How I facilitate student-led class discussions

Research shows that people remember only 5% of what they are told, 50% of what they discuss, and 90% of what they teach. When my principal shared this in a recent staff meeting I heard a few teachers scoff and say things like, “Well sure! How are students going to teach if I don’t teach it to them first?”  This is an interesting paradox that can be easily resolved through Socratic Seminars.

In my class I run regular Socratic Seminars. Socratic Seminars are simply a means to teach through a series of questions and answers. They are an excellent tool for students to engage with curriculum and apply learning to their own personal ideas and interests. Students are able to take control of learning which empowers them as they become the teacher for the day.

Here are some simple steps anyone can follow.

Establishing Norms

Before I assign the Socratic Seminar we develop norms for class discussions. I put students into groups and ask them to come up with rules that should be in place when we are running discussions. I ask them to consider the following:

  • Participation
  • Behavior
  • Respect

Each group comes up with a set of values. When they are done they are shared and I write them on the board. After all groups have shared their norms we compile a master list for the class. I type these into a PowerPoint so they are available on Seminar days.


I allow students to sign up for when they are going to lead Seminars. When it is their turn, I conference with the leaders. I let them know the topic of the week. During our freshman Beowulf unit the topics are:

  • Week 1 Introduction and historical context of Beowulf. 
  • Week 2 The major characters of Beowulf. 
  • Week 3 Beowulf‘s influence on modern culture.

When I assign topics to my students I have them search the internet for articles pertaining to the week’s topic which are due by Wednesday. I have them email me a link to the article. They need to read the article, be able to tell me what the article was about, why they chose the article, and what interested them most about it. Some of the articles I get for the Beowulf introduction might include the history of the story, Viking ship building, the symbolism of monsters, the role of heroes throughout history, etc.

Once they have the article I assign them to write seven discussion questions by Friday. I will talk to them about what discussion questions are and how to write them. If they are not sure, I hand them a list of Socratic Seminar question stems that I found on the internet. On Friday, I meet with the students once more to review their questions to ensure they will facilitate discussion and I explain the expectations of a discussion leader.


I only assess the discussion leader. The criteria for facilitating a class discussion are:

  • Leader has prepared sufficient questions/notes to lead discussion.
  • Leader demonstrates an understanding of the text and current unit objectives.
  • Leader facilitates a lively and engaging discussion.
  • Leader makes an effort to ensure all students participated in the discussion.

Students are made aware of the expectations and reminded of the criteria prior to the start of the class discussion.


Monday morning I arrange the tables into four clusters and print off copies of the students’ articles. I set the leaders at the head of the tables with copies of their articles out for them. As students come in, I tell them to sit where they like so long as the tables are equally balanced. I display the PowerPoint slide with the norms on the projector and I review the norms with the class.

The Discussion

Once norms have been reviewed I set a timer to 15 minutes. Students read the articles and the leaders run the discussions while I simply observe and take notes on highlights and concerns. After 15 minutes, leaders rotate with their articles and repeat with a new group. Leaders end up rotating among three groups during the period.

I try to stay out of discussions unless students ask questions and invite me in. If groups have finished their questions and they have more time leaders ask students to think of new questions to discuss on the articles.

After all discussions are finished, I hand out three post-it notes to each student. On one post-it students complement a discussion leader on something they did well.  On the second post-it students complement a participant on something they did well. On the third, students complement either a leader or a participant. When they are done, the class sticks them on the door on their way out and I collect them and hand them out the next day.


The following day, I conference with discussion leaders while the class is working on a project. First, I hand the stack of post-its with their complements and give them a moment to enjoy them.  Then I begin the conversation with the following questions:

  1. What went well during the discussion?
  2. What would you do differently next time you lead?

After we talk about their responses I review the highlights and concerns I noted during the seminar. When the conference is over, I leave the student with a challenge for the next time they lead discussion.

When I’ve finished with leader conferences I walk around and hand out the remaining post-it notes.


That’s it. Socratic Seminars are easy to run, students do all the work.  They teach and discuss so, ultimately, they learn more durning that hour then I could teach them in a week of lecture. Content is emphasized and higher order skills are applied.

Students love seminar days. Many of my at-risk students shine on these days and offer brilliant insight.  Students are not coerced to talk.  They simply talk because it is fun.

If you’ve never tried  a Socratic Seminar, I highly encourage you to try it. Once you do your students will become more engaged and the learning will go deeper and you will see  your students shine.


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