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You pose a question to your class, but instead of sparking the classroom discussion you envisioned, you get a roomful of blank stares.

What can you do?

To get your students talking in class, experts suggest instructors lay some ground rules for participation, prepare a list of open-ended questions, create an environment that fosters open discussions and relate the material to real-world situations.

After all, class discussions can be an important teaching tool to help students develop critical-thinking skills, integrate their personal experiences into the content and learn to appreciate the ideas of others, says psychologist Thomas Kramer, PhD, chair of graduate education for the University of West Florida.

"When we engage them in dialogues and discussions, it provides them with the opportunity to obtain a different kind of insight that they might not be able to achieve otherwise," he explains.

However, class discussions aren't effective for every class. For example, large lecture halls make it difficult for all students to participate, and instructors of courses that rely on specific answers, such as statistics, might struggle to find suitable class discussion topics, Kramer notes.

For those classes that can use discussion effectively, the activity offers an added bonus for instructors: They can hear students articulate what they've learned and make sure students are grasping the content, adds Barbara Nodine, PhD, psychology department chair at Arcadia University in Philadelphia.

Laying the ground rules

Since it's not always easy to get your students responding, you need to set some ground rules for discussions, experts say. Faculty say such guidelines might include:

  • Everyone participates, not just one or two people.

  • Do not interrupt others.

  • Divergent views are welcome.

  • Be specific and use examples whenever possible.

  • Keep the discussion focused on the question or topic.

During class discussions, Kramer cautions instructors against being an active participant in the discussion. Instead, he recommends teachers manage the conversation, such as by ensuring students stay on topic and by paraphrasing and summarizing what students contribute.

Another way to guarantee students participate in class discussions is by making it part of their grade (see "What's in a grade?" on grading). In some classes, Kramer makes class participation 10 to 15 percent of a student's final grade.

However, "It's not always the amount of what people say," he says. "Some people may not say a lot but when they do, it's right on the mark."

To grade participation, Neil Lutsky, PhD, a psychology professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., takes a moment after each class to evaluate students' insightful contributions in class and give them from one to five stars.

"I then have that as a record over the course to consult," Lutsky says. "It's really important to do a monitoring of that kind rather than make it impressionistic in retrospect."

Asking the right questions
But merely laying the ground rules for discussion and grading students' participation won't get them talking. Teachers need to ask students good questions, says Loreto Prieto, PhD, an associate counseling psychology professor at the University of Akron who leads teaching assistant training workshops.

"I look at it as building a fire," Prieto says. "One or two well-placed questions are all you really need to get a nice blaze or discussion going."

So, how can you ignite the spark?

Prepare your questions beforehand, experts say. Some faculty suggest selecting an easy question that nearly every student could answer, such as a simple question regarding their assigned readings, and others advise avoiding questions that rely on "yes" or "no" responses, which can shut down discussions.

Lisa Damour, PhD, a psychology adjunct instructor at John Carroll University, suggests the following strategies in her book with assistant English professor Anne Curzan, PhD, "First Day to Final Grade: A Graduate Student's Guide to Teaching" (University of Michigan Press, 2005):

  • Focus on asking "how" and "why" questions rather than "what" and "who."

  • Avoid asking broad or basic questions, such as "what did you think of the reading?" Instead, ask specifics about the content.

  • Avoid questions that require students to come up with one answer. To get a discussion going, Damour often asks students to write a response to a question and then turn to a classmate to discuss each other's responses.

"I let them try it out on a friend before saying it in front of class," Damour says. The strategy provides each student a chance to carefully consider their response and be prepared if they're called upon, she says.

"Keep in mind that you've had the question for at least 24 hours or for as long as you came up with it, and the student is just hearing it for the first time," Damour says. "They will feel more confident if they have time to think it through."

But, even without giving students that prep time, instructors shouldn't get flustered if their question is first greeted with silence-sometimes it just takes patience on the part of the instructor, Kramer says.

"Give the class plenty of time to answer," Kramer says. "You have to wait for them to say something. If you wait long enough, someone will usually speak up."

Making it work

Creating a conversation-inviting environment in your classroom will also encourage students to speak up, say experts. For example, Kramer arranges many of his classrooms in a circle so students face one another. Small groups may be another way to spur discussions (see "Tapping teamwork").

Logistics aside, also look for ways to relate the course material to real-world situations, Lutsky suggests. For example, he may ease into a class discussion by asking students to summarize the main points of an assigned reading. Then, he might provide a handout, such as a related recent newspaper article or quote, that offers a new way of looking at the topic.

Lutsky also often passes out a handout with his questions so students know what will be discussed.

In fact, letting students know your plan for class is one of the best things you can do to initiate class discussions, Damour says. This might mean telling your students that you plan to lecture for 10 minutes, get into small groups for 20 minutes and then have 20 minutes for classroom discussion.

"If you go into a room and start lecturing, they will quickly make the assessment that it is a listening day," Damour says. "After 10 minutes, if you ask them a question, they may have shut down. Students are usually more able to participate if they know what is coming."

Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a writer in Chicago.