Creating Dialogue in the Classroom

Authors: Dr. Stephen Rader (Chemistry) and Dr. Tracy Summerville (Political Science)

One of the most important goals – and greatest challenges – of educators is to create a learning environment in which the students participate actively in their education by becoming engaged with the course material. An effective way to promote active participation is through dialogue in the classroom. Unfortunately, many students, trained by years of passive education and cowed by the fear of making mistakes, are extremely reluctant to enter into dialogue in the classroom. So, how do you get students to begin to actively engage in substantive dialogue? We argue that the essential pre-requisite for classroom dialogue is an atmosphere of trust.

An active classroom explicitly invites dialogue because it assumes that the students are responsible for their learning. Asking questions, discussing answers and thinking critically are the core tenets of an active classroom. All scholarship is a conversation. If we can help students to understand that all scholarship is about asking questions then we can make the classroom a place in which the conversation is the norm.

You can create dialogue in the classroom, whether you are lecturing or whether you are in an interactive classroom setting.  What is critical though is that we define what we mean by dialogue. A simple question and answer period scattered through a lecture is not necessarily dialogue. Dialogue assumes that you are engaging in some critical thinking. It assumes a conversation of informed opinion and it assumes that there is some knowledge to be shared or even created.

In this context there are some techniques that can be used to facilitate a conversation among the students and with the instructor. Informal debates may begin in a classroom quite unexpectedly. They should be encouraged and the instructor should take the time to discuss the debate, outlining the different positions including flaws in reasoning, incorrect assumptions or facts. Make sure the students understand that free flowing debate is not tangential to lecture material. Some students assume that the only voice that matters is that of the instructor. Take the time to point out how students may have used ideas / concepts from the course to argue a point. You may want to turn an informal debate into a formal debate. If you see that there is an issue that is contentious, challenge the students to come back to the class the next week and to be prepared with careful research to engage in a formal debate process.

Another technique is “think / pair / share” that allows students to interact with a peer to work out a problem or question that the instructor has assigned. Students are asked to work with a partner in order that the students can actively work through problems. Think / pair / share works in large classroom settings because students can simply turn to their neighbour to begin this exercise. This technique can lead to larger group discussions in which students bring their solutions or answers to the larger group.

Small group discussions also work to create interaction between peers. Again, this may be an opportunity to get students to work through a single problem or for the instructor to design different problems for each group. The instructor may have each group share their findings with the whole class at the end of the discussion.

Individual and group presentations are good tools to teach the important skill of oral communication. For some students presentations are a joy; for others presentations are wrought with anxiety and fear. You might choose to have the students present through a gallery walk rather than standing in front of the whole class. This technique gives the students opportunity to share their findings through a poster format and in small groups. You can ask students to discuss an idea or a concept or a question or even a reading in a small group. The students record their observations and discussion on flip chart paper. When the small group work is done each group visits the other groups – just like walking in an art gallery, the students can see what other groups discussed.

There are always some challenges when we are in a conversation. There are, at least, three types of students: those who love to participate (think Hermione Granger in Harry Potter), those you are reluctant to participate and those you are somewhere in the middle. In the first few classes, you can ask your students to set classroom guidelines that outline how they expect individuals to behave in the class. For example, students often ask other students to put away technology or to let everyone have a chance to speak or to be on time. When students set the rules it gives the whole group the power to enforce behaviour.

For those students who love to participate it is important for the instructor to make sure that their enthusiasm is monitored. If the student‘s contributions are made humbly and are substantive, well thought out additions to the course then the instructor can find ways to give that particular student more opportunities to contribute. These students are often viewed as leaders among their peers and their enthusiasm can be nurtured so that they understand their greater civic and social responsibility inside and outside of the classroom. In small groups, this type of enthusiastic student will help to direct the group discussion and the instructor can find ways to mentor the student for a greater leadership role.

Contrary to the well-informed, enthusiastic student is the student who does not participate in a humble manner, takes over every discussion, interrupts constantly, or provides long commentaries without asking a question. Using the classroom guidelines can help to ensure that one student does not co-opt the classroom space. This type of student can also be mentored. Often their behaviour is a sign of insecurity or ill-preparedness.

For some students who are reluctant to participate, the use of the small group or think / pair / share format can ease their anxiety.  Among many reasons, their reluctance may be because they are painfully shy, or because they are apathetic about the course material. It may be cultural or it may be because of their particular learning style. Some students, for example, do not feel comfortable discussing material until they have had a chance to think about it, re-read their notes, etc. It may therefore be useful to devote some time to each class to discussing material from the previous lecture, partly to review, and partly to give these reflective students a chance to participate. Drawing out the reluctant student means that you need to remember that each student in the course is a unique individual. Be very aware that cultural differences can make the classroom space feel unwelcoming. If everyone is referencing current cultural phenomenon some students may feel completely out of place. Finally remember that it may be that the student does not participate because they didn‘t get enough sleep or have a proper breakfast. We cannot deal with every student‘s individual needs but over time we can think about the litany of reasons that students find engagement difficult.

One effective tool for promoting dialogue is to anticipate potentially confusing material and have some questions ready for the students. Frequently, students will not volunteer that they are not following your presentation, but if you ask them some careful questions to evaluate their understanding, it rapidly becomes clear whether you have successfully explained the material. A technological aid for this purpose is the instant polling system like iclicker. With this system, an instructor can project a question and the students anonymously signal their answer to the instrument, which then tallies the results and immediately displays the results. In this way, it is possible to see where students might be going wrong. This formative assessment technique can be used in conjunction with the think / pair / share technique. Students can discuss which answer they think is best and then you can re-poll to see if their discussions helped to clarify a problem.

Asking students to preparing questions is also a useful exercise as it helps them to think about what they do and do not understand. There are a variety of classroom scenarios in which their questions might be used and/or evaluated, from simply collecting all the questions to using them as the basis for classroom or small group discussions. This is one format where even the most shy students are generally willing to participate, so it may be worthwhile to ask one or two students for their questions in each class.

The issue of creating dialogue in the class is part of the broader question of how to create a community of learners and how/whether to foster a sense of social responsibility among students.   This has been well articulated in the literature on service learning and engagement in the classroom. Edward Zlotkowski argues that,

 …what students reflect on results not just in greater technical mastery (i.e. course content) but also in an expanded appreciation of the contextual and social significance of the discipline in question and, most broadly, in an enhanced sense of civic responsibility. Thus, students in a chemistry course may be asked to connect testing for lead in housing projects with what they have learned both in the classroom and in the laboratory while also processing their personal reactions to conditions in the housing projects and their evolving sense of children‘s rights to a safe environment.

Creating dialogue in the classroom is about creating trust; it is about thoughtful and critical analysis of each contribution; it is about connecting theoretical ideas to practical considerations; and it is about helping students to think about their citizenship both within and outside the classroom.


Edward Zlotkowski. “Pedagogy and Engagement.” in Robert G. Bringle, Richard Games and Reverend Edward A. Malloy eds. Colleges and Universities as Citizens. Needham Heiths, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1999:99-100