Three Steps to Creating an Engaging Classroom Discussion

Cengage Learning recently surveyed thousands of college students and instructors about what engages them most in the classroom. We discovered some enlightening trends when it came to what gets students interested in classroom discussion, not just with the instructor, but with their classmates as well. We asked instructors what makes their class discussions most engaging and asked students what makes their discussions most interesting.

What makes classroom discussion most engaging?

1. The topic is meaningful

While for some, education for education’s sake is a no-brainer, most students have always asked the question, “When am I going to use this?” Our survey revealed that typical college students are more likely to be engaged with classroom discussion if the discussion surrounds a topic that relates to them or that they are passionate about.

A student respondent shared that discussions are most interesting when “they are about ‘real-life’ applications, not just the courses we are studying, but how to promote them in our community, and the world.” While an instructor clarified that discussions are most engaging when “they relate to real life (and especially if the student can tie it to their experiences).” Students and instructors agree on this top response to what makes class discussions most engaging for the class and most interesting for students.

2. Students arrive prepared

Instructors explained that a primary key to success for students is arriving to class as prepared as they can be. This includes class discussion. Similarly, students shared that discussions are most interesting when they know what is expected of them. One student revealed that discussions are interesting only when “classmates have done the required reading.” An instructor explained that discussions are most engaging when” students are prepared, [and] I provide clear expectations and modeling.”

Encourage students to research the topic before class or arrange mini group discussions prior to the full classroom discussion. Students will be able to teach each other and bounce ideas off of their group mates in a more intimate setting prior to engaging in the class discussion. Students are then able to apply what they have learned in their mini-discovery groups.

3. Students feel comfortable

Students and instructors agree that another important element of productive class discussion is ensuring that students feel comfortable in the environment. While it may be easy to foster conversation between an individual student and the instructor, students are more likely to engage each other and share their experiences when in a comfortable environment.

One student shared that discussions are most interesting when “there are diverse opinions or viewpoints, AND people respect and are willing to listen to the diverse opinions and viewpoints.” Another student even shared that he or she prefers when “my classmates challenge my assumptions.” Encourage your students to respectfully express their ideas and opinions, even if they are unique.

While the wording changed from person to person in our survey, these three themes popped up time and time again. Students are most engaged in classroom discussion when the topic is relevant to them, they are prepared for what is expected of them, and they feel safe in a non-threatening environment.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing even more insights from our survey that reveal how instructors around the country foster engagement in their classrooms. We’ll also be sharing hints from the students themselves on what keeps them interested in their coursework.

Do these three tips apply to your unique classroom experiences? 

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