The SoTL Advocate

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.