Some ideas to re-activate class discussion

At this point in the semester, you might be finding that your class formats are feeling “old.” Maybe you’ve done lots of group discussions, or lots of “pair-share” or lots of lecturing. Time for a list of ideas. You might have done some or a lot of these before….but maybe there’s something new to try.

Here are a couple of useful websites with lots of ideas (copy/paste into your browser):

Here are a few strategies I have tried in class that have been quite successful. Your comments can expand this list!

1. Send discussion questions to the class by email a few days before class. You can assign the students to focus on a particular question, to be the “expert” for that discussion question or just have them use the questions as a guide to their reading. I have the same number of questions as groups that I plan to construct in class. So, in a class of 24, I would have six questions, in order to form six groups of four. {I usually assign students to groups so that I can change who is in which group over the semester, in that way helping the class to get to know each other.} In class, have the groups (all students who had the same question or groups that you form) discuss their answer. Then, have the groups report out to the rest of the group. Either sit in a big circle (if your chairs are movable) or in the classroom, or you can have the groups come up to the front of the room. Coming to the front of the room tends to make the shy students quite nervous, but it does give them some practice that is valuable if you have any class presentations planned for the semester.

image from:

2. In a similar format (questions assigned in advance), after the groups discuss their answer, form new groups, with one “expert” in each group and have them report to each other. This is a form of a “jigsaw” discussion method. This works best with four groups of four students, or five groups of five students, etc.

3.  For content-rich, lecture style material (like Mitosis/Meiosis for example), after we have gone over the material, I hand out a list of questions, break them into groups and have them arrive at answers. One variation, particularly if there’s not much time, is to have them talk about the questions/answers and ask them to finish the sheet as homework. Another variation is to have each group work on a particular question (again, the same number of questions as groups formed) and report out (either where they sit or at the board). Another variation, particularly with Mitosis/Meiosis or stages of the cell cycle, is to have groups come to the board and draw different stages or parts of the cycles. Then, have a broader discussion of the similarities, differences. This last idea takes a lot of class time, but it does get them talking biology.

4. Sometimes I break up a content-heavy class with short questions or practice problems that I ask them to “pair up” with someone next to them for a minute and confer on the answer. This is a variation of the “pair-share” type of activity. I try not to use this too often because inevitably some students get left out or others just turn to friends in the class. The dynamic gets a little awkward. It can work well if the questions are part of a problem set or homework assignment that they take with them to complete outside of class.

5. For large classes or classes where you can’t move around much, I sometimes will stop the flow of content by showing a question slide or on the board, asking them to write an answer for a minute and then asking for volunteers to share what they wrote. Or, I hand out a list of questions, assign students different numbers on the list (by counting off, usually), have them think for a minute about their answers. By asking for more than one student to address the same question, you can usually get a few more students participating in a discussion of the answers to the questions.

What ideas have you tried?