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A User's Manual for Student-Led Discussion

Gale Rhodes (contact information)
Robert Schaible, Professor of Arts and Humanities, Lewiston-Auburn College

We published a version of this manual in"Talking students/listening teachers: The student-led discussion." Robert Schaible and Gale Rhodes, Issues & Inquiry in College Teaching & Learning, 15, 44, 1992, and in "Talking students, listening teachers: A user's manual for student-led discussion." W.G. Rhodes and Robert Schaible, in The Joy of Learning, Willard Callender, editor. Portland, Maine: University of Southern Maine Publications Office, 89-98, 1990.

You may use and distribute this version of the manual under this Agreement for Use of Web Materials.


We have developed a manual suggesting rules and useful tools for student-led discussion in the format we used in two interdisciplinary courses at the University of Southern Maine: 1) Metaphor and Myth in Science and Literature and 2) Life and Literature After Darwin. Our format evolved from traditional discussion methods as we sought more effective means to achieve one of the primary goals of our courses: to help students learn to form, articulate, and defend opinions in open discussion. Students develop their opinions as they analyze and criticize the texts and as they search for concepts, issues, and themes that connect the texts and the disparate disciplines that are represented in these courses.

Our format, in brief, is as follows. We ask all students to prepare for each discussion as if they plan to serve as discussion leader. Obviously, a student who prepares to lead discussion is well prepared to participate. Then at the beginning of each class, we pick a discussion leader and two supporters at random and turn the class over to the students: faculty do not contribute to discussion until near the end of the first half of the period. Instead, we listen, attempting to learn the students' level of understanding of the material, and to see which issues are of compelling interest to them. Near the midpoint of the period, we enter the discussion, but do not take it over. We try to take advantage of what we heard in the first half in order to help students attain a deeper understanding of the material and to make connections across the breadth of the course. In shaping discussions around the issues of genuine interest to students, we aim to bolster their confidence that they can read and analyze complex material on their own.

We treat our courses, in effect, as experimental arenas (or labs) in which careful reading, discussion, and persuasion are valued more highly than power and authority as ways of constructing truth and meaning in a pluralistic world. In so doing, we are developing a pedagogy that is consistent with postmodern theories of knowing, according to which no one speaks from a privileged podium and any truth claim is viewed as contingent--i.e., as constructed within and valid for a particular interpretive community. We are also responding to widespread criticism, found most notably in the report by the prestigious Carnegie Commission on Higher Education (1987), that undergraduate education is not adequately teaching the skills of critical thinking.

In any course, it is crucial to find a format appropriate to the course goals. Even if our format seems particularly apt for your course, do not adopt it blindly. Be willing to adjust rules on the fly if you see a variation that will sharpen the aim at your particular goals. Even if our format seems particularly inappropriate for your course, we urge you at least to read through the manual with your classes in mind; perhaps a specific rule or suggestion will trigger useful ideas that will make your own efforts more successful.

The first section of the manual contains the rules we follow, in the form of instructions to the students and faculty. The second section presents the instructions we give our students on how to lead discussion in our format, where the leader is not an expert, but has prepared in the same way as all other participants. This guide contains suggestions that may be useful to anyone who leads or participates in discussions. In the third section, we suggest reasons why our method leads to impressive, enthusiastic student participation, and why we find it so gratifying.

User's Manual


I. At the beginning of the semester

A. Students

1) Purchase all the books and materials for the course. The order of topics in the syllabus may change, so texts scheduled for use later in the semester may be assigned earlier.

2) Read the syllabus and course guidelines carefully, listen to the faculty presentation on the first day of class, and ask questions to be sure you understand the course format. You are expected to participate at some meaningful level in class discussions. If you are uneasy about this requirement and tempted to drop, please stick around for two or three discussions. You will probably find them less frightening than you anticipate.

B) Faculty

1) Provide a syllabus that describes the course goals and format in detail.

2) Provide instructions on how to lead discussions under this format. (See Section 2 of this manual.)

3) At the first meeting, present an overview of the course and discuss the format. Try to allay the fears of students who might drop the course as soon as they understand that they must take such an active role in class.

4) Follow these general logistics:

a) Seat students in a circle.

b) Make a seating chart and use it to learn student names.

c) Copy the seating chart for students so that they learn each other's names.

d) Provide a list of names and phone numbers of students and faculty to help students get assignments when they miss a class.

II. Before each class

A. Students

1) Read and study the assignment made at the end of the previous class.

2) Formulate and write down four or five discussion questions based upon the assigned reading.

3) On the assumption that you will lead the day's discussion, write a brief (less than 5-minute) opening statement about the assignment. Your statement should set the stage for, and end by raising, one or more of your discussion questions.

B. Faculty

1) Read the assignment and study related supplementary sources.

2) List concepts and issues likely to interest the students, as well as those the students are likely to find difficult.

3) Collect materials and formulate examples and illustrations that may be useful in helping the students with the concepts and issues listed in 2), above.

4) If team teaching, meet approximately one hour before class to discuss your expectations for the discussion, and to plan strategy for taking advantage of student interest in or difficulty with specific concepts. Warm up by discussing important topics.

5) Be willing to go to class with some questions and issues only partially resolved and clarified in your own mind, so that you can be an authentic seeker of knowledge during at least some of the discussion.

III. During class

A. Students

1) Listen to the introduction by the designated discussion leader and consider the discussion question(s) or issue(s) he or she raises.

2) Discuss the issues raised, keeping to the subject of the readings, attempting -- preferably in this order -- to analyze, criticize, and connect:

a) Analyze the readings to gain a deeper understanding of difficult concepts, examples, the author's position, and the author's arguments.

b) Criticize the readings, articulating and defending personal opinions about the adequacy of the author's presentation and arguments.

c) Connect the issues you have analyzed and criticized to material of previous assignments in order to discern broader themes, similar concepts, and comparable or contrasting opinions.

3) As you participate, make good use of the text, at times calling attention to specific passages relevant to the issue at hand. When working with such a passage, allow time for others in the class to locate it and then read it aloud.

4) Ignore faculty during their period of enforced silence. Direct your attention to other students and regard faculty as recording secretaries on hand to take down information for use later in discussion.

5) Continue the student-led discussion with the same goals after faculty have joined in, using the faculty as needed to provide examples, explanations, and/or alternative positions.

6) Take brief notes of points and examples that deepen your understanding; opinions that differ from your own; and arguments that you find helpful, convincing, or worth trying to refute. These notes may be useful when you want to contribute to discussion, when you formulate study questions for subsequent classes, or when you write papers. Do not, however, allow note-taking to cause you to lose the thread of the discussion.

B. Faculty

1) At the beginning of class, select, completely at random, a discussion leader and two back-ups or supporters for the leader from among the students present.

2) For at least 40% of the period (20 minutes out of 50 or 30 minutes out of 75), maintain complete silence (except perhaps to ask for page references when students refer to specific passages in the readings).

3) Provide no visual or audible responses to what you hear, and avoid making eye contact with students as they talk.

4) Specifying speakers by name, take notes on important issues raised in discussion, with an eye toward using this information later in discussion:

a) Note the level of mastery of the assigned material, and be willing to discard your often-errant assumptions of where the students' difficulties might lie and thus to become better prepared to meet them at their level.

b) Note the issues that grip the students, for student interest can often make an issue more productive.

c) Note issues that are discarded before students have examined them as thoroughly as the readings allow. You may want to resurrect these issues after you enter the discussion.

d) Note whether later lecture or faculty-led discussion might efficiently resolve peripheral or conceptual problems and help students focus on central issues.

e) Note whether examples might clarify difficult concepts. (Recall instruction II.B.3: you should be armed with passages from other readings and helpful illustrations that you can present if appropriate.)

5) Near the end of the period of enforced silence, look for a way to enter discussion naturally and helpfully, without taking charge or altering the tenor of the discussion. Forcible entry of faculty into discussion erodes the students' confidence that they can make useful progress on their own. Therefore, as you approach your time, look for an interesting place to join in the moving stream of ideas. When that stream trickles out, look back to earlier issues that need more attention. Remember that, even after the period of enforced silence, the discussion ideally is still student-led. You can encourage students to continue speaking to each other by avoiding prolonged eye contact, even when a student is responding to your own question.

6) Provide, as requested by the students or as you deem useful, examples or augmenting material, not so much to add material to the course, but instead to clarify or to suggest directions in which important issues might lead.

7) Help the students to make connections and to find in the earlier discussion contrasting views that are fruitful to discuss further.

8) Try to cite students by name when returning to ideas they brought up in the earlier discussion. When possible, quote them directly from your notes, asking them if you are reporting their comments accurately.

IV. After class

A. Students (in groups of acquaintances, if possible)

Spend a few minutes reflecting on the preceding discussion, perhaps jotting down notes (or amplifying notes made in class) of points that increased your understanding of the readings, and that may be useful in preparing for the next discussion or writing the next paper. Especially, take note of arguments that interested or surprised you.

B. Faculty (together, if team teaching)

1) Reflect upon the preceding discussion, noting issues that were deeply explored and open issues that might be carried further.

2) Look ahead to future readings and consider whether to alter the order of assignments in order to pursue an open issue sooner than the current plan specifies, or in order to juxtapose future subjects fruitfully with open issues.

3) Recall from the preceding discussion any students who may have participated for the first time and consider strategies to affirm their efforts and encourage further participation.


Most students have never led a discussion. It is normal to be somewhat fearful about your first try. Most of us (including teachers) are afraid we'll be embarrassed by saying something wrong, being contradicted, or running out of things to say. Here are some suggestions to help you overcome your fears, prepare, get the discussion started, and sustain it. These suggestions apply specifically to the kinds of discussions we wish to have in this course, but you may find them useful any time you are faced with leading a discussion group.


To lead a discussion, you must be familiar with the assigned material. "Familiar with" is, we believe, just the right phrase. You need not have mastered the material; after all, a goal of discussion is to move everyone towards mastery, that is, to improve everyone's (even the leader's) understanding. To prepare for discussion (leadership or participation), first read and study the assignment, underlining the more important or interesting points, and making notes in the margins. Then think about and write down some of the main issues that the author raises and a few questions pertinent to the issues. (Examples: 1) The author is trying to show how indirect our knowledge is. How does the author support this contention? 2) The author is explaining how evolution produces new traits. How do new traits appear? Explain the specific examples she uses. 3) This is a novel about the breakdown of a marriage. What factors contribute to its failure?

If you can come up with a handful of questions, you're in good shape. Remember, everyone else in the class is formulating such questions: you can take advantage of their work to make your job easier. (More on this later.)

But what if you are not asked to lead? Is this work wasted? Certainly not; you are now very well prepared to participate as someone else leads. With everyone prepared to lead, everyone is also prepared to discuss, and lively discussions will almost always ensue.

Getting Started

Class has started and your name has been drawn from the hat. How do you begin? Simply clear your throat and read (or better, present) your prepared statement. End by asking the first question or asking for discussion of the first issue on your list. Before you know it, the hard part -- getting started -- is done.

One word of caution: Start out on a positive note. Avoid beginning with an apology for being poorly prepared or for finding the reading difficult. Treat the day's topic as having real value. Openers like "I didn't get much out of this" or "I don't agree with anything the author said" will stifle, rather then promote, discussion. If you treat the readings as worthwhile, your classmates will follow your lead, join you in examining the day's assignment, and thus make your job easier.

Sustaining Discussion

Discussions, like sleepy horses, need some urging to keep them moving. A discussion leader can often keep things moving with only modest prodding, giving the class its head when things are going well. Of course, if you can contribute something useful, do so; but other kinds of comments or actions on your part can sustain the discussion just as well as an injection of insight. Here are some suggestions:

1) Get students to talk to each other. Ask for a response to the most recent comments. (Anyone have a response to Clara's opinion?) Or ask a specific student to respond. (Clara, do you agree with Ralph?)

2) Get students to defend or explain their opinions. (Marvin why do you say that? What's your evidence or reasoning?)

3) Encourage an exploration of differing points of view. When you hear conflicting views, point them out and get the holders of those views to discuss their differences. Perhaps ask a third person to sum up the two positions.

4) Keep the class on the subject. If you are even halfway familiar with the material, you know when the discussion is no longer connected to it. Just say so. (We've gotten pretty far from the readings; let's get back on the subject.) Or simply consult your list of questions. Any sensible response to one of your questions is bound to be pertinent.

5) Point to a particular passage in the text relevant to a comment made by one person, or to a discussion among several. This might be a passage that challenges, or sums up and confirms, the views being expressed.

6) Don't fill every silence with your own voice. Any discussion will lapse occasionally. It is not your job as leader to avoid all silence. Some quiet periods are productive. Students who are not so quick to speak will frequently get the chance they need when others are quiet. If the silence gets too heavy, take advantage of the other students' lists of questions. (Ginny, give us one of the questions you brought to class.)


Remember, as discussion leader you do not have to be the brains of the whole outfit. You are not expected to know it all; the class is full of students who have read the same assignment that you read. Your job is to give them a chance to talk about it and thus give others the benefits of their thinking. On the other hand, if any one student begins to do all the talking, gently correct this problem by bringing other students into the discussion. You are there to steer, to keep the beast reasonably near the center of the path, by pulling a rein when needed, by loosening the reins when it keeps to the trail, by reining it in when it threatens to gallop away to greener subjects. If students are talking to each other about the reading material, things are going well; relax, listen, and contribute when you can.

The Goals of Discussion

Discussion should lead to two results. First, we want analysis and clarification of the material. What is the author saying? What is the author's intended meaning of key words in the text? What is fact and what is the author's opinion? With what evidence does the author support opinions? What do you see as the theme of this story, poem, or play? What elements contribute to this theme?

Second, we want response to, and criticism of, the author's work. What do you think of the author's opinion? Is the evidence or reasoning convincing? What other opinions are possible? Compare your opinion with that of the author. How does this poem make you feel? Why? What connections (harmonies or conflicts) do you find between this author's ideas and those of other thinkers we have studied?

It is best to attack these two tasks, analysis and criticism, in the order described; after all, we must understand possible readings of the work before we can properly respond or criticize. As discussion leader, you will find that students want to express opinions before doing anything else. Keep pulling the class toward clarification of the readings. The more you accomplish here, the more meaningful and pertinent the criticisms and other responses will be. To reiterate, the discussion will swing naturally toward opinion, just as the horse turns naturally toward home. Keep pulling toward clarification (What does the author mean by...? What is a possible reading of...?) and you will achieve good balance between analysis and criticism.

Finally, we want you to enjoy the discussions. Keep this in mind whenever differences of opinion arise. It's okay to defend your beliefs, but it is also okay to be wrong, to concede a point, to change your mind. A mind that never changes is about as useful as a window stuck in one position. The main object of argument is not to win, but to know the pleasure of real thinking and learning.


In practice our method has brought the best and most enjoyable discussions we have ever held in any of our courses. In what ways do we and our students find this approach gratifying, and what accounts for the gratification?

I. As faculty, we recognize the importance, as well as the pleasure, of becoming co-learners with our students.

A. We become co-learners by giving up the role of authority figures who reign over our students.

B. We become co-learners because we willingly go to class to learn, with issues unresolved in our own minds so that there is a real opportunity for students to see us learn and help us learn.

C. We become co-learners because we can never be sure in what direction the discussion will go and thus surprises are more likely: issues we have not already thought through are more likely to arise and lead us or free us to think freshly about a text or subject we think we have thoroughly explored and tracked.

D. We become co-learners because students feel more free to share their thoughts and ideas with us in an environment where students are respected as thinkers and learners.

II) Students become empowered as learners.

A. Students are empowered because they sense the respect we have for them as they accept the responsibilities we offer to them.

B. Students are empowered because they discover that they can indeed, on their own, analyze difficult texts, explore issues, and articulate ideas -- activities traditionally reserved for the authority of the lecture or the faculty-structured discussion.

C. Students are empowered because they experience the gratification of being cited or quoted as part of a serious intellectual inquiry.

D. Students are empowered because they experience the excitement and gratification of freely discussing and debating ideas on nearly level ground with persons traditionally thought to speak only from a position of power.

E. Students are empowered by the simple act of learning to be prepared for every class. Probably the most important foundation for good discussion is a means of assuring that all participants read a specific assignment and think at length about the concepts and issued raised therein. The possibility of being chosen to lead discussion provides the impetus for such preparation.


We do not claim that this method of teaching is easy or that it is free of frustrations and disappointments. It requires extensive preparation, patience, tact, agility of thought, and a willingness to yield the privilege of always having the final word. Discussions will sometimes be marked by stammering, confusion, and error. We are convinced, however, that to stammer, to be confused, and to err are familiar and invaluable to all who learn to think critically and construct meaning for themselves. Furthermore, experience has taught us that much more often than not, students are very capable indeed of doing work we formerly thought impossible without our shepherding interference.

Considering it the primary function of the university to preserve "the connection between knowledge and the zest of life (p.93)," Alfred North Whitehead (1929) wrote, "For successful education there must always be a certain freshness in the knowledge dealt with.ÉKnowledge does not keep any better than fish.Éit must come to students, as it were, just drawn out of the sea and with the freshness of its immediate importance." We agree, and suggest that when students themselves do the fishing, drawing knowledge out of the sea of their own careful reading and lively deliberations, such knowledge is fresher and tastier than any caught, scaled, prepared, and then served up by the teacher. And if, as Bruce Wilshire (1990) asserts, "Education involves . . . making sense of things together" (p.24), then a format that stresses talking among students and faculty, as opposed to talking at students by faculty, is surely the very essence of what education should and can be.



Boyer, E. (1987). College: The Undergraduate Experience in America. New York: Harper and Row.

Whitehead, A. (1929). The Aim of Education and Other Essays. New York: Macmillan.

Wilshire, B. (1990) The Moral Collapse of the University: Professionalism, Purity, and Alienation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

The Molecular Level

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