Discussion is “the effort of a group of individuals who talk informally together in order to solve commonly recognized problems or to arrive at an understanding of values (Walter & Scott, 1966, p. 186). Although bearing a long history and used extensively in all types of educational settings, permeating through various teaching methods, discussion rose to the focus of research and practice fairly recently, having been overshadowed by teacher talk, which dominated classroom activity until late 1980s.

Today’s educational literature continues to explore discussion as a close parallel of cooperative learning, where students of all levels of performance work together in groups to achieve a common goal (Garside, 1996). In discussions, students “compare existing ideas and opinions, generate new ones, and pursue questions of personal interest” in order to explore concepts rather than discovering facts (Bierman, Butler & Reuter, n.d.).

In higher education settings, discussion can take the format of short discussion sessions interspersed between lectures (Smith et al., 2005; Huxham, 2005), or scheduled as separate blocks apart from classroom lectures. Discussions can be conducted in large or small groups, and can be prompted by teacher questions or by assigned group leaders (Jackson, 1995). Discussion has been commonly studied as an effective form of active learning, with highlighted examples of using small-group discussion and peer discussion in undergraduate classes of biology (Allen & Tanner, 2005), genetics (Smith et al, 2009), physiology (Lake, 2001), engineering (White, 1945), anatomy (Erskine & Tomkin, 1963), communications (Garside, 1996), business (Burton, Johnston & Wilson, 1991) and geology (Bierman, Butler & Reuter, n.d.).

Discussion is an efficient way to generate dynamic engagement even in large classes. It can help to create “excitement” in classrooms (Bonwell & Eisen, 1991). While students may experience anxiety in speaking in a large class, group discussions allow them to share thoughts first among a small number of peers, which appears less daunting than voicing a personal opinion (Allen & Tanner, 2005). Discussion serves two compensation functions: it compensates for limited individual time in traditionally lecture-based classrooms, particularly for large classes in undergraduate foundational courses; it also supplements instructor explanation to foster substantial conceptual understanding (Hestenes, Wells & Swackhamer, 1992) and enable students to reflect and restructure their learning as active participants instead of passive spectators.

Empirical research has proved the positive effects of discussion on enhancing conceptual understanding and generating interest in learning. Group discussion is found to help achieve higher performances in tests, as verbalizing an idea or concept helps with memorization and integration with other concepts (Lake, 2011). In particular, with its positive effect on recall and understanding, short discussion as “interactive windows” between lectures helps improve students’ performance in examinations, particularly in short answer and essay type questions, (Huxham, 2005). In general, discussion promotes students’ interests in more serious and purposeful reading, as well as their ability to learn things that they find little relevance with or that contradict with their existing beliefs (Garside, 1996).

While scholars have yet to determine whether more frequent discussion leads to greater knowledge acquisition (Springer, Stanne & Donovan, 1999), evidence is found for its contribution to improved higher-order thinking. Discussion requires students to recall prior knowledge and better integrate information (Schmidt et al., 1989). The verbal expression process inherent in discussion enhances students’ abilities in effective presentation of problems and evaluation of identified solutions (Vansickle & Hoge, 1991). Ultimately, students will gain better proficiency in justifying arguments, conducting critical examination of others’ opinions, and developing the “communicative and metacognitive skills that are crucial components of disciplinary expertise” (Smith et al., 2009, p. 124).

Jackson (1995) has addressed the importance and provided tips on the careful preparation for an effective discussion, including preparing good discussion-starting questions, providing a safe and encouraging space and classroom norms, and effectively leading the discussion. For small group discussions, it is preferable to have groups of eight to ten (Erskine & Tomkin, 1963). It is also useful to conclude student-centered activities with a brief, instructor-led, whole-class discussion that provides feedback to students on their responses and makes additional connections to the lecture material (Allen & Tanner, 2005).


 Written by Danxi Shen, Ed.M., Harvard Graduate School of Education




Allen, D., & Tanner, K. (2005). Infusing active learning into the large-enrollment biology class: seven strategies, from the simple to complex. Cell Biology Education, 4(4), 262-268.

Bierman, P., Butler, E., & Reuter, J. Earth Hazards: An introductory class combining the sciences of education and geology at the University of Vermont. Retrieved from http://www.uvm.edu/~earthhaz/hazards/Discussion.html.

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, The George Washington University.

Burton, S., Johnston, M. W., & Wilson, E. J. (1991). An experimental assessment of alternative teaching approaches for introducing business ethics to undergraduate business students. Journal of Business Ethics, 10(7), 507-517.

Erskine, C. A., & Tomkin, A. (1963). Evaluation of the effect of the group discussion method in a complex teaching program. Academic Medicine, 38(12), 1036-1042.

Garside, C. (1996). Look who's talking: A comparison of lecture and group discussion teaching strategies in developing critical thinking skills. Communication Education, 45, 212-227.

Hestenes, D., Wells, M., & Swackhamer, G. (1992). Force concept inventory. The physics teacher, 30(3), 141-158.

Huxham, M. (2005). Learning in lectures Do ‘interactive windows’ help?. Active learning in higher education, 6(1), 17-31

Jackson, T., & Ed, M. (1995). More activities that teach. Red Rock Publishing.

Lake, D. A. (2001). Student performance and perceptions of a lecture-based course compared with the same course utilizing group discussion. Physical Therapy, 81(3), 896-902.

Schmidt, Henk G., De Volder, Maurice L., De Grave, Willem S., Moust, Jos H. C., & Patel, Vimla L. (1989). Explanatory models in the processing of science text: The role of prior knowledge activation through small-group discussion. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(4), 610-619.

Smith, K. A., Sheppard, S. D., Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2005). Pedagogies of engagement: Classroom‐based practices. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 87-101.

Smith, M. K., Wood, W. B., Adams, W. K., Wieman, C., Knight, J. K., Guild, N., & Su, T. T. (2009). Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science, 323(5910), 122-124.

Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research, 69(1), 21-51.

VanSickle, R. L., & Hoge, J. D. (1991). Higher cognitive thinking skills in social studies: Concepts and critiques. Theory & Research in Social Education, 19(2), 152-172.

Walter, O. M., & Scott, R. L. (1968). Thinking and speaking: A guide to intelligent oral communication. Macmillan.

White JR. Methods in engineering laboratory instruction. Journal of Engineering Education, 11, 50–54.



Further Resources:

  • Benzing, C., & Christ, P. (1997). A survey of teaching methods among economics faculty. The Journal of Economic Education28(2), 182-188.
  • Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE bulletin3, 7.
  • Clement, D. E. (1971). Learning and retention in student-led discussion groups. The Journal of Social Psychology, 84(2), 279-286.
  • Diamond, M. J. (1972). Improving the undergraduate lecture class by use of student-led discussion groups. American Psychologist27(10), 978.
  • Neumann, R., Parry, S., & Becher, T. (2002). Teaching and learning in their disciplinary contexts: A conceptual analysis. Studies in higher education27(4), 405-417.