Have you ever held a perfect classroom discussion?

No, me neither.

But it’s worthwhile to think about what that would look like.

In my ideal discussion, every student would be involved. Every student would also listen as others spoke, rather than thinking about what to say next. Every student would feel comfortable posing questions as well as offering opinions. Every student would stay on topic, referencing outside sources and building new knowledge.

And no one would be thinking about their grade.

We might never reach this ideal, but we can still do a lot to improve the quality of our classroom discussions. And we must  — if we care about improving student engagement and learning. Using discussion and debate effectively is one of the key strategies observed in schools that “beat the odds,” and we don’t do it nearly often enough.

One comprehensive study by Judith Langer and Martin Nystrand (2003) found that on average, only 1.7 minutes out of every 60 minutes of English class were spent in discussion. They called it discussion if three students participated for at least 30 seconds — not a very high bar.

My guess is these “discussions” were often limited to the same small set of vocal students.

So how can we do better?

The first step toward improving student discussions is taking a hard look at what is actually happening in our own classrooms. My suggestion: Next time you have a class discussion, record it with a GoPro so you can watch it later and track student participation. How many students are speaking up? How many are actively listening? How many are checked out?

If your class discussion isn’t meeting your expectations, consider implementing strategies to improve the quality. For example, use gentle cold-calling — call on students at random rather than seeking volunteers — early in the semester to give everyone practice participating. One study found that instructors who use cold-calling nearly doubled participation in later discussions.

Another helpful strategy is to give students think-time or journaling time before starting a discussion, so the kids who need more time to process don’t feel left out when the most vocal students jump in. This dramatically improved class discussions in my Civil Liberties course.

Also, think about new ways to incorporate discussion in class. Not every discussion has to be a full hour Socratic seminar, fishbowl or formal debate. Discussion can be a 10-minute group activity, where students are given problems to solve as a team — or a guided “book club” conversation to transition students into class.

In Chapter 4 of Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers, I explain how you can use different types of discussion and debate to deeply engage students in learning and improve student performance.

This new video, the second in a series of six Beat Boredom videos, provides a quick look at discussion/debate as a teaching strategy.

Want to learn more about using discussion/debate effectively in the classroom? Order a copy of Beat Boredom on Amazon, or fill in the contact request form on neverbore.org.