Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Supporting Meaningful Student Discussion

Heather Shaffery, Shayna Pond | Published: July 25th, 2022 by K20 Center

Essential Questions

How can instructional strategies be used to support meaningful student discussions?

Learning Goals

In this session, participants will:

  • Learn approaches for supporting meaningful student discussion.

  • Engage with instructional strategies that address barriers to discussion.

  • Plan how to apply one or more strategies to an upcoming classroom discussion.

Materials List

  • Presentation Slides (attached)

  • Four Corners Signs (attached, one copy)

  • Strategy QR Codes (attached, one per participant)

  • Designing Group Work article (linked here; print one per participant or provide participants with the link)

  • Talk Activities Flowchart (linked here; print one per participant or provide participants with the link)

  • Strategy Note Catcher (attached, one per participant)

  • Discourse Moves (attached, one per participant)

  • Sticky notes

  • Poster paper

  • Printer paper

  • Markers

  • Pens

  • Printed strategy cards (from LEARN, optional)


As participants are entering the room, display slide 2. This slide instructs participants to identify one thing that they personally should do ("I do"), one thing the group should do ("We do"), and one thing the facilitator ("You do") should do to make the session successful. Assign a different color of sticky note for each item.

Once it's time to begin, share slides 3 and 4 to introduce this session's topic and go over the session objectives. Move to slide 5 to begin establishing norms for the session based on the sticky notes. This can be done by having groups read the sticky notes aloud for each category and then creating a list of common themes to use as the norms for today's learning. Explain that norm-setting that asks students to identify their own behavior and needs creates buy-in and student comfort.


Have participants find a partner and discuss their experiences with facilitating student discussion in their classroom, using the questions provided on slide 6 as a guide:

  • What do discussions look like in your class?

  • What are some memorable conversations, successful or unsuccessful?

Let participants know that we are using the Partner Speaks strategy and they should be prepared to share each other's answers. Highlight how Partner Speaks can support student discussion by setting the expectation before the discussion begins that each person will need to listen to their partner closely enough to share what they said with the whole group. Listening for understanding and holding off on responding is a critical skill for productive classroom discussions.

After every pair has shared out, move to slide 7 and introduce the Four Corners strategy. Slide 7 highlights four major issues that teachers report having when facilitating discussion:

  • Students are afraid to be wrong.

  • Students don't talk with one another.

  • Student groups don't stay on topic.

  • Students don't share out or volunteer answers.

These four statements should easily validate some of the discussion points that teachers shared in the Partner Speaks activity. Designate a corner of the room for each of the statements and have participants select and move to the corner containing the roadblock that they feel is the most relevant or pressing for them personally. Move to slide 8 for the activity instructions and provide the Strategy QR Code Sheet to the group at each of the corners. This handout links to resources for participants to explore in their groups based on these themes.

As a corner group, participants should discuss how the provided strategies could help overcome the roadblock and select one strategy to share with the whole group. Have them put their ideas on a sheet of poster paper to share. As you close out of this activity, highlight how Four Corners can support student discussion by allowing students to choose what is relevant to them and discuss with peers who are like-minded.


Move on to slide 9 and briefly summarize the general strategies that support classroom discussion:

  • Normalize making mistakes.

  • Build peer-to-peer relationships and classroom culture.

  • Reduce the stakes and lower the pressure on students.

  • Provide scaffolding to build skills and confidence.

On slide 10, share the two questions that teachers should consider when planning for discussion.

  1. Why are you having students engage in discussion?

  2. What kind of conversation are you asking students to have?

Highlight the four purposes of student discussion on slide 11. There are other purposes for discussion, but these are the most common.

  • Activating and eliciting student ideas: soliciting prior knowledge and initial ideas

  • Helping students make sense of new information: processing information and beginning to develop explanations

  • Connecting activities to concepts: applying concepts to experiences, building consensus

  • Pressing for evidence-based explanations: synthesizing information and developing thorough explanations

Move on to highlight the kinds of intellectual work that students are engaging in during a conversation on slide 12. Again, there are others, but these are most prevalent.

  • Sharing, expanding, and clarifying ideas

  • Thinking with each other

  • Listening carefully to one another

  • Deepening reasoning

Wrap up the activity by reviewing best practices for facilitating discussion on slide 13. This list is not comprehensive. Validate any experiences that participants mentioned during the Partner Speaks activity.


Display slide 14 and ask participants to locate their Strategy QR Code Sheet as you begin handing out the following additional resources for planning discussion to each participant:

Give participants time to explore these resources as well as any additional strategies they might find on the LEARN website. Ask them to identify a strategy from these resources that they can use either in an upcoming class or to develop a plan for an upcoming discussion.

Ask for some volunteers to share the strategy they found or their classroom discussion plan.


Move to slide 15. Have participants return to their groups from the Four Corners activity.

In their groups, participants will create a Collaborative Word Cloud to summarize what they learned during the session. Each participant should come up with their own list of five or more keywords that represent their big takeaways from the session. Group members should then combine their lists and tally how many times a common word or phrase appears among them. Using the combined list, they should create a word cloud on a piece of printer paper with the most common words or phrases in the biggest print. Depending on time, either have a few groups share or allow participants to complete a Gallery Walk to look at the other groups' clouds.

Complete the session feedback.

Research Rationale

Student conversations, supported by cooperative learning structures, have a reputation for developing skills in learners that are relevant to success in today's society. Social skills, problem-solving skills, cultural competency, and increased self-efficacy are all supported when students work together in the classroom (Chui, 2008; Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Nemeth-Wachtler, 1983; Sharan, 2010; Huber & Snider, 2006). When students discuss their learning, their learning is made visible to themselves which aids the development of metacognitive skills. Students are able to come to know what it is that they know better as they talk through it (Chiu, 2008; Resnick, Michaels, & Connor, 2010). This visible learning is also valuable for the instructor who can see what students' prior understandings are, their misconceptions, and how their knowledge is changing over the course of a lesson. Contributing to the conversation requires reasoning, giving structure to concepts, and doing so allows the speaker to assess and correct logic gaps, resulting in deeper learning (Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten, 2018).


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  • K20 Center. (n.d.). Collaborative word clouds.

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  • K20 Center. (n.d.). Partner speaks. Strategies.

  • K20 Center. (n.d.). This session will be a success If.... Strategies.

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  • Wingert, K. (2016, August). "How can I foster curiosity and learning in my classroom? Through talk! (Research brief). STEM Teaching Tools.

  • Wingert, K., & Rhinehart, A. (2016, August). Talk activities flowchart (Diagram.). STEM Teaching Tools.