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Examples of Discussion Starters

Here are some suggested techniques for stimulating discussion.  


  • Free writing at beginning of class.  This technique simultaneously provides accountability on whether students have done the reading but also gets them thinking about topics they would like to discuss. 


  • Reinforcement Strategies.  Darby Lewes is the author of a very entertaining books called Portrait of the Student as a Young Wolf, which attempts to deal with student motivation issues in terms of behavior modification techniques.  The TΦ101 does not own a copy of the book yet, but did hear a presentation by Professor Lewes. Here was one idea: Lewes assigns a points for class participation, with a maximum of two points per day.  She comes to class with a bag of poker chips, and whenever a student makes a high-quality contribution, she gives the student one poker chip.  For the next participation, the student gets a second poker chip, and has thus received maximum credit for that day.  Those students then tend to hold back a little to let other students get their poker chips.  She says it really works.


  • Plus, minus, question mark, lightning bolt.  A good way John Immerwahr developed to help students summarize material after completing a text, asks them to think about: things the liked about the text (plus), things they disagreed with (minus), questions they still have (question mark), and things that the text made them think about (lightning bolt).  Draw on the board four columns.  At the top of the first right a plus mark, then a minus sign, a question mark, and a jagged line for a lightning bolt. Ask the students either working at their seats individually or preferably in pairs to develop four categories of ideas about the reading. After giving students sufficient time to come up with several responses, ask for volunteers or call on students to ask what they wrote down.  Do not comment on individual responses.  Once you have several responses on the board you can ask students to discuss those, group them, respond to them, or whatever. 


  • Structuring a discussion in stages.  Maughn Rollins Gregory argues that discussion is most productive if it moves (loosely) through a series of structured stages, which are known in advance to the students.  The faculty member's job is to guide the students to move through these stages. The stages are:

(1) Identify Issues Relevant to Purposes;

(2) Formulate and Organize Relevant Questions;

(3) Formulate and Organize Hypotheses in Response to Questions;

(4) Clarify and Test Hypotheses in Dialogue and Confirm, Revise or Abandon;  

(5) Experiment with Hypotheses in Experience and Warrant, Revise or Abandon; 

(6) Implement Warranted Hypotheses.  



Gregory, Maughn Rollins. "Facilitating Classroom Dialogue." Teaching Philosophy.  30.1 (2007): 59-84.    

Lewes, Darby. A Portrait of the Student as a Young Wolf: Motivating Undergraduates. Folly Hill, 2003.


Author: John Immerwahr

Update: Nov. 2, 2015 (E. Tarver)

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