Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Assignments

This guide describes how to successfully complete specific assignments commonly assigned in social sciences and behavioral sciences courses.

Introduction

Student-led in-class discussion assignments involve students assuming the role of instructor by preparing for and leading the class in summarizing, interpreting, and evaluating a particular course reading, issue, or topic. It can take the form of an individual student leading the discussion or a small group of students leading the discussion. The role of the professor is to define the scope of the discussion, review the lead student’s presentation and discussion prompts, monitor student participation in the discussion, improvise new directions and reflections when necessary, provide a summary of what has transpired at the end of the discussion, and assess learning outcomes, often based on a rubric [a scoring tool that explicitly describes the professor’s performance expectations]. The order by which students lead a class discussion is determined most frequently by a method of voluntary sign-up or assigned ahead of time based on either a predetermined protocol or randomly chosen by the professor.


Byrd, Jr., Jack and Suzanne Goodney Lea. Guidebook for Student-Centered Classroom Discussions. Interactivity Foundation, 2008; Discussion. Chicago Center for Teaching. University of Chicago; Novak, Sandi, and Cara Slattery. Deep Discourse: A Framework for Cultivating Student-Led Discussions. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree Press, 2017; Muller, Heidi L. "Facilitating Classroom Discussion: Lessons from Student-Led Discussions." (2000). Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association (86th, Seattle, WA, November 9-12, 2000).

Benefits of Leading a Class Discussion

The benefits and expected learning outcomes for students leading a classroom discussion can include improving your ability to synthesize scholarly research, demonstrating the development of your oral communication skills, learning how to effectively engage in a constructive dialogue with an audience, and responding to feedback or questions in a clear and concise manner that encourages further discussion. Similar to giving an oral presentation, the skills acquired from successfully completing this assignment are transferable to the skills needed in any workplace environment where communicating your thoughts effectively to a team or within a group setting is an essential part of your day-to-day responsibilities.

Listed below are some reasons why professors assign student-led discussions:

Benefits for a Student Discussion Leader

  • Leadership and Preparation Skills. For individualized in-class discussion assignments, facilitating a discussion involves assuming a leadership role, identifying the main issues to be examined, and developing the questions to be asked. You also gain leadership skills from managing the discussion, shaping its direction, and making sure everyone has an opportunity to participate in the discussion.
  • Freedom to Set the Learning Agenda. Leading a class discussion places you in the role of being the instructor. Therefore, embrace the opportunity to take ownership of not just your own learning about a course reading or topic, but from the act of facilitating all aspects of what happens during the discussion. Although your professor is present to supervise the activities, you are in control of the specific proceedings.
  • Motivate a Group Discussion. This assignment also helps you develop an ability to motivate others to actively participate in the discussion. There are several strategies you can use to create a relaxed, comfortable setting in which everyone feels comfortable [see below]. Leading a class discussion can also teach you how to be inclusive by helping particular students not feel marginalized by letting them know that their thoughts and opinions matter.
  • Improve Listening Skills.  As the discussion leader, you must not only ask good questions, but listen carefully to what is being said. Leading a discussion can help you to be reflective about what others are saying, to contemplate what this means in relation to the topic or course reading, and to hear the often subtle differences in how audience members frame their perspective or opinion. Consider the act of listening to not only encompass verbal cues, but include non-verbal body language concerning how people participate and what this signaling might mean, for example, in the follow up questions you may ask.
  • Manage Silence or Disengagement in a Positive Manner. Invariably, there will be moments when no one answers your question or the discussion ends abruptly--all that’s left is silence. As the lead facilitator, you are responsible for moving the discussion forward. This can be done by asking a new question, building on a prior discussion point, or altering the direction of the discussion. Note, however, that silence may signal that people are simply contemplating what they want to say, so always let the silence linger for a bit before interjecting.
  • Improve Critical Thinking. An in-class discussion improves what can be thought of as critical thinking in motion as classmates continuously speak and discuss critical issues. For example, a student may respond in an unexpected way to your question and you then have to improvise at that moment about how to use that feedback in a way that solicits further discussion or creates a new opportunity for sharing ideas. Leading class discussions forces you to be analytical about what is being discussed and to insert yourself in the discussions when needed to create even more robust dialogue.

Benefits for a Classroom Audience

  • Peer-to-Peer Learning. Student-led class discussions are a form of reciprocal, mutually supportive learning. In other words, it is an in-class activity that offers students the opportunity to learn from each other. As a result, it encourages participates to take responsibility for their own learning and, more generally, learning how to learn through acts of dialogue, debate, and deliberation.
  • Minimizes Authoritative Power Dynamics. The peer-to-peer learning format of student-led discussion assignments can contribute to a more dynamic and inclusive conversation among students because it reduces the discomfort some students may have challenging statements made by the professor. A student leading the discussion can create a better give and take atmosphere within the classroom than a professor who [presumably] carries the weight of authoritative knowledge.
  • Relate to Contemporary Lived Experiences. Depending on the course reading, topic, or issue, the discussion can include references to the contemporary lived experiences of the student discussion leader and the student audience. This grounds the discussion in a reality that is more connected to student’s understanding and sense of meaning-making than what your professor may be able to offer as a reference point or example [i.e., “Back when I was your age....”].
  • Potential to Change Attitudes and Ideas. As with any classroom discussion, the information shared and debated openly in student-led discussions can encourage participants to re-examine the research problem with a fresh perspective or with a new understanding of the study's implications or proposed actions to be taken. This can be a catalyst for reassessing a particular decision or reshape an approach to a problem that evolves organically through student-to student discussion rather than simply being prompted by the professor.

Guide to Discussion Skills. Academic Skills Toolkit, University of New South Wales, Sydney; Novak, Sandi, and Cara Slattery. Deep Discourse: A Framework for Cultivating Student-Led Discussions. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree Press, 2017; Rhodes, Gale and Robert Schaible. "Talking Students/Listening Teachers: The Student-led Discussion." Issues of Inquiry in College Learning and Teaching 15 (1992): 44-61; Rugutt, John, and Caroline C. Chemosit. "What Motivates Students to Learn? Contribution of Student-to-Student Relations, Student-faculty Interaction and Critical Thinking Skills." Educational Research Quarterly 32 (March 2009): 16-28.

 

How to Approach Leading a Class Discussion

The structure of a student-led discussion can vary widely depending on the goals of the assignment. Described below are general suggestions on how to prepare to lead a class discussion.

If you are leading a class discussion about a specific course reading, consider the following:

  • Carefully read the material and take notes. Focus on the main elements of the study and their significance in relation to the research problem. Your notes will form the basis of what you want to emphasize in your brief summary introduction to the class [often your professor will require that you to provide a brief summary of the reading before you begin the discussion].
  • Organize your ideas around the elements of the study. Think critically about the significance of the research problem, the suitability of the method used to gather information, the thoroughness of the author's discussion about the findings, and the appropriateness of the author’s conclusions, including any limitations and their implications, the validity of any recommendations in addressing the research problem, and, if there are recommendations for further research, what areas of study might be missing or specific recommendation that requires additional context or clarification.
  • Based on these elements of the course reading, develop a set of questions that will help your classmates understand and evaluate the research and its implications. The number of questions you ask depends on the amount of time allotted to lead the class discussion. If you have a limited period of time, focus on questions that will encourage audience engagement and understanding. This can include asking the audience why they may agree or disagree with specific statement, recommendation, or conclusion, offering a contrarian or controversial perspective, or asking what stood out about the study and to explain why.
  • In general, a good discussion begins with a broad question that lays a foundation for unpacking specific aspects of the study. This approach frames the parameters of the overall discussion. For example, a course reading studying the effects of the pandemic on learning among minority students in middle school, could begin with a question concerning why this study is important, followed by discussing if specific examples cited by the author were effective in providing a complete picture of the problem and then, if they do not, asking the audience for evidence-based examples that they believe would be better at explaining these effects. Note that it is highly unlikely everyone will agree with such a broad opening question, so this reaction should encourage a good discussion.

NOTE: Often your professor will ask you to share your questions and discussion prompts ahead of time in order to provide constructive feedback and clarification. If this is not required, do it anyway. Professors are skilled in posing questions that help students think critically about the subject matter. As such, obtaining advice from your professor beforehand can help you formulate questions that will most likely evoke thoughtful and insightful responses and encourage everyone to share their insights and opinions.

ANOTHER NOTE: If your audience comes to a consensus about the importance the course reading or have finished answering your questions before the discussion is supposed to end, you can continue the dialogue by shifting focus towards asking your classmates to think about how they would approach building on the original study or how to transform the findings to create new policy or actions, or even why the audience has come to such a quick conclusion about the study. Follow up questions not only can cover the research itself, but they can also focus on future applications of the study or contemplating what new discoveries may be derived from the research in the future.


If you are leading a class discussion about a specific research problem or topic, consider the following:

  • Read all the course readings on the topic that is to be discussed and take notes. Review past studies that may be relevant based on the sources that have been cited in the course materials you read. Use the "cited by" feature of Google Scholar to identify more recent, related studies about the topic or issue. Do this by copying the title of the article into Google Scholar. If anyone has subsequently cited that article in their research, those works can be viewed by clicking on "Cited by" link that is followed by a number below the record [e.g., Cited by 61, showing that the study has been subsequently cited 61 times].
  • Use the notes you have taken to organize your ideas around specific problems, controversial or confusing issues, and/or key research questions relating to the topic. Focus on themes that researchers have identified or overall concerns that have repeatedly emerged in the context of research findings.
  • Use the themes you have developed to create a set of discussion points that will help your audience understand and evaluate the main arguments [i.e.., the evidence-based claims or thesis statements you have found underpinning the issue or topic].
  • Formulate questions around these discussion points that are intended to provoke debate and stimulate further thinking about possible solutions or recommended courses of action. As you formulate these questions, think about how you might answer them and what follow up questions you might want to ask. This can help you develop additional questions to further the discussion in productive ways.

NOTE: It may be necessary to ask close-ended, factual questions [e.g., “What happened when...?; Who was responsible for...?], but these types of questions do not set the stage for a good discussion because they fail to encourage audience members to interpret, analyze, or evaluate. Your role as discussion leader is to utilize evidence from your review of the literature to provoke students to challenge the basic assumptions underlying research about the issue or topic. This approach will encourage active participation in the discussion.

ANOTHER NOTE: As with giving an oral presentation, practice leading the class discussion. While there may not be any way to anticipate the level of audience engagement or the types of questions that might be asked, you should practice delivering your introduction and reading aloud the questions or discussion points you plan to cover. If possible, practice in front of others and ask them to help you prepare by thinking about the questions and providing feedback as if they were in the class.


Al-Amri, Majid. “Student-led Seminars as an Active Learning Strategy to Enhance English as a Foreign Language Procrastinating Students’ Achievement.” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Gulf Perspectives 15 (2018):. 2-13; Baran, Evrim, and Ana Paula Correia. "Student Led Facilitation Strategies in Online Discussions." Distance Education 30 (2009): 339-361; Brisbin, Matthew, "Using Student-led Discussion Strategies to Motivate, Increase Thinking, Create Ownership, and Teach Citizenship" Master of Education Action Research Projects. Paper 1, George Fox University, July 15, 2015; Byrd, Jr., Jack and Suzanne Goodney Lea. Guidebook for Student-Centered Classroom Discussions. Interactivity Foundation, 2008; Casteel, Mark A., and K. Robert Bridges. "Goodbye Lecture: A Student-led Seminar Approach for Teaching Upper Division Courses." Teaching of Psychology 34 (2007): 107-110; Discussion. Chicago Center for Teaching. University of Chicago; Flynn, Nora K. "Toward Democratic Discourse: Scaffolding Student-led Discussions in the Social Studies." Teachers College Record 111 (August 2009): 2021-2054; McGinnis, Lee. "Simple but Effective: Rediscovering the Class Discussion." In Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning. Proceedings of the Annual ABSEL conference, vol. 31. 2004; McMullen, Victoria Budzinski. "Using Student-led Seminars and Conceptual Workshops to Increase Student Participation." College Teaching 62 (2014): 62-67; Muller, Heidi L. "Facilitating Classroom Discussion: Lessons from Student-Led Discussions." (2000). Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association (86th, Seattle, WA, November 9-12, 2000); Novak, Sandi, and Cara Slattery. Deep Discourse: A Framework for Cultivating Student-Led Discussions. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree Press, 2017; Wagner, Christopher J., Marcela Ossa Parra, and C. Patrick Proctor. "The Interplay between Student-led Discussions and Argumentative Writing." Tesol Quarterly 51 (June 2017): 438-449; White, Kathleen M., and Robert G. Kolber. "Undergraduate and Graduate Students as Discussion Section Leaders." Teaching of Psychology 5 (February 1978): 6-9.

Structure and Organization

Your professor may have a very prescribed assignment plan, in which case the in-class discussion will be relatively easy to organize. However, most of the time, your professor will only set general guidelines, leaving the responsibility to you about how the discussion could be to structured. Below are general guidelines that can help establish a proper, relaxed atmosphere for the audience.

  1. Provide a brief introduction that highlights the purpose of the study, its significance, and key findings. You can conclude by asking if everyone agrees with what you have said or if anyone would like to add anything before continuing. Note that you can purposely leave out a main point in order to provoke a response or create an initial conversation with a follow up question [e.g., “well, what about this finding that...?”].
  2. After the introduction, you can begin the discussion with a interesting or provocative question, a noteworthy quotation from the text, or a visual depiction of something related to the study as alternative methods for starting the discussion. The purpose here is to motivate your audience to be actively engaged in a discussion; once engaged, discussions tend to flow organically as more and more of your classmates want to contribute and build on what others have said.
  3. As the discussion takes place around a broad, initial question or prompt [e.g., "Why should anyone care about this study’s findings?”], listen carefully to what is said and respect other people’s contributions. Remember that one of your responsibilities as facilitator is to create an inclusive space for discussion. Encourage all members of the audience to contribute before offering your own comments or moving on to the next question.
  4. To help move the discussion along, be conscious of moments when you can expand upon or clarify comments made by your classmates in order to help them recognize the main issues and to keep everyone focused on the course reading or topic. Expansive or clarifying comments can also be used to circumvent someone from going off on a tangent that steers the discussion away from the original topic or course reading.
  5. Throughout the process of leading the class discussion, inform without coming across as dogmatic. It is important  that you remain a neutral voice during the proceedings. This is not to say you can’t express an opinion, but it should be grounded in evidence and used to help move the discussion forward [e.g., "I also don’t like the way the city handles safety concerns on the Metro system, but this study shows that...”].
  6. Also throughout the process of leading the class discussion, take notes while people are speaking so you can conclude by summarizing the main issues discussed, highlight key insights, and indicate divergent viewpoints expressed about the topic. If applicable, leave the audience hanging with a thought to ponder by stating what should be done next. This will people remember the discussion and reflect on what happened.

NOTE: For discussions that are intended to cover a complicated course reading or topic or there is a lot of time for leading the discussion, consider using presentation slides. The use of visual cues can help frame the discussion and keep everyone focused. However, do not clutter the slides with a lot of text or graphics--use keywords or phrases because you want the audience to be focused on the discussion, not reading a slide.

ANOTHER NOTE: As a member of the audience, a suggested way to organize your contributions to a class discussion is to start with making small contributions. For example, by agreeing with what someone has said or asking the discussion leader to provide an example or expand on a point they have made. This can help you feel more comfortable being more actively involved in the discussion by directly answering a question put to the group or by providing an example for a point under discussion or disagreeing with what someone and offering an alternative perspective.


Problems to Avoid

As the discussion leader, be prepared to confront the following issues that may arise during the discussion:

  • Make sure no one dominates the discussion. Do this by inviting and encouraging contributions from all students. As noted above, as the discussion leader, it is important that you encourage an inclusive space for discussion and debate.
  • Make sure audience members do not talk over one another. Be proactive in ensuring that only one member of the group speaks at a time. Encourage passionate responses, but enforce rules  that encourage civil discussion and that only the most loud are heard. For example, state that you will only respond to raised hands.
  • Make sure the discussion does not drift off course. Even if the discussion is focused on examining a particular course reading, a single comment or random thought expressed can lead to the discussion moving off topic. Part of your role as student discussion leader is to refocus everyone on the main topic and ensure that the discussion remains relevant.

Al-Amri, Majid. “Student-led Seminars as an Active Learning Strategy to Enhance English as a Foreign Language Procrastinating Students’ Achievement.” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Gulf Perspectives 15 (2018):. 2-13; Baran, Evrim, and Ana Paula Correia. "Student Led Facilitation Strategies in Online Discussions." Distance Education 30 (2009): 339-361; Brisbin, Matthew, "Using Student-led Discussion Strategies to Motivate, Increase Thinking, Create Ownership, and Teach Citizenship" Master of Education Action Research Projects. Paper 1, George Fox University, July 15, 2015; Byrd, Jr., Jack and Suzanne Goodney Lea. Guidebook for Student-Centered Classroom Discussions. Interactivity Foundation, 2008; Casteel, Mark A., and K. Robert Bridges. "Goodbye Lecture: A Student-led Seminar Approach for Teaching Upper Division Courses." Teaching of Psychology 34 (2007): 107-110; Discussion. Chicago Center for Teaching. University of Chicago; Flynn, Nora K. "Toward Democratic Discourse: Scaffolding Student-led Discussions in the Social Studies." Teachers College Record 111 (August 2009): 2021-2054; McGinnis, Lee. "Simple but Effective: Rediscovering the Class Discussion." In Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning. Proceedings of the Annual ABSEL conference, vol. 31. 2004; McMullen, Victoria Budzinski. "Using Student-led Seminars and Conceptual Workshops to Increase Student Participation." College Teaching 62 (2014): 62-67; Muller, Heidi L. "Facilitating Classroom Discussion: Lessons from Student-Led Discussions." (2000). Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association (86th, Seattle, WA, November 9-12, 2000); Novak, Sandi, and Cara Slattery. Deep Discourse: A Framework for Cultivating Student-Led Discussions. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree Press, 2017; Wagner, Christopher J., Marcela Ossa Parra, and C. Patrick Proctor. "The Interplay between Student-led Discussions and Argumentative Writing." Tesol Quarterly 51 (June 2017): 438-449; White, Kathleen M., and Robert G. Kolber. "Undergraduate and Graduate Students as Discussion Section Leaders." Teaching of Psychology 5 (February 1978): 6-9.

Assignment Tip

Should I Wait or Should I Go?

There is a long-standing internal debate that most students have whenever they are asked to volunteer for an in-class assignment-–is it better to wait and learn how others manage the assignment or jump in early and just get it over with? The assumption is that those who volunteer first to lead a class discussion proceed with the least knowledge about how to do it well. On the other hand, waiting until the very end can be stressful and divert attention away from what is being discussed each week as you think more and more about how you will lead the class when it's finally your turn.

The most common answer based on conversations I have had with students is to avoid being among the first couple of students to volunteer while, at the same time, not waiting until the very end to do so. Given this, the best advice may be to volunteer after a few students have already led a class discussion. Ultimately however, you should always decide based on what makes you most comfortable, fits within your overall academic schedule, or the course reading or topic for a specific week is of interest to you regardless of where it falls on the calendar. Note that professors are well aware of these issues and may work around it by assigning students in some type of predetermined order [e.g., alphabetical by last name]. But, professors also understand the pressure students experience when they volunteer to go first or last and will likely take this into account when evaluating how well you have moderated the discussion.


Abdullah, Mohd Yusof, Noor Rahamah Abu Bakar, and Maizatul Haizan Mahbob. "The Dynamics of Student Participation in Classroom: Observation on Level and Forms of Participation." Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 59 (October 2012): 61-70.