©Marva A. Barnett

Marva A. Barnett, University of Virginia Teaching Resource Center

Student-Initiated Discussion: Whys & Hows (see also "Whose Course Is It? Students as Course Co-Creators")


  • New ideas: Students broach ideas and questions that have never occurred to you.
  • Greater student engagement: Students very quickly perceive that their questions matter, that they, in fact, define the direction of much of the class period.
  • Powerful positive peer pressure: Students depend on each other for interesting questions and for help with answers.
  • Better student preparation: Students are much more likely to have read the text carefully and to have prepared thoughtful questions.
  • More student confidence in ideas: Students have a chance to air some ideas in small groups and are thus much more confident about presenting them to the entire class. As a result, discussion is more lively.
  • Development of community spirit: Because the students work in small groups, because their questions direct the discussion, and because the questions on the board are anonymous rather than attributed to individuals, the class develops a certain esprit de corps.
  • Ease in grading: Because so much of the discussion is student-initiated and because students are more willing to speak, you have more freedom to pay attention to the quality of students' comments and thus have more confidence in your participation grades.


  • You need to have mastered the material much better than if you control the discussion.
  • You must be able to give up some measure of control to gain energy, ideas, and enthusiasm from the students.
  • You will probably not manage to cover all the "key" discussion points you had noted. As a trade-off, you receive increased student thinking and involvement.

Your preparation for the discussion:

1) In reading the assigned text, note what you think are the key discussion points. Prioritize them, if necessary, knowing that you have only so much time.

2) Decide how much time you want to dedicate to this particular discussion in order to determine how lengthy an assignment you will make and how thoroughly students will work with their questions.

Assignment to the students:

Along with whatever else you want the students to do with a text, ask them to write two or three questions to share with classmates. You can accept any question or define the type of questions you would like (e.g., questions of comprehension, analytical questions, questions the asker cannot answer, opinion questions, etc.).

In class:

Group work:

1) Ask the students to work in cooperative groups of three or four (see the info sheet on cooperative learning) to answer as many of each other's questions as possible (5-10 minutes). The remaining questions are now real questions that no one in their group can answer.

2) Have the students organize these questions in a logical way: e.g., comprehension questions vs. analytical questions; fact questions vs. opinion questions; questions that can be answered from the text vs. questions that require additional information.

3) Write the categories on the board, or on a transparency.

4) Invite a student from each group to write the most interesting questions of each type on the board (or on a transparency). Decide how many questions to take from each group depending on how much time you have for this discussion.

Whole class work:

1) Make sure that the questions are accurately categorized on the board.

2) Take a minute or two to decide in what order to take the questions to create a logical discussion. For example, you might decide to treat the simpler or more concrete questions first, then the more analytical or complex. (You will be surprised, perhaps, to find that by following students' questions you can cover much of the material you found to be essential when you prepared the class.)

3) Work through the questions with the class, asking students to clarify questions when necessary and challenging the other students to answer these questions remaining from group work.

4) Your task is to make sure that as many essential ideas as possible are discussed and to weave the students' questions and comments into coherent discourse.


1) Student groups can present the most interesting question and their answer to the entire class.

2) You can ask student groups to synthesize and prioritize their remaining questions.

3) After getting comfortable with this activity by working in small groups, students may prefer to raise their questions before the entire class.

4) You can invite individual students to write their most interesting question on the board before class begins. Of course, with this system, the students who arrive early are most likely to have a chance to ask their questions; thus you might want to use it sparingly.

5) Students can send their questions to classmates (and you) over e-mail ahead of the class meeting (see article by Jahan Ramazani). This method is most suited to larger projects with a longer time frame, since students need time to prepare their questions, reach a networked computer and send them, read colleagues' questions. Because of these multiple steps, fewer students may be prepared for class than with the simpler method.