Balancing Discussions

Often one of the first and most noticeable pitfalls in discussion-based classes is uneven participation. While this can take many forms, it commonly results from students who dominate discussions, others who rarely contribute, or a teacher who regularly assumes an outsize role. Try one or more of the following activities if you are experiencing any of these issues and want to achieve more balance in your Harkness discussions.

Role Playing

Asking students to assume specific roles encourages them to reflect on the different ways one can contribute to a discussion and on their own past, present, and future participation.  Examples of roles include the questioner, the summarizer, the connector, and the text referencer.  Here is an example from Phillips Exeter Academy of one implementation of this activity:

Role Play Activity


Hatful of Quotes

Brookfield & Preskill (2005) outline an activity they refer to as the "hatful of quotes."  In advance of the discussion, the teacher or a designated student selects 6 or 7 lines or passages from the assigned texts, writes them on slips of paper, and places them in a hat (or some other suitable container). During class, students take turns drawing quotes from the hat, reading them out loud, and then commenting on them.  Since there are (and should be) fewer quotes than participants, students need to place their quotes back in the hat after reading and commenting.  Participants should be encouraged to build off and/or respond to previous comments on their quote where applicable. 



Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. Wiley.