The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

SoTL Applied: Evidence-based Strategies for Better Classroom Discussions


Written by Jennifer Friberg, SoTL Scholar-Mentor at Illinois State University

Over the last few years, my colleague, Kathleen McKinney, has been adding to a document titled A Sampling of What We Know About Learning from Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and Education Research. In this resource, she has summarized “evidence-informed” knowledge about successful pedagogical practices. McKinney outlines major points from texts which draw conclusions from SoTL and other educationally-based research. Almost uniformly, each of the works summarized specifically state that too many faculty members rely on lecture as their main pedagogical approach in the classroom when research has shown for the last decade that more active forms of learning leads to increased student engagement and involvement in the learning process. A variety of techniques have been suggested by researchers to engage students in active learning, including classroom discussions, problem-based and/or case-based learning, reflection, service learning, and rich experiences as collaborators in ongoing faculty research.

The focus of today’s blog is on increasing active learning through the promotion of high-quality classroom discussions. In-class discussions can encourage active learning though practice and integration of skills (Ambrose et al, 2010), application of knowledge to support deep learning (Christensen & Mighty, 2010), integration of knowledge in a safe, moderated learning environment (Svinicki, 2004), and active collaboration with peers (Weimer, 2013).

Despite these advantages to using in-class discussions as a deliberate pedagogical choice, many faculty feel that setting up an environment to support engaged participation by students in an in-class discussion can be quite challenging. James Lang wrote an interesting advice column this week for the Chronicle of Higher Education titled Building a Better Discussion. In this column, Lang summarizes findings from Jay R. Howard’s SoTL research presented in his new text: Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Students Engaged and Participating In Person and Online. Three main suggestions were made to guide successful in-class discussion efforts:

  1. Good class discussions require active attention by all stakeholders, moving away from “civil attention” towards a more honest and full attention to topic, speakers, and classroom community.
  2. A new norm must be created to avoid the “consolidation of responsibility” that can occur when a small number of students contribute frequently to a class discussion while their classmates sit by more passively.
  3. Purposeful exploration of what different definitions for participation is needed to develop a shared understanding of expectations for participation for both students and the class instructor.

Previous research findings would indicate that students who are actively engaged in learning should be actively engaged in designing and managing their learning. Thus, it would seem that Howard’s suggestions encouraging moderation between students and instructors to design a better class discussion make good sense. That said, I am curious. What strategies beyond those listed here are you using in your college classrooms to encourage high-quality in-class discussions? What would you consider to be the essential components of a good class discussion?

Blog References:

Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., Lovett, M., DiPeitro, M., & Norman, M. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Christensen, J. & Mighty, J. (eds.). (2010). Taking stock: Research on teaching and learning in higher education. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Howard, J. (2015). Discussion in the college classroom: Getting students engaged and participating in person and online. Wiley.

Lang, J. (2015). Building a better discussion. Retrieved from:

Svinicki, M. (2004). Learning and motivation in the post-secondary classroom. Anker.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learning-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd edition). Wiley.


6 thoughts on “SoTL Applied: Evidence-based Strategies for Better Classroom Discussions

  1. Pingback: SoTL Applied: Evidence-based Strategies for Better Classroom Discussions

  2. What strategies beyond those listed here are you using in your college classrooms to encourage high-quality in-class discussions? What would you consider to be the essential components of a good class discussion?
    I had good success with assigning a response to a reading that must be shared to others in the class by going round. Taking up the characteristics of a good discussion with students and giving them teaching as to active listening as opposed to waiting a turn with a pre-thought out remark..

    Teaching a turn and talk process…where students turn to each other and talk about a question. Each person has to listen to the other and sum up what they said and then add to it..maybe go from twos to fours and then eights…smaller discussion groups require more engagement from participants…report back to a central place the ideas generated from the small group discussion…have the students self evaluate against criteria for good discussions to determine how to improve…keep in mind a skill they want to work on in the discussion be it summing up the talk, active listening, paraphrasing. body language cues, working with open-ended questions…maybe provide feedback to each other as discussants and to the teacher for structuring the discussion…


    • Interesting stuff! Then what types of data exist or could be obtained to do a more formal SoTL study on both the quality of the discussions and improvements in student learning re the content of the discussions.


  3. Then what types of data exist? In a course with an online discussion forum, analytics for the number of comments, word count might be available. A formal SoTL study regarding the quality of discussions and improvements in student learning, might be obtained via student and teacher feedback and assessments of effectiveness of discussions and pre/post quality changes to test scores/ measures of learning …


  4. Pingback: Assessing the Reach of the SoTL Advocate Blog | The SoTL Advocate

  5. Thanks for Such a great Post! Discussion/activities to engage with my student who are learners that require more active participation.


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