Leading Effective Discussions

Leading class and business case discussions requires agility in balancing course content while inviting diverse perspectives from students.

This resource offers frameworks, examples, and tips from the GSB community for leading effective and inclusive discussions. We recommend focusing on a few that might be most relevant to your teaching and adapting and implementing them to meet your needs. Let us know if you’d like a consultation or need any support.

Planning Ahead for Discussions

Determine Your Goals as a Facilitator

Create a clear game plan for how you wish to achieve your teaching goals by planning your content delivery and how you aim to engineer student engagement. Here are some areas where you can plan ahead.

  • Your goals for the discussion. For example, do you want students to critically analyze the details of a case, examine the pros and/or cons of a specific point, explore conflicting views on a topic, or hypothesize scenarios and outcomes?
  • The balance between reviewing assigned work and taking the discussion further. How much do you want students to recap key points from a case or assigned reading? At what point do you want them to evaluate the material more critically from a variety of angles?
  • The balance between lecturing on new content and staying in the discussion space. How much of your class discussion is about students making key connections through discussion and how much is about you bringing in other information and insights through mini-lectures?
  • Relevance to your key learning goals. Determine how you will open the class in a way that expresses:
    • How the topic relates to other cases in the course and/or the marketplace. Is the topic representative of a more general phenomenon?
    • How the topics relate to other assigned readings, prior class discussions, and future course work or projects.
  • Real-world connections. How much should students link concepts to current events? How much do you want them to bring in connections to their own experiences?
Prepare Questions that Elicit Deeper Discussion

As you prepare study or discussion questions, take a moment to ensure they map to your key learning goals. You may wish to:

  • Frame initial discussion questions with some case, industry, or other relevant background to set the stage and point students toward the goals you have in mind.
  • Look for areas of potential confusion. For example, questions that are too broad can solicit variable and off-topic answers.
  • Envision a range of responses you hope students might contribute to the discussion. What question(s) will help you elicit these responses?
  • Craft questions that elicit deeper answers and avoid excessive use of Yes/No questions or questions with a single correct answer. While Yes/No and single correct answer types might be easier to craft, students will often respond with short performative answers, preventing discussions from going deeper.

Facilitating In-Class Discussions

Set Norms and Expectations with Students

Clearly state how discussions are part of your course and share your expectations for how students should participate. Ensure that students follow your discussion guidelines in the first few classes and re-emphasize them throughout the quarter. Your discussion norms will soon become routine in your course. As part of your expectations, give guidance and feedback on:

  • How much you expect students to volunteer and respond to other students’ comments.
  • How you implement cold calls, warm calls, or role plays to foster meaningful discussions.
  • How students should frame responses including:
    • How much you expect them to contribute from their own experiences, or debate a point.
    • How they should respond to other students’ comments.
    • When you wish them to focus on the facts from the case or readings and when you want them to transition to offering analysis.
Promote Equitable and Engaged Participation

Engaging all students in the classroom to join in discussion is an art that can seem challenging in the moment. Some students are naturally more inclined to participate while others are more reserved in the group setting. As a facilitator, think about the role you will play to create a welcoming atmosphere in the classroom for engaged and inclusive discussions. Consider these tips:

  • Strive to cast open-ended questions that elicit analysis, reactions, or insights from the class instead of using questions that fish for specific answers.
  • Consider waiting for a few students to raise their hands then beginning the discussion with the last person who raised their hand. This strategy can help shy students, who can be hesitant to respond, engage early without waiting nervously. Choosing later volunteers may shape the conversation in a different way than always choosing the first or quickest hand to raise.
  • Invite students to respond to one another’s ideas instead of responding directly to you.
  • Integrate brief pauses to give students time to reflect on your summaries or others’ comments before calling on the next person.
  • When disagreements arise, ask students to further illustrate their position by drawing on insights from the course content.
  • Invite students to review the main ideas and their conclusions toward the end of the discussion.
  • Lower the stakes for making mistakes by acknowledging the challenging nature of the material and celebrating contributions especially when students are outside of their comfort zones.
  • Maintain strategies for equitable discussion throughout the quarter, such as implementing warm calls, generating randomized lists, and checking in with students who seem reluctant.

Tips for Handling Engagement Challenges

  • Stay curious and open to varying viewpoints. Ensure your questions maintain an approach of curiosity to your student’s perspectives and opinions. Students often pick up on the use of leading questions that imply a correct answer or slanted questions that close-down differing points of view, which may limit their willingness to explore different sides of an issue.
  • Use discretion in handling unpreparedness. If a student is unprepared, calmly move on to the next student. Follow up with the student privately after class.
  • Use Discussion Moves (outlined below) to keep momentum throughout the class session.

Hear from your GSB colleagues about their strategies for handling challenging moments in the classroom in this video on Challenging Students.

Discussion Moves

Your goals as a discussion facilitator might need to shift during a class session. Below are some discussion moves, or different actions you might consider to facilitate deeper discussions during your course and signal to students shifts in the discussion.

Start the discussion by sharing with your students what the focus is and why it is important to them.

Frame the discussion in a way that helps students know how you wish to focus the discussion.

Today we’re going to focus on…
This topic is relevant to…

Elicit initial student responses and reactions with open-ended questions.

What is the significance of…?

Encourage students to deepen their analysis and thought processes by further exploring their initial responses. Consider using these question types to avoid surface-level answers and a yes/no rut.


How would you explain…?
What is the importance of…?
What is the meaning of…?

Compare and Contrast

What is the difference between…?
What is the similarity between…?

Cause and Effect

What are the causes/results of…?
What connection is there between…?
If that is so, why do you think [the protagonist] made the choice they did?


What is meant by…?
Explain how…
Could you say a little more about that?
How did you arrive at that conclusion?
Why is that important?
What connection is there between…?
What are the implications of…?
In your own words, describe/clarify [key idea] from the reading.

Make a point to broaden perspectives and encourage participation from more students to keep the discussion moving. Once a student has aptly articulated their key ideas, you may wish to pose some of the following questions more broadly to the class.

Are there other perspectives?
What other issues might we consider?
Does anyone see it differently?
Can anyone build on/respond to [student’s] point?
Have we missed anything on this point?

Even the best and most dynamic class discussions can have off-topic moments. Depending on how the discussion has moved off topic, here are some phrases you can use to help refocus the conversation.

Students might give a long list of items or ideas in response to the topic and you may wish to drill down on only one or two of them.

You’re raising a number of issues. Let’s focus on [x].
Let’s take this one step at a time.
How might you summarize your point into one or two key ideas?

A student may raise a new point or direction to the conversation, but you wish to continue with the current pathway to drive home a teaching point.

Let’s hold off on that for the moment and resolve the debate on the table.
We’ll come back to that when we get to [later topic].
Let’s hold off on that for the moment. I want to finish exploring the point that [student] brought up.

A student might articulate an idea that isn’t fully consistent with what was previously stated but, with a little nudging, can be prompted to link to the idea on the table.

How does that relate to what [previous student] was saying?
(Note of caution: this could come across as punitive in cases where the student is wildly off-topic.)

A student might confuse or conflate ideas. You may wish to treat this by bringing them back to the source of information or inviting alternative perspectives.

Where in the case did you find that?
(Note of caution: this could come across as punitive depending on the tone or if you know this doesn’t exist in the case.)
Did anyone come up with a different answer?
How might we reconcile these different perspectives/ideas/results?

Sometimes you may realize that you didn’t cast your question as clearly as you hoped. In these cases, take a moment and acknowledge to the students that you wish to reframe your question.

Let me rephrase that question.
I see that this question was confusing, let’s try it again.

At the end of each discussion, invite students to make connections to the goals of the day’s topic or real-world decision-making. Prompting students to articulate their takeaways can make key ideas and your teaching points more memorable and valuable to your students. Try adding a question or two from below into your course closing remarks.

What are some takeaways from today’s discussion?
In what other contexts (industries/cultures) might these principles apply?
Why should you care about these issues?

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Looking to implement or adapt any of these tips on leading effective discussions for your courses? The Teaching and Learning Hub is here to help.