18 Ways to Have Different Class (or Group) Discussions

The following outlines various techniques I use when teaching to enhance or change discussion-based activities. I’ll update it as necessary. I’ve had a number of students say they enjoy my classes in part because they never know what we’ll be doing that day! 

1. Bring out the maps. Have students draw maps and discuss their perceptions. Also, have students pin-point where events occurred and where people lived. When I taught Texas History, I had one group discussing an article about a woman who gave lectures throughout the entire state. They pinpointed these places on a map. Internalizing “where” things occur is important for students and their understanding. Occasionally, map quizzes can make for important lessons, too.

2. Make timelines. Have students make timelines based on lecture or reading topics, while also researching and adding context both in the same region/state/nation and elsewhere in the world.

3. Edit Wikipedia. I did this one for the first time recently. Students worked in groups of two or three to update the Wikipedia pages for important people in the assigned reading. Most of them didn’t really realize they could edit these pages and expand the pool of online knowledge. Or do other activities to have students think in terms of presenting information for the public, such as making a script for a podcast or YouTube video and then actually making it and posting it. 

4. Use Urban Dictionary. Have students compare course vocabulary (or concepts in a definition essay) with definitions on Urban Dictionary. This helps them think about point-of-view, connotation and detonation, medium, and much more. Students can also add their own definitions! 

5. Incorporate theater. Have students make skits. Or travel back a few thousand years and have students given oral interpretations of ancient myths–turn on a campfire video from YouTube, sit in a circle, and turn the lights off. 

6. Work backward. Discuss topics, or an aspect of a topic, from the present backward in time. The backward approach to studying history is powerful and arguably more natural. 

7. Examine current events. Have students examine current events and consider how much or how little has changed. Students could also consider how current events shape understandings of the past.

8. Give your students an IQ test. This IQ test will show students how such ideas are socially constructed and how IQ is problematic. 

9. Have students discuss college. In particular, powerful conversations result through small-group or class-wide conversations about the emotional demands of college and learning worth crying about. 

10. Discuss the big concepts of the discipline  One way of doing this is through the “Big Idea Syllabus” framework. I have a “Big Idea Syllabus” for Writing and History courses.

11. Use the Digital Humanities. Students can look at the occurrence of a given word in printed material spanning millions of books and hundreds of years. Students can make a graph (word cloud) of any collection of text to get an idea of word frequency and visualize the text in abstract ways. Students can make a concordance of any group of text to get an even better idea of how many times any given word or phrase was used in a body of text. 

12. Discuss interdisciplinary concepts. Important concepts for students to know, concepts that can fit into any number of lessons, include gaze, historical/cultural memory/representations, imagined community, intersectionality, mores, rhetoric, social construction, positionality.

13. Bring in the cultural artifacts. Have students discuss how film and music embody ideas of the course. I have given a final exam where students were asked to find a song (and not the first one on the radio) that somehow had special meanings to them and related to course topics in unique ways. We all had a blast. 

14. Approach the material as a complete outsider. The Nacirema method is an excellent approach for this. 

15. Have “what is” conversations. For example, when I taught Texas History we discussed “What is Texas History” at length. We also discussed when Texas History begins and ends, chronologically and geographically. 

16. Do art projects. 1) Draw people. Working individually or in groups, students can draw (or make sketches). These sketches–of say the typical Texan or a typical United Statesian–can be revealing. 2) Write poems, Haikus work especially well. 

17. Have students cite each other. Recently in an effort to get students to listen to one another and to take more notes, I required them to write one of our regular end-of-class responses and cite at least two classmates.

18. Do experiments. I have a number of various activities I do that help students challenge their own preconceptions of race, gender, and violence.

What would you add to this list?

Let me know if you have any questions! 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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7 replies

  1. These are great ideas. I quite like the editing Wikipedia one. The incorporation of theater in our class last semester was certainly a success also.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Student of the American Civil War and commented:

    This post is an excellent resource for teachers to use to stimulate and facilitate student participation in discussions. If you’re a teacher, you may want to try some of these ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Freehand drawing of maps? No way! As a person whose drawing ability has always been nonexistent, I would have hated your classes! Far better is an outline map and let the students fill in the details. Interestingly, once I got to college, where the outline map strategy was used, I suddenly started getting high grades in history!


    • The “draw a map” activity isn’t about skills drawing. I’ve used it in help students discover their perceptions. If I ask them to draw a map of the world or sketch it out, they all draw the continent of Africa as the smallest continent when in fact it’s the largest.


  4. Dr, Pegoda, with an assignment like that I would have just sat there not even knowing where to start! I well remember incidents like that from elementary and high school, and the abysmal grades I received accordingly. Fortunately, my college history classes used the outline map technique, and I got high grades on questions asking for the various boundary changes in Europe after Charlemagne. It helped that as long as I labeled the geographic features (such as rivers) correctly, the graders didn’t count them wrong if I put them hundreds of miles out of place! Evidently the graduate assistants were more understanding than my elementary and high school teachers.

    I also got low grades when we were supposed to draw sketches or make models, and I really hated those assignments. My grades in art classes were also abysmal.

    On the other hand, my map reading skills were excellent, especially in the area of wilderness navigation. Even at the age of 9 I was able to get my parents properly oriented when they lost the trail!



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