Promoting discussion in class

There is a lot of advice available about encouraging students to talk in class, but I have to admit that most of it made little sense to me when I was starting out. Because public speaking classes tend to be small, you do have a lot of good options. I don’t claim to have it all figured out, but here are a few things I find helpful:

  • Get them talking early. Set a discussion tone on the first day of class. I have students do introductions and answer several questions on the first day. You may only get one or two people responding to the questions right away, but it is setting the tone for the class.
  • Pair and share. Putting students in pairs or small groups to come up with answers at least gets them talking to each other. You can then go around and ask each group to give an answer before opening it up to any other responses.
  • Surprise them. I don’t like calling on people who have not volunteered but I have found a way to encourage more involvement by calling on “groups”. For example, I might address a question and indicate that I want an answer from a particular row or section of the room. In one class, I had a student who would immediately get his phone out each time he was put in a group. I noticed he was wearing a lot of black one day. When I gave them the 2-minute warning before I wanted to hear their answers I added, “Find the person in your group who is wearing the most black to report your answers to the class.” He snapped to attention but did not feel singled out. I’ve also used call outs like the person with the heaviest backpack or the youngest student from the group to answer.
  • Set a number. This has helped a lot. When I ask a question and they are not in groups, I will set a specific number. “I’d like to hear three examples of how you have seen speakers use this technique.” It gives them specific guidelines and helps me to wait them out and not move on too quickly.
  • Do a “get out” question. Sometimes I will put a fairly easy question at the end of class, set a number, and let them know they can go when they reach that number. For example, “Give me eight proverbs that could be used for the next speech and you’ll be free to go.” Many students will be distracted at this point, so these should be easy questions.

When setting up groups, try to mix it up. Most of the time I just let them form their own groups of people around them, but there were benefits to shaking it up a little too. Depending on how many groups you need, you can set it up to fit. Counting off works well at times but these are others I’ve used:

  • Birth order (once, I do not recommend this one…)
  • Socks — one group for no socks, one for white socks and one for socks with any colors on them.
  • Birthdays — by quarter, by month, by date or by day of week (there is a site to look this up quickly at
  • Writing on clothes — none, top only, and any other item like hats or shoes.
  • Number of finals — toward the end of the semester they’ll know how many tests they’ll have during finals week.
  • Mingle cards — if you have a little more time and will use the group for a longer term then you can make mingle cards. Create cards with entries in various categories, like I might use Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Donovan McNabb, Sam Bradford and Joe Flacco as cards in one category. I do not tell the students the categories, but mix the cards and pass them out randomly. They then have to wander around and find the other people who match their category. That group would be designated “The Quarterbacks” in the upcoming activity. Since this will take a few minutes, I would not use this for a quick group activity but it can be a fun way to divide into groups for an entire class period (like a group-based exam review) or for a long-term assignment.

What other clever techniques have you seen teachers use to encourage participation in discussions?


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About teachingpublicspeaking

I believe public speaking can go from most dreaded class to favorite class. I'm a former public speaking college instructor who spent years seeking out activities, assignments and examples to make the class interactive as well as educational -- they are collected here. I welcome suggestions for additions.

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