Getting students talking in groups

Ideas for managing group discussions with your students.

We’ve all had experiences of teaching groups of students and really struggling to get some or all of the students to participate. This can be a challenge whether the groups are face-to-face, hybrid or online. Sometimes there is also the opposite problem, where one or two students dominate the conversation.

Getting these early conversations right is important for making all our students feel welcome and that there is a place for them here. We know that the initial process of integration into academic and social communities in crucial to stop students dropping out. Good connections can also help promote mental well being.

Getting started

You might want to start by just letting the students know how welcome they all are. Tell them how glad you are that they’ve joined the University and how much you are looking forward to learning with them. Maybe offer a few light touch ground rules about how it’s important that everyone gets space to speak but that no one will be pressured into contributing.

If your group is online you could remind them how to use the function for putting their hands up to join the conversation. Sometimes the chat function in online conversations works well to bring in students who are nervous to speak. Perhaps remind students that it’s really common to disagree strongly about topics in higher education and that’s a great learning opportunity but we need to disagree kindly and respectfully.

Ideas for discussion

A good idea at the start of initial group meetings is to get everyone to contribute something. Once people have contributed in a group it’s easier to keep going. You might want to start by splitting students into pairs and asking them to tell each other about something simple and relatively neutral. Maybe they could start with a chat about why they’ve picked their main subject area? Once you have pairs talking, you might bring the pairs together into groups of 4 or 6 and set them another simple topic, like what is the most important thing their learned about how to learn before they  came to University.

Later on you could set an approachable academic task that the students could work on together. Maybe get them to read a short relevant blog post or news article, discuss it in groups of 3 then discuss it in the wider group.