The Gift of Gab: 10 Ways to Inspire Classroom Discussion

By Tanika Simpson

Many instructors are all too familiar with the experience of posing what they think is a thought-provoking question only to be met with dead silence…..crickets. Instructors may experience this silence because students are intimidated and uncomfortable speaking up. This issue needs to be addressed and remedied because, according to Jay Howard’s (2015) Discussion in the college classroom, “the most effective learning happens through a social process” (p.110). James Lang (2016) asserts in Small Teaching that both instructors and students share a responsibility for shaping that social process and interaction. Hence students are not merely passive bystanders in the instructor-led classroom, but rather there is a bi-directional relationship between the student-instructor dynamic and the social climate of the classroom. Balance in this relationship is critical to fostering rich, lively discussions in which students can make meaning of the course material and their learning experiences.

Tanika Simpson, author of this post
A licensed clinical social worker with endorsement as an infant mental health specialist, Tanika’s work has focused on early family and childhood development, mental health treatment and assessment, systems building and advocacy, and attachment-based psychotherapeutic approaches applied to developing parental reflective functioning. Her current research interests as a third year doctoral student focus on prevention and early intervention in the infant/family field, and the impact of reflective supervision on workforce development within the infant mental health profession.

Yet how do we as instructors achieve this seemingly elusive, magical balance? Based on data presented in James Lang’s books Small Teaching and Cheating Lessons, and an interview with a senior faculty at a large public university, I’ve compiled these tips on how to inspire classroom discussion:

  • Create a classroom culture where every perspective and experience is respected and validated. –Dr. JoAnn Robinson, former Associate Department Head of the Human Development and Family Studies Department at the University of Connecticut, teaches a course on infant and toddler development, and she asserts that students need to feel a sense of safety in the classroom environment if they are expected to contribute to classroom dialogue, especially when the course content can be tied to personal experiences. Professor Robinson suggests ways of creating this safety that can include allowing the students to take ownership over establishing ground rules for classroom discussion (including confidentiality and the agreement to respectfully disagree), adopting a non-judgmental stance as the instructor where every student’s perspective and experience is validated and affirmed, role modeling, and even incorporating brief icebreaker activities into class time so that students can get to know one another on a more personal level. 
  • Cultivate emotional investment in learning the course content. According to Lang’s Small Teaching (2016), cognitive research indicates that emotions are a key factor in motivation which is linked to more effective learning and retention of course material. “Emotions are social. Motivation is crucial… and emotional connections to others and to a community provide the strongest motivation” (p. 176-177).  Creating a sense of community in the classroom and using innovative methods of applying course material to real-life and personal experience triggers deeper thought, curiosity, and reflection that fosters richer classroom dialogue.
  • Be enthusiastic about the course material and raise provocative questions or ideas.  If we are not excited about the course material we teach as instructors, why should we expect our students to care? The energy we inject into the classroom can be “a contagious fire” (Lang, 176), and our interest, enthusiasm, and passion for what we are teaching serves as a model for inviting students to partake in the energy too.
  • Offer students some ownership of determining the social climate of the classroom. –  Beginning the semester with a question and answer session about what students hope to learn from the instructor, the course material, and each other; and allowing the students to establish some ground rules and expectations for themselves, the instructor, and their peers empowers students to take responsibility for their classroom experience (Lang, 2013).
  • Connect course material to media and popular culture that is relevant to students. Whenever possible, consider ways of integrating course material into current events, trends, or pop culture phenomena that the students can relate to.  When students can digest course material in ways that feels relevant for them, they are more likely to be attentive and engaged during lectures, and potentially more likely to share their views and thoughts on a particular subject matter. 
  • Make time in the classroom for smaller group discussions.  According to Professor Robinson, participation in classroom discussion can be intimidating for students especially in large lecture halls.  Her solution is a café activity in which students are broken into small groups and assigned vignettes, case studies, or a problem based on a video viewed during class. Cafés last about 30 minutes and students are expected to work as a team to formulate questions, approaches, and plans for applying course material to simulated real-life, or clinical situations.  The caveat is students have to articulate their plans using drawings and symbols of key concepts they have learned in class-no words.  Then each group chooses a representative to present their work to the larger class. Cafés offer students the opportunity for more intimate discussion as well as peer-led learning in the classroom (Lang, 2013).
  • Instill a sense of self-efficacy in students. Contributing to the conversation should be more important than coming up with the right answer.  Convey the message to students that their voice and contribution to the classroom is valued by welcoming their input about new methods of teaching you may be trying or changes to the syllabus (Lang, 2016).
  • Welcome some risk-taking. Create a classroom environment where students can make mistakes, fail, and learn from failure. Consider making time for reflective discussion about exams or assignments that students have found particularly challenging and ask for their feedback about what worked, what could be done differently, and how their own thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors may have impacted their experience.
  • Ask students to connect course material to other courses and events or activities on campus (where appropriate) and report back.– Encouraging students to explore the utility and relevance of course material beyond the particular course and even the classroom creates opportunities for students to make more meaning of what they are learning which can also heighten emotional investment and motivation. This creates fertile breeding ground for enriched discussion and dialogue in the classroom (Lang, 2016).
  • Be human! – Don’t be afraid to just be a person sometimes.  Students find courses more engaging and instructors more accessible when they aren’t afraid to briefly share aspects of their lives or use a little humor when appropriate.  Students also appreciate when instructors can balance compassion with flexibility recognizing that there are times when “life happens” for all of us (Lang, 2013).