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Section 1. Setting Expectations, Creating a Culture of Discussion, Setting Tone and Ground Rules

Good preparation (by teachers and students) is a prerequisite for good discussion. The following guidelines may be used in the classroom to set expectations, create a culture of discussion, and set the ground rules and proper tone for discussion in the classroom.

Inform students in advance about the topic
Model democratic exchange
Use "critical incident" questionnaires
Assign to students structured, critical pre-reading to create a culture of discussion
Establish ground rules for healthy discussions and to set the tone
Clarify expectations and purpose of discussion
Section 1 Resources

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Inform students in advance about the topic.

  • Ensure all participants have equal access to information about all relevant perspectives – even contentious ones.
  • Ensure equal access to information by considering students' economic, time, computer access, and transportation constraints.
  • Consider making the information accessible to students before the course begins. An information packet could be mailed to all students well before the course begins.

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Model democratic exchange.

  • Begin and end lectures with one or more questions for the students to answer;
  • End every lecture by asking students to articulate questions your lecture has raised or left unanswered;
  • Model comfort with silence. Silence is essential to good discussion as it allows participants time to consider each other's perspectives and formulate their own responses. Make it explicit that "silence does not represent a vacuum in discussion";
  • Model willingness to consider different viewpoints by deliberately introducing alternative perspectives; and,
  • Teach students how to engage in "assumption hunting" (i.e., identifying and scrutinizing the assumptions upon which they base their thoughts and actions).

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Use "critical incident" questionnaires.

  • In last few minutes of the last class period of the week, ask students to jot down their anonymous responses to the following questions:


  • At what moment in class this week were you most engaged as a learner?
  • At what moment in class this week were you most distanced as a learner?
  • What action that anyone in the room took this week did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone in the room took this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What surprised you most about the class this week?


  • Make the anonymous results available to the class at the start of the next week.
  • Provide opportunities to model a non-defensive response to criticism. Be prepared for feedback. Use the opportunity to model openness and modulate your emotions without taking the critique personally.

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Assign to students structured, critical pre-reading to create a culture of discussion.

  • Create structure by providing a set of critical questions that do not lead to any clear answer or resolution.
  • Consider building these questions around the following themes: (Adapted directly from Brookfield & Preskill, 2005. Much of the information that follows is taken verbatim from the original authors, but the section as a whole is abridged.)


  • Epistemological Questions (Essentially, how did the author come to know that something is true?)


To what extent does the writing seem culturally biased?
To what extent are the central points grounded in documented empirical evidence?
  • Experiential Questions (Questions that lead students to look at the ideas through the lens of personal experience)


To what extent are the experiences described in the text congruent with or contradicted by your own experiences?
  • Communicative Questions (How does the author convey meaning? Does that method tend to clarify or confuse?)

To what extent is the text of practical use?
  • Political Questions (Questions that alert students to ways in which a text may represent certain interests and challenge others)

Whose interests are served in the text?
  • To what extent does the text challenge or confirm existing values and ideologies? 
Note:  Additional examples can be found in Brookfield & Preskill, 2005.

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Establish ground rules for healthy discussions and to set the tone.

If we want students to take discussion seriously, and want our discussions to be constructive, it is imperative that we establish rules of conduct and codes of behavior. The goal here is NOT to orchestrate or constrain WHAT students say, but HOW they say it (i.e., how they treat each other).

Spend some time at the outset of a discussion-oriented course talking with students about what ground rules they wish to establish. Have them articulate what it will look like if they exercise respect, good manners, and courtesy.

  • Have students individually jot notes about the best and worst discussions they've ever participated in, including their impressions of what made those discussions so satisfying or so unsatisfactory.
  • In groups of 4, discuss your experiences, looking for common themes that can help you articulate what kinds of conversation you hope to see in this course, as well as things you hope to avoid in this course.
  • For each characteristic you WANT, list three things the group might do to ensure that those things happen. Be specific and concrete. Then do the same for characteristics you hope to avoid.
  • Using input from all small groups, draft a set of ground rules that all can agree upon. (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, pp. 53-54)


An alternative for generating ground rules is suggested by Johnson, Johnson, & Smith (1991a, 1991b). This is suggested for groups that may lack an inherent sense of collaboration and cooperation.

  • For every characteristic students say they want in their discussions, set up a "T-Chart."
  • Write the characteristic at the top, and in a T-chart below, guide them in articulating what that characteristic would look like, and what it would sound like if it happened in reality. For example, if students identify mutual respect as a desired characteristic of their discussions, the T-chart might look as follows:


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Clarify expectations and purpose of discussion.

Most students will have had at least one negative experience with class discussions in the past. Being clear about what you hope to achieve through discussion will help them get past prior bad experiences and increase their willingness to participate.

  • Refer to "Truth in Advertising Statements" (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, p. 59) for language appropriate to insert into the syllabus that…


  • explains in specific terms why you believe discussion is beneficial in this course;
  • makes explicit your confidence that all students have experiences that can serve as the basis for participation;
  • makes explicit your dual role as a catalyst for critical conversation and as a model for respectful conversation;
  • expresses the expectation that all students will participate in a constructive, serious manner, and if they are not prepared to do so, they should probably find another course that better meets their expectations (if feasible); and,
  • etc. (whatever else you want to establish as expectations from the outset).


  • Invite students from a recent past class to visit the first or second meeting of the class to describe to new students what will be expected of them in the course and offer advice about how to thrive in the course. Alternatively, have students write a letter to their successors identifying the essentials they think incoming students should know and do in order to have a positive experience in the class.

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Brookfield, S.D. and S. Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1999.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. (1991a). Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Edina, MN.: Interaction.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. (1991b). Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity. Edina, MN.: Interaction.

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