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February 21, 2018

Increasing Student Engagement Through Student-Led Discussions

What makes your teacher heart happiest?

Think about the moments in your classroom where students are clearly engaged and demonstrating deep learning of content you have planned and implemented. When do you feel most hopeful and inspired by your students’ involvement and actions?

From preschool through high school (even college), these best moments might range from quiet determination and focused reading or studying, to hands-on manipulation of materials and tools, to interactive teamwork involving many minds considering a common concept or goal.

The form of these magic learning moments doesn’t really matter – it’s the soul and depth that shines bright enough to remind teachers why they show up at school every day. And the next question that rises from this “education perfection” is:

“What student engagement strategies can we employ to allow for consistentstudent participation?”

In a recent course-writing assignment for a new course set to launch on July 16, 2017 titled: “Increasing Comprehension with Close Reading in Your Classroom,” I was reminded of the power of student-led discussions. And I believe this learning strategy is full of potential to inspire both student participants and teacher observers in such scholarly conversations. I was motivated to learn more and reflect upon my own teaching history of using student discussions. I offer some points to ponder as you consider the possibilities of student-led discussions in your classroom instruction.

In their book, Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading,1 Beers & Probst discuss “What is the Role of Talk?” In this chapter, I was reawakened to the need for more student discourse in learning. These authors say, “We want [students] to be ready to participate fully in a democratic society. A democracy is not about blindly following but about questioning, pushing, exploring, and ultimately knowing for ourselves what we believe is good and right and just.” They go on to relate John Dewey’s vital habits of democracy as “the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, [and] debate the alternative purposes that might be pursued.” Ultimately, Beers & Probst propose these vital habits are best developed through discourse with one another – in other words, through talk.

Think about the last time you planned and implemented a discussion activity for any learning content. Did you use a specific discussion framework or protocol? What role did you as teacher play? How did students participate and demonstrate learning outcomes? How did you ensure all students were actively engaged? These are common lesson-planning components, but once we implement a true student-led discussion and provide students multiple opportunities to practice, learning can catapult to higher levels for all students involved. This is student engagement at its best.

If you’re looking for the idea circled in blinking lights-here it is!

Try student-led discussions in some form during your regular classroom instruction. Any content or learning standard can be supported by this strategy. Find a discussion formula or routine that matches student needs and your teaching style. Model the steps and create a visual formula. Practice, reflect, repeat.

Likely teaching and learning sparkles include:

  • Engaged students on-task with objectives
  • Content comprehension and mastery potential
  • Validation of all voices
  • Building classroom community
  • Teacher flexibility to guide and observe
  • 21st Century Skills – collaboration, communication, questioning – (and the list goes on…)
  • Unlimited extension activities and possibilities for enrichment

I love this podcast from Cult of Pedagogy on “The Big List of Class Discussion Strategies”. You can click on this link to connect to the podcast or you can read the script filled with class discussion strategies. Even if you already have a discussion protocol you regularly use, try another one to switch up the routine and infuse new energy. Here are some Protocols For Culturally Responsive Learning adapted from the work of Amy Coventry at the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning that would be fabulous to try out with your students.

Finally, here’s one last quote from Beers & Probst that encompasses the purpose and power of student-led discussions:

“When kids are engaged, when they are active co-constructors of their knowledge, then they are more likely to take ownership, to discover relevance, and to ask why and why not; they are more likely to feel inspired when they realize their voice matters and their questions count more than their answers.

Discussions are made up of engaged students interacting with content and co-creating learning. Be still, my teacher heart.

For additional ideas and student engagement strategies, enroll in Learners Edge Course 5683: Teach Like a Champ: Effective Strategies for an Engaged Classroom and learn tried and true methods for increasing student engagement and learning in your classroom.


  1. Beers, K., & Probst, R. E. (2012). Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


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Offering more than 100 print-based or online courses for teachers, you can earn the graduate credit you need for salary advancement and meet your professional development needs. Contact us today to get started!


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