Topics: Student Engagement Getting Started - PhD Science

How to Engage Students in Class Discussion

Robert Ingram

by Robert Ingram

August 25, 2022
How to Engage Students in Class Discussion

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Posted in: Aha! Blog > PhD Science > Student Engagement Getting Started - PhD Science > How to Engage Students in Class Discussion

Today, science classes have activities that connect to and build on knowledge. Students often design their investigations rather than follow step-by-step instructions assigned to them. PhD Science® is built upon a content learning cycle that relies on students asking questions, sharing their ideas, and collaborating with others.

Throughout the content learning cycle, students are encouraged to work together. But how do we achieve that collaboration, particularly in class discussions? How do we, as educators, get students to participate in class discussions? What tools prepare us for student engagement in discussion?

Class Discussions

PhD Science is designed to foster student discourse and support students in taking risks. Students have many opportunities to collaborate and participate in class discussions, which provide students chances to learn from one another. Educators are supported through specific structures and routines that help students feel connected to each other and what they’re learning. When students are supported by their teacher in their classroom environment, they feel safe taking academic risks and experience the engagement needed to be successful in the content.

Class discussions provide students with opportunities to synthesize and communicate their understanding through instructional routines such as Think-Pair-Share, allowing individual students to consider their thoughts about a question and collaboratively discuss their questions with peers.

Instructional routines are engaging and active classroom procedures that support the development of content knowledge and academic skills. Regardless of the science program you use, you likely have shifted to more of a facilitator role as students have taken more ownership of their learning. Recognizing that this shift can be challenging, Great Minds® offers the PhD Science Teacher Resource Pack as an open educational resource.

The teacher­–writers of PhD Science have carefully selected scientific phenomena and problems to stimulate student questions and ideas and encourage student-driven learning. To further support educators, collaborative conversation prompts are provided as a component of the Teacher Resource Pack.

Collaborative Conversation Prompts

During classroom conversations, you can use prompts such as the following to support students’ discourse as students make claims supported by evidence and explain their reasoning (Claims-Evidence-Reasoning/CER). Encourage students to ask their peers similar questions.


  • Could you summarize that in your own words?
  • What is your main point?
  • What difference does that make?


  • Why do you think that?
  • How did you come to that conclusion?
  • What do you think caused that?


  • What is your evidence?
  • Could you give us an example?
  • What observations or data support your thinking?


  • Who can summarize what was just said?
  • Who can build on that idea?
  • Does anyone see this another way?


Supporting All Learners

There are many times when students are reluctant to participate in class discussions or are apprehensive that they don’t know the right thing to say, especially English learners. While supporting language development is important for all students, it is especially important for English learners and nonstandard English speakers studying science.

Students make meaning of language when they interact with new terms through coherent, hands-on experiences in the science classroom. Creating opportunities, through instructional routines such as The Outside–In, for all students to speak and listen to their peers in varied contexts helps English learners build their conversational and academic language skills. Students can talk with other students in their natural language or in their own words, which helps support their building of knowledge in their own vocabulary rather than the teacher's. The Outside–In helps students determine word meaning from context and morphology, such as roots and prefixes. Students will practice self-awareness as they determine what words may be unfamiliar to them and require further analysis.

No matter the academic language skills, students are encouraged to work together just like scientists and engineers do in the real world. Let’s investigate the competencies of social and emotional learning (SEL) and how they tie in to class discussion.

How Discussions Support SEL

Self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness are the competencies that make up SEL. How is each of these addressed in science as students collaborate and engage in scientific practices such as asking questions and constructing explanations?


Students must recognize their own emotions, thoughts, and values as they work individually and collectively to develop questions, models, hypotheses, and explanations. Students must exhibit self-discipline, take initiative, manage their behaviors, and organize and convey their own thoughts and questions around anchor visuals to engage in class discussion.


Because students are responsible for their learning, you’ll find that they become more self-motivated and will often take the initiative, especially in group discussions and investigations. In science, students often have misconceptions or false claims that need to be addressed through future investigation and better reasoning. Students will begin to get a sense of the types of questions to ask and become better able to group like questions.

Responsible Decision-Making

To create a safe environment for themselves and their peers when working on science activities, students must develop and exercise strong judgment. In addition, students nurture their curiosity and open-mindedness, learning how to make a reasoned judgment after analyzing information, data, and facts that help them identify solutions.

Relationship Skills

For students to use evidence to make arguments and/or reason about claims, effective communication, which employs both speaking and listening skills, is essential. For students to communicate effectively and present evidence-based arguments, conflicts must be resolved constructively. Students should be encouraged to try out different roles in small groups to ensure all students are actively participating.

Social Awareness

During discussions and collaborations, students will see others’ strengths with varied background knowledge. Students will also seek to understand others’ points of view in a Socratic Seminar, a student-led academic conversation that focuses on the importance of questioning. Each seminar is based on a rigorous question that pushes students’ thinking, allowing them to synthesize and extend their learning through exploration and debate.

How Anchor Visuals Support Discourse

As you've seen, collaboration and discussion play a key role in the science classroom and address many of the SEL competencies. In PhD Science, students will share what they notice and wonder about the phenomenon and organize their thoughts and questions around three anchor visuals—the driving question board, anchor model, and anchor chart. 

An example of a wall from a PhD Science classroom that includes charts, anchor visuals, and a word wallAnchor Visuals

PhD Science uses recurring anchor visuals throughout each module to help develop coherence and to collect and display evidence of students’ new knowledge, helping them integrate it into what they’ve already learned. Anchor visuals make students’ questions and thinking visible and motivate them to consider various aspects of the anchor phenomenon throughout a module as they progress through each concept. As a class, students organize their learning in each module with a common set of three anchor visuals. 

The teacher–writers behind PhD Science recognize the importance of class discussions in students' ability to construct their own meaning and make sense of phenomena. That's why throughout PhD Science there are numerous opportunities for students to develop their thinking together through the many instructional routines, anchor visuals, and collaborative activities that make up the PhD Science curriculum.

These discussions and collaborative activities lead to the synthesis of ideas from all students, as students actively listen to their peers’ claims, evidence, and reasoning and arrive at the best explanations together. Along the way, students’ ideas may be challenged when they are presented with new evidence, causing them to reconsider their thinking. Students will work together to find answers and that along the way they’ll have many opportunities to share ideas, debate evidence in support of claims, and learn from each other.

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Topics: Student Engagement Getting Started - PhD Science