How to Get Students to Participate in Class Discussions

You’ve just taught one of the most profound theological lessons of the year. You think your lecture was fantastic, amazing, even inspiring. You finish, turn to the class and ask them a question to discuss this amazing lesson. What do you hear? Nothing. Blank stares, no eye contact, and the sound of crickets in the background.

Participate in Class Discussions

It is not easy to get kids to participate in class discussions. Why? There are a number of reasons. It may be the topic or the presentation. It may just be a group of shy students. The class may be waiting for you to call on the “smart kid” who will know the answer. They may not understand your questions. And some students have a fear of speaking in front of the class.

Below are five tips and ten strategies you should use to effectively lead class discussions. What works best for you? Please enter your comments below.

5 Tips for Effectively Leading Class Discussions: 

Choose interesting topics. Sometimes students just aren’t interested in the topic. Let’s face it, most of the time students aren’t that interested. Part of the challenge is to make things interesting for the student by making connections to their lives and the things they ARE interested in discussing.

Ask good questions. Even if students are interested in participating, the questions still need to be clear and direct. Good questions connect to the students’ prior knowledge (things they already know). Good questions are concise. Good questions do not have yes or no answers. Good questions are built up by other good questions.

Try to get everyone to participate. Think for a moment about Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books and movies. She always knows the answer and she is always called upon. The rest of the students expect the teachers to call on her. They may not even listen to the question thinking they won’t have to answer anyways. Make sure all the students are engaged and prepared to answer.

Call on specific students. Don’t set students up for failure. Call on the students who you think will be able to answer or think through the question. Call on their name first then pose the question to make sure they are listening. Then, bounce the question off of other students. For example, “Johnny, do you agree? Why?”

Don’t damage their self-confidence. Many students have developed habits of not participating in class because they have consistently been told they were wrong by the teacher. When a student answers incorrectly, pose the question back to them. Have them explain their answers and help them uncover the correct answer. Compliment often. Follow the 4:1 rule. Four compliments for every corrective feedback.

10 Teaching Strategies for Class Discussions: 

Popsicle Sticks and Note Cards – Use popsicle sticks or note cards with the students’ names on them to call on students randomly. This will keep students listening to the questions if they know they might be called on to answer. You can also use these to make sure all of the student have participated in a certain day.

Ball Toss – To add a little fun and excitement, use a soft ball (or rolled up sock) to designate the single person that is able to speak. When another person wants to participate, they can raise their hand and wait for the ball to be passed to them. The teachers should also request the ball to speak.

Think-Pair-Share – Give the students some time to formulate their answers to questions by working on them individually (“think”), then discussing their responses with a partner (“pair”), and finally sharing with the class what they discussed (“share”).

Chalk Talk – Write a word or phrase on the board. Give a few students markers (chalk) to write words or responses that they associate with the word or phrase. Once they have finished, they can give the markers to another student. Warn the them that there is no talking during the activity, only writing. Have the students without markers copy what students write on the board and write their personal thoughts to ensure that it stays quiet.

Devil’s Advocate/Provacation – As the teacher/catechist, try to defend a statement that is outrageous or controversial. Make the students really believe that you mean what you say and they will be much more likely to discuss and debate. Rehash the discussion aftwards.

Talking Chips – Distribute poker chips or tickets that can be used to participate in class. This will make sure that certain students do not dominate the discussions.

Fishbowl Discussion – Select a group of students to sit in the front of the room in chairs arranged in a half-circle facing the class (shaped like a bowl). Pose questions to the students in the front of the room and allow them to discuss. The rest of the students in the audience may raise their hands to pose a question or take the place of a student “in the fishbowl” but they may not speak or engage in the discussion while at their desks. Note that this often requires that the students have learned/researched a lot about a topic before they can have a meaningful discussion such as this.

Class Grid – This comes in handy for larger classes. Divide your seating chart into four quadrants (you don’t necessarily need a chart) by drawing two lines diving the paper up. Make check marks or dashes each time you call on a student in that part of the room. This will ensure that you are calling on students in each part of the room and not just the front (or side).

Class Discussion Checklist – Print out a list of students in a table with days of the week on top of the table (or use your gradebook). Place a checkmark on the day next to the name of each student that participates in class. Note: it can be difficult to recall who participated afterward so make sure you check people off while they speak. This is challenging when you wish to be engaged in the discussion yourself.

Discussion Rubric– When I graded class discussions my rubrics typically looked something like this:

  • A – Paraphrases, acknowledges, or refutes information related to the topic, reading, lecture, etc.
  • B – Showed comprehension of topic, reading, lecture, etc. Make good comments/arguments that may not be related to the reading/lecture.
  • C – Participates by actively paying attention by listening, watching, and/or taking notes.
  • D – Does not participate and shows minimum attentiveness to discussion
  • F – Shows unwillingness to participate and disrupts the discussion

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About Jared Dees

Jared Dees is the creator of The Religion Teacher. He is the Content Marketing Manager at Ave Maria Press and the author of 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator, To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach, and Praying the Angelus.


  1. kkollwitz says:

    Good post.

    I'll add that when Q&A is woven into the lecture itself, it's easier to maintain the kids' participation & responsiveness.

    I like your blunt use of the word 'lecture'. Too often in catechesis I believe people shy away from the term, but I like its connotations of substance and seriousness.

  2. Jared Dees, M.Ed. says:

    Thanks kkollwitz, I totally agree. I like to plan lectures in an interactive way with questions and activities interwoven throughout. It is also important to help students organize information during a lecture with note-taking strategies. This will make a big difference in post-lecture discussions.

  3. Amazing_Grace says:

    Great post!!!!!!! Loved the tips & strategies!!!!! :)

  4. Nick Senger says:

    Valuable information, as usual! Thanks.

    One of my favorite teacher apps for the iPod Touch is TeachersPick, a .99 app for randomly choosing students. After you enter all your students' names, it will randomly select one and let you cross them off as they are chosen. Great for discussions or anytime you need a student selected at random. Here's the url:

  5. Barb In Nebraska says:

    I also want to share a new app I've added to my iPod Touch. It's called Teacher's Pick and has replaced my popsicle sticks.

  6. Jared Dees, M.Ed. says:

    Wow…now I REALLY want an iPhone. Thanks for the tip Nick and Barb.

  7. says:

    Some really great ways to engage students! Thanks for posting Jared!