions relating to facilitating effective discussions on our Teaching Small Discussion Sections page.


CTI Common Discussion Challenges pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)
Classroom Structures pdf
CTI Icebreakers pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)


Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (1999) Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for university teachers. Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Davis, B. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L.B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Svinicki, M.& McKeachie, W. J. (2011). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and univeristy teachers. (13th ed). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Cornell University