Equitable Academic Discussion Routines

This activity follows an adjustable sequence of steps and rules for engagement to ensure that all students, even in large classes, are able to find each session clear, accessible, rigorous, and relevant and to feel that the classroom culture offers them an equal opportunity to speak. As part of these routines, hands are never immediately called on when the instructor asks a question. Instead, all students are expected to develop an answer and then collaborate with their peers to develop a group answer, and a representative from each group shares the group’s response. Rules for engagement, explicit criteria for meeting and exceeding expectations, and transparent discussion routines ensure that all students can access the discussion and be optimally challenged during class.

Introduction: Though academic discussions are not new, the structure and routine of these discussions are, and they are a necessary feature of inclusive classrooms where all students voices are heard and valued. Too often, the social regulation that takes place in group discussions provides certain students more time than others to express their ideas and practice using academic language in class. By including equitable academic discussion routines in every class, the instructor ensures that at least some time is protected for equity and inclusion of all student voices. This also enables the instructor to learn from and listen to all students in every class, increasing the visibility of students who are often marginalized through traditional teaching methods. Students also have a chance to see the talents of peers they would not otherwise meet because student discussions tend to occur where students happen to be sitting. Student learning is deepened through the connection-making and elaboration promoted by the routine, and all students are able to practice using the academic language needed for academic reading and writing.


Goals: This activity aims to ensure that:

(1) all students are valued and seen by their instructor and peers during each lesson;

(2) the instructor can listen, observe, and learn from students while they engage in discussion;

(3) students make deeper connections and receive feedback on their learning in every class;

(4) students form relationships with course peers, not just students who happen to be sitting near them;

(5) the product or outcome of these discussions (answers, questions, connections) can be used to tailor the next part of class to student learning strengths and needs; and

(6) students never leave class feeling confused about the material.


Procedure- Before Class: The instructor must prepare a purpose for the outcome of the discussion, e.g., student-generated questions, responses to a question, comparisons, arguments, or connections. He or she must also prepare “quality” criteria, which are requirements for the discussion product or outcome, and “amazing” criteria, which students meet when they go above and beyond. All students should exhibit at least one amazing criterion in each of their responses. When groups share their responses, listeners should be challenged to listen for quality criteria. Because groups will have chosen different amazing criteria, it is fun for listeners to look out for them. Instructors should also plan rules for engagement. So, for example, students who were absent from the previous class should serve as reporters for their groups, sharing summaries of the previous lesson. Rules ensure equity and equal opportunity for all students. Finally, instructors should plan how to adjust their instruction based on student responses, reflecting on how and why these products or outcomes matter.


Procedure- During Class: Equitable discussion routines are taught during the first class and used approximately 5 or 6 times each lesson. They proceed in a sequence that always includes writing, free discussion, teacher direction or explicit instruction, and a structured discussion, which involves the instructor controlling turns and time for speaking so that students can focus on learning instead of social regulation in their discussion groups.

Group sizes may vary, ranging from elbow partners to triad stations to groups of 6 to 10 students. This instructor assigns four or five different student groupings that can be used for discussion. This helps students get to know everyone, even in large classes. She forms these groups based on different purposes for discussion. One grouping might be organized by student interests, another by learning goals for the course, and a third by diversity of background experiences. She uses the same academic discussion routine three times during the first class with groups of different sizes so that she can establish the routine. She teaches the rules for engagement and explains how students should use the quality criteria to develop the discussion and their responses. Together with students, the instructor may add rules and adjust the routine to best meet the class’s needs.

Tip: The instructor recommends starting small, with structured exchanges with elbow partners or assigned groups of three, and using the routine at least once each class.

The routine proceeds as follows:

  1. Students jot, draw, or write their responses to a question or reading.
  2. Then, students form the assigned groups. Following the rules (the instructor determines who speaks first, the time each person has to speak, and how much silent thinking time should pass between speakers), each student shares his or her response. Students proceed to discuss freely and openly.
  3. Students then individually write or revise their responses, and they write reflections comparing their before-discussion responses to their after-discussion responses. This reflection measures how much they have learned from the discussion.
  4. Each group submits its response—through a group representative, Google Doc, or survey—so that the teacher can immediately collect one response from each group. The entire class listens to or looks at the responses, and students participate in a short discussion with their groups about how their response compares with the responses of other groups.
  5. The teacher uses these responses to shape the next part of instruction. For example, the teacher might invite students to listen for answers to the questions generated by the groups in the next part of a lecture.

Instructions can be presented in a slideshow. However, once students know the routine, the instructor can call out “Triad Stations” or “Rumors,” and students will form their groups and engage in discussion because it will have become routine.


Post-Activity: These equitable academic discussions end with reflection and goal-setting. Students write down their reflections, revisiting their pre-discussion thoughts and considering how their thinking has been confirmed, challenged, and/or changed as a result of discussion with peers. Students consult the quality criteria to evaluate whether these qualities are present in their responses. They are also asked to specify something new they have learned from or about a peer through these discussions.

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