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The power (and limits) of student-led discussions

By April 6, 2020No Comments

Hollywood often presents teachers as swashbucklers, swooping in to right wrongs and save the day with powerful speeches delivered to the class. When it comes to actual classroom discussions, however, the truth is a little less dramatic and a lot more complicated, according to the latest research column by McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Max Altman in ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine. When it comes to effective student learning, some of the best discussion happens among students themselves. But leading students to have productive conversations with their peers is quite a bit different than playing the leading role in a fictitious classroom.

Teachers needn’t have a flair for the dramatic to get this job done, but they should familiarize themselves with certain research-supported techniques, Bryan and Max advise. Firstly, teachers should recognize that there are limits to the benefits of peer conversations. Students can help one another remember content more deeply, but they aren’t very good at teaching one another critical thinking and discourse skills. That’s a job for direct instruction by teachers.

When it is time to turn the discussion over to students, it can’t be a free-for-all. Teachers need to guide student-to-student discussion by introducing frequent opportunities to discuss learning, by limiting the size of groups, and by distinguishing between “test” questions and authentic questions, among other techniques. Perhaps hardest of all, teachers need to learn the right time to step aside and assume a supporting role while students become the stars of the discussion.


McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.