Reading, Writing & Discussion

Three key ways to engage students and support their learning are through readings, writings, and discussions.

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Sometimes engaging students in assigned reading can be difficult, especially in required courses where the connections between student majors and the course being taught have a much wider gap than in classes with more closely related content. Below are a couple suggestions for how this interest gap can be lessened with intentional care toward active learning and critical thinking practices. 

One suggestion for encouraging critical thinking and active learning is the use of the Treasure Hunt technique (Magnan, 1990). This strategy is based on the premise that if you've assigned a reading, there must be something valuable for the students in it. Choose several pages or sections, and then ask students to find the most important point, idea, or argument and write it down, along with a sentence or two justifying their selection. If you choose assigned passages well, you can increase understanding and participation immediately.

Magnan, R., Ed. (1990). 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison: Magna.

Another strategy that allows for active engagement with reading material is close reading. To promote close reading, have your students get into groups, and assign each group a number of paragraphs to summarize and analyze. This exercise works best if you assign the paragraphs in a sequential order, starting from the beginning and working through to the conclusion. This exercise assumes that students can explore an excerpt from a reading in more depth than an entire article or chapter. After 10-15 minutes of group work, have each group report their findings to the class. By guiding the conversation, you can have the students shift from summarizing their paragraphs to synthesizing the major themes and ideas from the reading. With this exercise, you can maintain both an ordered as well as an open discussion of the reading.

For more ideas on how to foster critical thinking among your students, watch this Two-Minute Mentor video with KU faculty members Sheyda Jahanbani and Betsy Brand Six. 


John C. Bean suggests several ways to incorporate writing into a class, including:

  • Writing at the beginning of class to probe a subject: ask students to write short answers to a question that reviews previous material or stimulates interest in what's coming.
  • Writing during class to refocus a lagging discussion or cool off a heated one: when students run out of things to say, or when a discussion gets too hot, ask students to write for a few minutes.
  • Writing at the end of class to sum up a lecture or discussion: give students a few minutes to sum up the day's lecture or discussion and to prepare questions to ask at the start of the next class.

For large lecture-based courses, Bean offers a number of strategies to get students writing; for example, you can break the pace of a lecture using "minute papers," which are essentially free-writes that ask students to explore some aspect of the lecture through writing—they take longer than a minute to write, but you can have students compose them at any point, or minute, in the lecture. You can also ask students to summarize one of your previous lectures. This exercise helps students tap into prior knowledge at the start of a new class.

You might considering designing writing assignments that ask students to question your lectures: ask them to find some aspect of the lecture that they question or disagree with. This kind of writing allows them to draw from prior conceptions, which you can correct if they are misconceptions, and personal experiences. Another strategy Bean offers for lecture-based courses is to design writing assignments that engage directly with your lectures. For example, you can give students a prompt that quotes a previous lecture and ask your students to write responses to that quotation. These exercises provide many opportunities to incorporate writing into large, lecture-based courses, and they can also be applied to smaller course sections that are predominately centered on discussion.

Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Generating Discussion

The most common approach to encouraging active learning in the classroom is the use of discussion. Here are several methods you can use to achieve the difficult task of drawing students into lectures, discussions, and readings.


One suggestion for engaging students in active learning is using the Thumb's Up technique (Ukens, 2000). To implement this technique, ask students to form groups of six to ten people (or fewer if you're teaching a small class) with each group sitting in a circle. Participants will discuss topics within their groups. To keep everyone involved, each person is to extend his or her fist toward the middle of the circle. Once discussion begins, each member is to share, in any order, one idea or piece of information on the topic. As each person shares, his or her thumb will go up. A person may not share again until all thumbs are up. Then, members can begin again and continue the process. After a certain length of time, stop the discussion. If you wish, repeat with new topics.

You can also ask students to frame the discussion, or determine the direction of the discussion. Have students identify one question from their readings that they would like to have answered in class. Ask them to share their question with three peers, and then have the group pick one of the three questions to present to the instructor. Allow each group to ask its question, and encourage other students to provide answers to these questions.

Some additional ideas for sparking discussions include:

  • Frame discussions around students' questions.
  • Have students write their answers to a sentence completion exercise, then share their ideas: What most struck me about the reading was… A question I'd like to ask the author is … The idea I disagree with most strongly is … The part of the lecture/reading that made the most sense to me was…
  • Ask students to respond to a contentious opening statement or an illustrative quote.
  • Have students recall an experience in their lives that somehow connects with the topics.

Another strategy that several KU faculty members have found useful is called the fishbowl, a discussion format in which part of the class forms a discussion circle and remaining students form a listening circle around the discussion group.

In a large group discussion, once it is moving along, questions that can keep it going include questions that ask for more evidence or clarification. Ask How? or Why? Pose questions that link or extend the discussion, that address the cause and effect, and that ask for synthesis or summary of the material. Other ways to encourage discussion are by affirming student comments and being silent when appropriate. In his book Teaching Tips, W.J. McKeackie (2002) notes that many lecturers check student understanding by asking if there are any questions, waiting 3-5 seconds, and after receiving no response conclude that everyone understands. But this is often not the case; the students just have not had enough time to process the material. So McKeachie recommends, "If you really want to know, give students a minute to write down a question, then have them compare notes with students sitting near them before asking for questions. You'll get some."

McKeachie, W.J. (2002). McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 11th Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

If discussions are not going well because no one is talking, consider the following questions:

  • Did students complete preparatory assignments?
  • Have you modeled public critique of your ideas?
  • Is the discussion focused on an open-ended question of sufficient complexity and ambiguity?
  • Have you ensured that you've avoided answering the question you've posed, either implicitly or explicitly?
  • Have you linked the topic to a critical event in students' previous experiences?
  • Is your talking preventing students from contributing, or is discussion faltering because you don't speak enough?
  • What are you doing to build continuity and a sense of collaborative engagement?

When it comes time to conclude a discussion, end with a summary so that students know what important points were covered. A summative statement also allows the instructor the opportunity to fill in points that weren't covered and praise the class for the quality of their responses.