Have you ever wondered why some class discussions spark student engagement, while others seem to fade with relative speed? Perhaps it has to do with the level of student interest in a particular topic, the personalities of the students in your class, or another factor that’s particular to your course. However, the way you approach a topic can also effect students’ willingness to engage in discussion.

Below, we’ve summarized some ideas for sparking effective classroom conversation, found in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, Fourteenth Edition, which you can use to set the stage for energetic and informed discussions.


Three ideas for igniting effective classroom conversation

1. Refer to a common experience.

Discussions focused on shared knowledge and experiences give every student in the room an opportunity to express their thoughts and opinions on the topic you’re highlighting in your course that day.

You can start a conversation by current events about which students will likely be aware (e.g. a prominent news story or popular happenings on campus), but if you want to ensure that all students are familiar with the topic, you can present that material within the class session. Ideas include the following:

  • Show a brief video that illustrates or elaborates on a topic you’re covering in class.
  • Demonstrate a concept or experiment from the front of the classroom.
  • Read a relevant story or article together.

Once you’ve all read or viewed the example, ask students to discuss the content of what they’ve just seen or heard. By so doing, you can keep the conversation focused on a topic that’s now common to all students, and you’ll also open the door to those who are more reluctant to share their more personal or subjective thoughts.


2. Open with a controversial topic.

Discussion around complex issues can promote curiosity and critical thinking, and also serves to expose students to various points of view on a given topic.

If, over the course of discussion, certain students become too entrenched in defending their own opinions, ask them to attempt to argue the position of the other side. This may help them understand others’ perspectives and see the strengths—and not just the weaknesses—of an alternative viewpoint.


3. Ask questions.

Incorporate a variety of question types into your repertoire. Svinicki and McKeachie describe six types of questions that can lead to good discussions:

  • Basic “factual” questions can help you assess students’ current knowledge of a topic. Because these questions don’t tend to spark deeper thinking or conversation, the authors recommend using these sparingly.
  • Questions focusing on application and interpretation get students to analyze points of information and explore the relationships among  different concepts and ideas.
  • Causal effect questions prompt students to consider the connections among ideas and events, and give thought to what may have brought them about.
  • When you ask students to compare research, theories, events, or the work of various individuals, you help them see the important similarities and differences among the ideas that are critical to your course.
  • Evaluative questions build students’ ability to assess the relative merits of these various theories, works, and ideas.
  • Critical questions encourage students to consider the strengths and weaknesses of a writer or speaker’s argument. What’s more, they can help them adopt critical reading and writing skills in the future. (Svinicki and McKeachie, 41-44)


Reference: Svinicki, Marilla, and Wilbert J. McKeachie. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.


What are your tips for conducting effective classroom conversations? How do you prepare students to engage in meaningful dialogue? Share your suggestions in the comments.