Active Learning Strategy: Small Group Discussion

Overview and Introduction: The WHAT and WHO

Discussions are an active learning strategy that provides opportunities for students to discuss the lesson content throughout the lesson in pairs, small groups or as a whole group. 

Discussions can be as flexible as needed, depending on the intended purpose [1]:

    • Clarify difficult content
    • Determine solutions for a problem
    • Compare and contrast
    • Collect student opinions about a topic
    • Clear up misconceptions
    • Other

This strategy relies heavily on the instructor’s creation of high level, intentional questions that can [2]:  Stimulate critical thinking, motivate students, encourage curiosity, assess student knowledge and promote a safe and positive learning environment.  When designing questions, take into consideration the level of thinking required of students.  Bloom’s Taxonomy [3], is a thinking framework that organizes thinking from lower level skills to higher level skills.  It is suggested that instructors ask a variety of low and high level questions during the lesson.  Bloom’s taxonomy can serve as a valuable tool when designing questions to assess student knowledge within the levels of thinking [4].  Other sources for designing question stems include:  Socratic question stems [5] and Depth of Knowledge (DOK) [6] question stems.

The use of class discussion can be used in a variety of courses, modalities, and with all learners.  Certain considerations must be made, depending on the class modality. 

Be cognizant of the  student demographics in the course.  Arizona State University has a large population of international students, whose primary language may not be English.  For that reason, think ahead of how to support all ESL learners in the course.   


Implementation and Timing: The WHEN, WHERE, and HOW

The use of discussions will vary based on class modality.  For in-person, virtual synchronous and hybrid courses,  discussions can be used throughout a daily lesson.  Instructors must focus on building questions prior to instruction.  The questions can then be woven into the lesson instruction, allowing learners to discuss the content.  Typically if students are discussing the content to support comprehension, the conversations should be kept to between one and three minutes before moving onto additional lesson content.  Determine the intended purpose of the discussion to better determine time limits.  If students are asked to debate a topic, determine problems and solutions, they may require more time to discuss.  This additional time will need to be built into the class time.

Virtual asynchronous courses can embed discussion threads into weekly modules using Canvas or Ed Discussion and can be assigned points for participation. Below are several strategies based on class modality:


Traditional-Sized Course

In Person-

Large Course





-Pair learners up based on seating location

-Allow students the chance to share out to the whole class

-Prior to class, input student names into a randomizer name picker.  Allow students to pass if they are too shy

-Plan for absent people and how pairings will be adjusted

-Plan for odd pairings and how they will still receive equal discussion time

-Train UGTAs & TAs how to quickly assist in grouping and monitoring conversations

-Plan for absent learners and how pairings will be adjusted using the space

-Plan for odd pairings

-Rove around the entire space and listen in to conversations.  Highlight good points you heard.

-allow students to respond in chat.  Acknowledge their responses and read some aloud

-Place students in breakout rooms to discuss.  They can capture group thoughts on a virtual program (Zoom Whiteboard, Jamboard, etc.)

-Prior to class, input student names into a randomizer name picker.  Allow students to pass if they are shy

– Interactive presentation websites (like clickers)

– Zoom Whiteboard / Jamboard (online collaboration apps)

-Use the discussion tool in Canvas or Ed Discussion

-Ask open-ended questions 

-Make sure to comment on some of their posts.  This communicates you value their thoughts and find this task valuable

-Communicate how many times discussion posts should occur per week/module and assign points

-Expect them to comment on the threads of their peers.  Follow up to address the quality of responses.  Consider having UGTAs follow up with students on discussion threads

-See the Discussion Board Prompts QRG for more ideas and resources

What if students do not respond to a direct question you pose?  

  • Rephrase-restate the question in a different way.  Maybe the question structure was initially confusing.  This also allows second-language learners another chance to process the question
  • Redirect- Once a student has responded, ask another student to add or refute the comment 
  • Use wait time-allow at least five seconds of wait time before calling on someone  

General Implementation Tips

  • Accessibility for all- keep instructions clear; avoid long paragraphs and sentences
  • Provide students your rationale for the use of discussions 
  • Determine expectations/norms (especially if the content might be divisive or evoke strong opinions)
  • Address discussion inequities to ensure all students have a chance to share their voice
  • Provide positive reinforcement to students
  • Provide discussion closure-summarize key points, themes, link to the lesson learning
  • Virtual asynchronous classes- comment on student threads

Rationale and Research: The WHY

The act of promoting student discourse in classroom settings has been well established over the years.  It is a highly used strategy and instructors find the use of discussion supports students in establishing ideas and clearly communicating those ideas.  Discussion with peers exposes students to the attitudes and perspectives of others and can promote active listening [7]. “A good give-and-take discussion can produce unmatched learning experiences as students articulate their ideas, respond to their classmates’ points, and develop skills in evaluating the evidence of their own and others’ positions” [p. 63, 8]. A simple discussion has the potential to assist students to learn in a multitude of ways. To promote discussions in the classroom, the use of questioning plays an important role. Numerous studies have examined the effect questions and the level of questions (lower order vs. higher order) has on student achievement. Results from a meta-analysis of twenty studies on the teacher’s use of ‘lower” and “higher” cognitive questions found that students made academic gains when higher cognitive questions took precedence in a classroom setting [9]. To promote deeper levels of content understanding, instructors must consider the level of questioning and focus on higher order questions. This in turn will promote deeper discussions of the content.  

Additional Resources and References

[1]  L. Davidson and N. Lopez, “Facilitating discussion,” Google Docs. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 07-Nov-2022]. 

[2]  “The University of Chicago,” Asking Effective Questions – Chicago Center for Teaching and Learning, 2022. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 07-Nov-2022].

[3]  P. Armstrong, “Bloom’s taxonomy,” Bloom’s Taxonomy, 2022. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 07-Nov-2022]. 

[4]  “Revised Bloom’s taxonomy’–’Question Starters.’” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 07-Nov-2022]. 

[5] “Socratic seminar question stems – spartanburg county school district 7.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 07-Nov-2022]. 

[6] “Depth of knowledge question stems – actively learn.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 16-Nov-2022]. 

[7]  E. F. Barkley, C. H. Major, and K. P. Cross, Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005. 

[8]  D. B. Gross, Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993. 

[9]  D. L. Redfield and E. Waldman Rousseau, “A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Research on Teacher Questioning Behavior.,” Review of Educational Research, vol. 51, no. 2, pp. 237–245, 1981.