Getting Students to Talk to Each Other, Rather than the Teacher

How can we get students to talk to each other in class discussions, rather than just to the teacher?

How can we get students to talk to each other in class discussions?

In reading Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching, I’m learning new things and remembering things I’d forgotten about how to help students discuss well. The book is a wonderful resource, rich with theory and practice for teaching with discussion as a way to promote democracy in the classroom and society, which is to say, at least in part, getting students to participate in their own and each others’ learning. Discussion undertaken in the way that Brookfield and Preskill describe gets students actively involved and loosens up the strict teacher-student hierarchy implied and enacted by, say, the traditional lecture.

But these benefits do not occur as well in discussions where all questions and comments by students are directed to the teacher and the teacher responds directly to each thing said. In those cases, the teacher doesn’t hog the ball the whole time, just half of the time. Of course, we usually don’t do this on purpose. We would love a more spontaneous exchange to break out, with students speaking to each other, asking each other questions, responding to each others’ comments. I’ve desired this sort of give-and-take more often than I’ve seen it. But Brookfield and Preskill offer some useful ways of preparing students and structuring discussions to increase student-student interaction. One method is to use small groups for discussion, rather than limiting discussion to a whole class setting. I learned this practice from my own teachers and already use it extensively. But when it comes to whole class discussions, which I hold after each small group discussion, I must confess that I’ve often accepted, aside from the occasional exhortation to students that they can talk to each other too, that the talking would revolve around me, even if that’s not what I really wanted.

But after reading Brookfield and Preskill, I’ve put together a structured protocol for discussion that helps students talk to each other. The structure helps students know to and know how to engage with one another. I’m afraid I don’t remember where all the parts of this protocol came from. Which aspects were directly lifted from Brookfield and Preskill? Which aspects were adapted more loosely from them? Which aspects did I borrow from other books and other teachers? Which aspects did I invent myself? I’m not sure if this forgetting makes me a bad scholar or a good teacher. (Don’t the best teachers steal from anywhere and everywhere?) At any rate, very much informed and prompted by Brookfield and Preskill but not by them alone, I would like to share the following protocol, which I’ve now used variations of a couple times with good success. The discussions that this structure facilitated seemed deeper and more substantive than discussion often seems and, to my joy, the students talked to each other the entire time.

To use the protocol, I print out the instructions and go over them with students before we begin. I encourage them to realize that silence is okay because sometimes people need time to think before speaking. I also tell them that I won’t bail them out if the discussion runs into a rocky patch but will tell them when we need to move to the next part or have run out of time.


1.    Small Group Discussion

Select different group members for the following roles:

  • Leader – keeps things moving forward and on task.
  • Note taker – writes down key points of the group’s discussion.
  • Presenter – shares with the class a selection of points from the group’s discussion.[1]
  • First responder – speaks up to comment on the presented points of other groups.

Read aloud a selected passage.[2]

Discuss the passage in terms of ____. [3]

Discuss the passage in terms of whatever else occurs to you. [4]

2.    Whole Group Discussion

  • Presenter for Group 1 shares with the class highlights from the group’s discussion. Make sure to speak to the whole class, not to the professor.
  • Responders from each of the other groups speak up in response to the presenter to get a larger conversation going. Make sure to speak to the presenter or the whole class, not to the professor. In responding, you can contribute the following sorts of comments. Begin your comment by noting which type of comment you’re going to make (i.e. “I have an affirmation,” “that raises a question for me,” “I have something to add that elaborates on what you’ve said,” etc.).[5]
    • Affirmations (i.e. “I really like that,” “I wouldn’t have thought of that,” “That helps me see the text in a new way,” etc.)
    • Elaborations (i.e. “You know what that makes me think of is . . .” “Another thing that goes along with that is . . .” “This additional passage also ties into that . . .” etc.)
    • Connections (i.e. “We noticed that too,” “That connects to something our group was asking,” “We came at something similar from a little different angle,” etc.)
    • Questions (i.e. “Why do you think ___?” “Can you say more about ___?” “How is that related to ___?” “Did your group consider ___?” etc.)
    • Divergences (“I see your point, but . . .” “A different perspective on that is . . .” “A passage in the text that might contradict that is . . .” etc.) [6]
  • Those not designated as responders may also make comments. Everyone should take care to exhibit positive, engaged body language throughout the discussion.
  • Once Group 1 has presented and there has been discussion on the points they have raised, Group 2 goes. This process continues until each group has presented or we run out of time.

3.    Individual and Whole Group Summation

  • Individually write responses to the following questions:
    • What did I learn or have reinforced through this discussion?
    • What questions remain or have been raised for me through this discussion?
  • Several volunteers share their summations with the whole group. Make sure to speak to the whole class, not to the professor.


So there you have it. A structure that helps students talk and talk to each other. Feel free to adopt or adapt this to your own classes. Or better yet, run out and get Discussion as a Way of Teaching, read it, and come up with your own approach.



[1] This role and the following one (presenter and first responder) are selected in the small groups but performed later in the whole group setting.

[2] The passage I ask them to read aloud is from a text they’ve already all read (in theory). I’ve both assigned a specific passage for students to focus on and asked students to select a passage that interests them. This rereading aloud of a specific passage in the small group setting allows all the students in the group to be on the same page, literally and figuratively, to be able to discuss the text while it’s fresh in their minds.

[3] To help students know what to discuss, I include here in this blank space some specific things I want students to work on in the context of the course. In one course, it was to come up with questions and possible interpretations of a text; in another it was to explore the text in terms of its form, its function, and how one might respond. In both cases, my prompt related to skills we had already been working on.

[4]  Leaving space for things to emerge unplanned, raised by the students’ own concerns and interests, seems integral to discussion based teaching, even while I’m otherwise providing lots of structure for the students.

[5]  I tell students that while naming the kind of comment they’re about to make may feel a little silly, it can help us all together become more aware of and familiar with these modes of comments.

[6] I’ve added this category of “divergence” in retrospect, after trying out the protocol in classes. It wasn’t that my experience in the couple times I’ve used it suggested I needed another category for the conversation to work better. But I wanted to purposefully create space for disagreements. Brookfield and Preskill suggest, wisely I think, that disagreement and critique have an important part in discussion but that those sorts more more critical dynamics might best be held off on until after students in a class have had the time and experience to develop trust and community with the others in the class.


Image by Steve Rhodes (CC-NC-ND 2010)


8 responses to “Getting Students to Talk to Each Other, Rather than the Teacher

    • This is very neat. Thanks for sharing the link, Gretchen! I’ve seen “role playing” tried before in a way that was not very successful. But this approach seems much more intensive and well structured and well supported.

    • Nathalie, I’m glad you found it helpful. In my view, the great strengths of the Foundation for Critical Thinking’s model are also its great weaknesses. In being comprehensive, it include so many elements it’s hard to teach. In being independent of context, it can be tough to apply in specific contexts. But there’s no reason you couldn’t select a smaller subset of the elements (or the associated questions) to ask students to use in either the small group or whole group sessions. That could be very fruitful.

  1. This is great Paul! I’ve used a similar model before but without the Responder role and I think that might just be the key to turning a ‘share and report’ exercise into a fuller discussion! I think I’ll be trying this in my art history class next week! Thanks!
    Oh. P.S. – I’ve also done Reacting To The Past in my class and it’s amazing how much a few weeks of the role playing unit changed students’ ability and willingness to respond to me and each other in the regular classes. They definitely learned to listen and express their own thoughts to each other and it changed the social contract in the class (entirely unintentionally on their part) to make discussion more valued in their own own classroom dynamic expectations. Really amazing. Anyway, I saw the comment mentioning RTTP and thought I’d share how it impacted my post-RTTP classroom!
    Thanks for this!

    • Meg, Glad this was helpful. And, yes, the serial monologue-reporting is what I wanted to avoid. I think I got the idea of pre-assigning first responders from Chris Christensen (I definitely recommend this video of him: and the idea of naming for students the sorts of responses from Brookfield and Preskill (in the book I mention in the post). And thanks for seconding the value of Reacting to the Past.

  2. Pingback: Students Need to Associate More - #TeacherFunder·

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