Improving Engagement in Discussions

Students talking around a table

Have you ever relied on a handful of students that you know will get the engagement in discussions started? It happens. While discussions are a great way of assessing knowledge, they target a certain type of student: the confident and talkative ones. These students aren’t afraid to be wrong, ask questions and speak up, but what about the shyer students? If knowledge acquisition is the goal, then there are other types of engagement that offer a space for all students.

Introduce New Skills

Discussions test conversation skills and the confidence to engage. Shy students have a better chance of participation if they can present their understanding in various formats. For instance, integrating writing, problem solving and critical thinking activities includes students with diverse strengths. In return, students with weaker skills will have the chance to practice and perfect them. The following are six different techniques to increase student participation and engagement in discussions.


Reflections are written exercises for students to journal their thoughts on course materials. You can have students submit their thoughts daily or weekly with limited parameters, or you can add more structure using the QCC format or Bloom’s Taxonomy framework. The QCC, or Question, Comment, Connection, format requires students to react to readings or lessons on multiple levels. The question addresses any difficulty that students have understanding. The comment focuses on what students gained from the material and how it helped to shape their knowledge. The connection gives students a chance to prove their understanding by relating themes and ideas to outside examples.

Bloom’s Taxonomy framework provides more freedom within responses. In each submission, students must choose two out of six prompts: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate or create.

Bloom's Taxonomy Framework for creating engaging discussions

Remember asks students to recall pieces of the reading, and then add in their own opinion about the information. Understand encourages students to ask a question, in order to test their own knowledge and further their understanding. Apply gives students creativity by organizing information into a visual aid, such as a timeline, infographic, chart or diagram. Analyze asks students to pick a quote/excerpt/theme from the text, and then compare or contrast it to a similar idea from a different text. Evaluate prepares students’ critique skills by citing evidence for or against ideas in the assigned readings. Finally, create allows students to develop responses using other mediums, such as video, audio, or presentation. Bloom’s create response gives instructors the capability of integrating new platforms into the classroom, like FlipGrid or Genially, which can improve engagement in discussions.


The chance to see outcomes from a different perspective enhances analytical thinking skills. For example, ask students to pretend they are a lawmaker or an editor. Have them advocate for a piece of information to be included or excluded in policies or future editions, so they can take a stance and explain their reasoning. Similarly, ask students to pretend they are the instructor. Have them come up with exam questions, along with right answers, rubrics and explanations. The amalgamation of student questions can become the review and the instructor can fill in the gaps when needed.

Another perspective exercise gives students the chance to think through their “What If” questions. The students will begin to understand the significance of chain reactions and alternate outcomes to history. They can also practice coming up with situations where certain policies, theories or laws might work or when they wouldn’t be appropriate. These exercises teach students skills in tolerance, conflict resolution and empathy from being able to look at ideas from different viewpoints.

Clipart - People behind laptops


Most instructors preach the phrase, “If you are able to teach it, then you know it.” Give students the opportunity to present a lesson or lead a discussion with their peers. Not only will this help the specific student master the material, but it might help other students find new ways to grasp the information. One exercise is to assign students a lesson, then ask them to re-present it using a new mode of learning. Some modes can include, flowcharts, infographics, videos or podcasts.

Alternatively, a student can ask peers to solve/answer a problem or prompt. The assigned student can then provide instructional feedback to peers, after receiving personal feedback from the instructor ahead of time. 

Each of these exercises promotes a learner-learner active engagement. So, all students are ultimately learning, either from teaching the information or obtaining new ways to relay it into further understanding.

Real-Life Scenarios

There is no better way to learn than analyzing and practicing with real situations. These exercises can provide insight into probable situations. The most hands-on example is case studies, which help students gain skills in problem solving, analytical thinking and decision making. Instructors can provide scenarios, then ask students to solve based on information learned in class. Students can present their processes and outcomes, which will prove that there are multiple ways to reach a conclusion, and no two outcomes may be the same. At the end, the instructor can present the real-life process and outcome to compare and contrast with the students.

In fields with a social component, videos are a great tool to learn and identify behaviors. Students can watch videos of real-life scenarios, critique behaviors and etiquette, then explain their findings and reasoning for recognizing certain patterns. Instructors can ask students to follow-up with their own video example of how to act in specific situations or settings.

people talking over a desk

Another way to incorporate real-world information is with related texts or following the news. Both allow students outlets to research common or current events, and then present them or use them in course discussions.


Courses with a lot of dates can get confusing to students, so creating a timeline can help streamline the information. Instructors can assign dates to students, who can then categorize events, themes, people and topics into their specific time periods. If each student or group works on different sections, then an entire course timeline can be completed easily and used for review.


Debates provide skills in critical thinking and engagement, which is more beneficial than the simple class discussion. Instructors can assign students opposing views of a topic and ask them to research their sides before debating. This way, students who are nervous about speaking up have the chance to prepare their ideas and talking points beforehand.

Practice Constructive Criticism

The six discussion techniques are versatile, so they can be done individually or in small groups. Individual work will pave the way for more outcomes and ideas, whereas groups will provide the chance for collaboration and further discussion. Groups can be difficult to manage remotely, especially when trying to see who might need more attention. One way to manage is to ask groups to work on a Google Doc together with access for the instructor to view. When you notice a group appears to be off-track, the instructor can pop into their breakout room and provide direction.

feedback evaluation expectations loop

Feedback is critical for students to grow. However, the ability to give feedback to peers and receive feedback constructively are important skills to practice. When it is time for individuals or groups to share with the class, instructors can ask students to comment on their peers’ work. Students can improve feedback and engagement in discussions by using the warm and cool feedback protocol.

Warm feedback highlights the positives of peer work. It helps students decide what they should emphasize and learn their own strengths. The cool feedback shows the gaps where there might still be questions, regarding the information. It shows where students can make revisions to improve their weaknesses. Finally, there is a third component, called hard feedback. This feedback acts as ‘wishes’ that the student can consider including in future iterations. The warm and cool technique is more commonly known as the roses, thorns and buds exercise.

Engagement in Discussions: Keep it Clear

Students can get overwhelmed with assignments, or start asking limitless questions about expectations. Ease student concerns by keeping them accountable with a rubric. Instructors can create separate rubrics for activities, discussions and feedback, so students are aware of the requirements to succeed. Review the following resources to examine more ideas on improving engagement in discussions or contact your Instructional Designer to discuss other discussion alternatives, like YellowDig.


Mary was on the HyFlex Instructional Design team at FIU in 2020-2021. After graduating from McGill University in 2019 with a bachelor’s in international development studies and psychology, Mary went on to get her master’s in journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. She graduated in May 2020 and went on to work as an Instructional Designer for New York Medical College, which launched her into the position at FIU. As a recent student, Mary believes in the student experience and enjoys creating course designs that remain user-friendly and engaging for instructors and students alike.

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