University of Wisconsin–Madison

Program Overview

The Program Basics

  1. Our application period for fall 2018 is now closed. Our application for spring 2019 will likely be available in late October or early November.
  2. Participants will meet for two full-day sessions and one half-day session around mid-semester. See the course outline on our homepage for specific dates, times, and locations.
  3. Participants in the fall 2018 cohort will receive $500 of flex funding for completing all sessions, evaluations, and student questionnaires.
  4. Participants will have the option to receive feedback and coaching on their classroom practice.

The Discussion Project draws upon the most recent research on classroom discussions in higher education to identify effective facilitation strategies. We have designed the program around these practices and scaffolded the learning so the participants move from basic, low-risk strategies to more complex strategies.

Please see below for the topics that will be covered during The Discussion Project program. 



“I learned useful discussion strategies that I can use for the entirety of my career.”  TA, Wisconsin School of Business

“I wanted to … underline how much I enjoyed and benefited from The Discussion Project … I feel like it’s been a coming home of sorts  giving me permission to teach responsively and effectively by purposefully designing classes to support student-centered discussion.” – Gail P., Department of Curriculum & Instruction


Getting Students Talking

Participants will be able to 1) identify discussable topics that can be included in their courses and 2) learn strategies to use in the first few weeks of the course that create an inviting climate for discussion. To that end, we will examine what it means to build an inclusive and academically challenging classroom environment for all students that also honors and expects differences of opinion; explore why it is important to do so; and teach research-based strategies for creating such a climate.

We will also introduce a set of tools that participants can use to learn about their students’ attitudes toward discussion and the course material. For example, one tool will include a web survey that students will take to self-assess their discussion skills, share their experience with discussion, and identify dimensions of diversity that could be leveraged as deliberative assets.

Participants will be expected to spend some time out of class thinking about their first class of the semester and how they might apply some of these strategies.

Designing Effective Small-Group Discussions

While covering this topic, we will use concept-formation activities that help faculty distinguish what is discussion compared to other forms of classroom talk. After exploring what research teaches us about what students learn from discussion, we will introduce participants to different forms of small group discussion—aligned with different pedagogical goals. Participants will learn a set of paired and small group discussion strategies that 1) model how to use grouping tools and 2) can easily be used in any course. Participants will be required to try at least one of these in the first two weeks of the semester, and their efforts will be discussed later in the program.

Facilitating Whole-Class Discussions

Building on the prior work, we will consider the purposes of large-group discussion. Participants will learn strategies for preparing students for large discussions and for framing discussion questions. During this part of the proram, participants will engage in two types of large-group discussions, each of which models a different discussion structure. Participants will try to incorporate one strategy into their course.

Developing Facilitation Strategies

Part of the program will include classroom coaching on facilitation. We will draw upon coaching sessions to discuss common challenges encountered during facilitation. We will use role-play and/or video when appropriate.

Ethical Issues Related to Discussion

When instructors decide to use classroom discussion, they will necessarily confront a set of professional dilemmas. These include:

  1. Should I share my own views about the question being discussed?
  2. Should racially charged topics be included in a class with one or two students of color?
  3. Should students be required to participate in class discussion?
  4. How should I respond to a student who talks too much?

We will model case study discussion strategies as a way to help participants think about these common discussion dilemmas.

Assessing Discussion

In this final session, participants will learn different strategies for giving feedback on discussion skills (for individuals and groups). Participants will also be introduced to ways in which discussion can be used as part of a course grade.  We will also consider ways of receiving mid-term student feedback.


We are experimenting with offering The Discussion Project participants the opportunity to meet with our instructional coach, Jane Bernstein. While this consultation can take many forms, broadly, the coach is available to help plan for discussion or to observe and give feedback when participants try a discussion strategy. Our aim is to support, not to evaluate. 

We strongly encourage participants to take advantage of this program – it is by far the best way to improve!