Teaching Through Group Discussion


Dennis McCallum



"Discussion can be a waste of time for everyone and as boring as the worst of lectures" 
–Joseph Lowman

Discussion as Instruction: Theory

Each type of instruction has different strengths and weaknesses. For example:

  • Modeling is good for conveying subjective qualities that are hard to describe in words. But modeling left by itself is easy to misinterpret. The learner may conclude that someone they model is doing things for reasons other than the real ones. Modeling also requires very small numbers of learners for maximum effectiveness. The subjective elements the model seeks to convey (like her urgency for the things of God) are only apparent to those who are personally close enough to appreciate what words and actions mean in the context of the model’s life. This makes modeling extremely time-intensive.
  • Lecture is good for conveying large quantities of information to large numbers of people, but lacks any way to know whether that information is being perceived or is in useable form. Learners may be cataloguing information that they will never be able to apply to life situations. Or, for all we know, they may be learning nothing at all. Yet, when well done, lecture is one of the most persuasive forms of communication. A good lecture can arrest the attention of even very large groups of people. On the other hand, if one lectures in a very small group, it can seem pretentious and unnatural.
  • Written outlines or essays can convey large quantities of information to either large or small groups, but are easily misinterpreted unless very carefully written. Such writing is time consuming, but so are all modalities of teaching if done well. In addition, written material has one great weakness: it must be read to be effective. On the other hand, if learners don’t understand, they can re-read the piece as often as they like.

These examples illustrate why good teachers rely on a number of instruction modalities rather than just one approach.

We will be discussing one of the most powerful channels of instruction—guided group discussion. Like other methods, this channel has strengths and weaknesses. Compile a list of weaknesses and strengths before going on.

Group Discussion



We will be referring often to Mastering the Techniques of Teaching (Second Edition), Joseph Lowman (San Francisco, Josey-Bass Inc., Publishers, 1995). Lowman is a recognized authority on college-age instruction. All page numbers at ends of citations are from this excellent book.


For our purposes, discussion will refer to leader-guided or moderated group discussion. This will usually follow a pattern where the leader teaches partly by lecture, or at least offers an introduction and conclusion. Guided discussion may involve some peer-to-peer interaction, but most of the interaction will be from learners to the leader or the group in general. The leader offers a short summary and comment to most, or all, sharing.



Some discussions seem to drag in fits and awkward silences, creating tension in the group that further inhibits discussion. Other discussions seem to thrive in eager sharing, with people actually competing to get their point in. Why is this?

The most likely reason for such difference is the introduction. In our introduction, we touch on the skills of public speaking, or homiletics. The leader must stimulate and excite the group about the subject under consideration. During this first part of the meeting, the burden is completely on the leader to:

  • Raise the group's consciousness of the issues: Defining what the issues are, and why they are urgent.
  • Emotionally engage the group with the subject and with the leader.
  • Achieve arousal: People sit up, furrow their brows, smile, laugh, and in other ways show that they have been impacted emotionally, whether excited, disturbed, insulted (be careful with this one), or inspired.

When people come into a meeting, they are not ready to discuss anything. Most people come to meetings with cold hearts and empty minds. They do not have any thoughts to share, or any desire to speak. Leaders who try to start out with a discussion question are mistaken.

Achieving such arousal is not necessarily a long project. It could be accomplished in a couple of minutes, although you could spend up to 15 or even 20 minutes, if you feel the need to lay a more complete groundwork. These judgments are based on the subject matter and the audience. Longer introductions have the potential to lay out more elaborate content, but may exhaust the audience attention-span.

To become adept at this part, consider taking a class in homiletics.


The instructor will normally introduce "probes" or questions intended to prod members toward a particular line of thought. However, discussion is not recitation. Recitation is when the instructor gives students an opportunity to clarify content or the instructor asks questions requiring specific knowledge of study content, frequently from assigned readings (like the teacher in "The Paper Chase"). We are not suggesting such recitation is wrong or harmful, only that such is not what we are examining.

What then, are these questions, or probes, that elicit discussion? Several patterns are successful. Here is a partial list:

  • Set up an apparent contradiction in your introduction, and ask the group how it might be resolved.
  • Ask them how a particular truth might apply either to life in general, or to specific situations you imagine.
  • Give them a statement from a third party (either imaginary or an authority) and ask them to react to it.
  • Ask how someone from x, y, or z perspective would answer a particular question.
  • Ask what whether what you just distilled from a text or narrative is different or the same as something else with which they are already familiar (e.g. Is this teaching about letting each person have their own conviction from Romans 14 different in any way from relativism?).
  • Devil’s advocacy: challenge a position they all seem to accept axiomatically with some problems.
  • Discovery: What do you think is this passage really saying?
  • Personal experience: Who wants to share an experience where this truth has made a difference?
  • Comparing and contrasting: Lowman says, "Asking students to compare and contrast concepts, theories, and individuals orally in class helps to clarify the relationships within a content area."1

As learners answer each question, the leader responds with a short summary statement and a further probe, until moving on to another subject.


After learning the particulars in a field of knowledge (such as vocabulary and grammar rules in a language), the next stage in learning is to progressively differentiate and relate the new particulars to existing particulars. Discussion is particularly suitable for these later stages in learning [see exercise on Ausubel’s stages of learning].

Consider Lowman’s 5 types of thinking best developed in discussion: Personal identification: What would Paul have felt during his imprisonment in Rome?

  • Objective or critical thinking: What are some problems with the notion of having no consciousness of sin in Hebrews 10? Or, How would a Calvinist answer this?
  • Diagnostic thinking: Ask students to draw conclusions from a data set.
  • Independent thinking: Why did they reach the conclusion they did?
  • As-if thinking: Challenge them to predict a future outcome based on data.
  • Problem solving: Asking them to propose solutions to the problems under study.
  • Increasing awareness of value controversies: "These both sound good, let’s hear more evidence for each.

Finally, consider these qualifications on leaders’ questions by Lowman:

  • Avoid questions that can be answered by short factual statements or yes or no responses. Keep queries short and simple. If students must work to decipher your questions, they are less likely to respond to it. Discussion questions should be easily understandable by students, put forth decisively, and followed by silence.2
  • The underlying assumption is that as people struggle with concepts and their own thoughts and feelings, they will become very receptive to new information and ideas that help them resolve the questions before them. Research shows that when learners struggle for answers in a area they retain those answers longer and more accurately. Further, when learners discuss related issues under skillful guidance, they link the ideas in an associational network. Such networks are remembered far longer than isolated concepts.3
  • More importantly, such discussion has the potential to develop actual thinking skills that will never result from lecture. While an audience might admire and enjoy a lecturer’s thinking, we have no reason to believe they would be able to imitate such thinking on their own in situations not mentioned in a lecture. As Lowman observes, "asking learners to apply in your group what they have learned [through discussion] requires them to demonstrate understanding, not merely memorization."3 This is what we want from our people—not just the ability to do what a tape-recorder can do (spit back knowledge) but to creatively handle that knowledge in ways that are useful in ministry and Christian living.

Seen this way, we realize discussion is an essential type of instruction where learners get to try their own wings like baby birds. I believe a guided discussion format is the best approach for many Dwell cell groups, small groups, and home churches. Authorities agree that even in large groups of over 100 a skillful lecturer can incorporate periods of interaction with good effect.

However, guidance is essential. Many discussions lead nowhere, and any conclusions reached are not memorable. As Lowman says, "Discussion should be for an intended purpose, not simply to hear students’ voices." The notion that any discussion or interaction will naturally lead to advancement in learners’ lives is naïve.

Leader's Responses

The leader guides the discussion with responses to what people say. It is common for the leader to respond to virtually every person who speaks with short responses calculated to clarify what is being said while keeping the discussion moving forward in the right direction.

This responding by the leader is a very complicated skill, made more difficult by the immediacy of discussion. Little planning is possible when it comes to offering responses. On the other hand, many aspects of this skill are common to good conversation in general and become instinctual after some practice. Consider what the leader must do in order to offer good responses:

  • Listen carefully to each point, with eye-contact, nodding, smiling, showing recognition or concern as appropriate.
  • Immediately summarize in a sentence or two what was just said, and relate it to the topic if necessary.
  • Determine without hesitation whether to challenge the point, to affirm it, to show reservation, to call for clarification, to move on to another subject, etc.
  • Instantly compose and introduce another question, or probe.
  • Introduce energy, enthusiasm, humor, and friendliness into the discussion.
  • Watch the clock mentally and keep things moving in a timely way—interrupting wordy sharing if necessary.
  • Introducing blocks of content from time to time which can serve as further fodder for discussion.

When the discussion leader learns to do all these things by habit and instinct, leading discussion becomes an enjoyable and relaxing way to teach. She is able to draw on the gifts and knowledge of fellow Christians in the group for help rather than feeling responsible for a solo performance. While not as glorifying to the leader as a blockbuster sermon, a rich discussion will leave members feeling like they contributed, learned, and heard God speak to their hearts. Viewed this way, we see that leading discussion is one of the most self-effacing modes of teaching.

Background Factors

To maximize the effectiveness of discussion, leaders should realize the importance of a number of background factors.

Discussion is easier when all the students can see each other and the instructor. It’s a mistake to set your room up in rows of chairs facing one direction when your goal is discussion. Have you ever had a discussion with the back of someone’s head? De-emphasize hierarchical relationship between teacher and students as much as possible:

  • Avoid hinting that teacher already has a good answer that the students must guess. "No, that’s not quite it."
  • In egalitarian discussion, avoid seeing discussion as a chance for the powerful teacher to test the students’ mettle. Such would be recitation, not discussion
  • Seating can be suggestive of hierarchical leadership or of facilitating leadership. Think about how your room is arranged and how the leader presents herself.
  • A podium of any kind is a very questionable addition.
  • Begin with "let’s see what we can discover about. . ." or "What are we to make of this?" to emphasize that he too, is participating in the process.
  • Skillful leaders discourage competition among learners by not encouraging members to show off that they know it all
  • Discussion should not be allowed to become an avenue for members to demolish each other’s comments.
  • Members should be conditioned to participate in discussion from the outset of a group. Lowman 4
  • Discussion is especially stimulating for students who speak, but thinking is also stimulated in those who merely listen to their classmates and consider what they might have said themselves.5

Potential Strengths

Discussion is uniquely capable of teaching people:

  • To approach a problem or topic rationally.
  • To monitor their own thinking processes.
  • To question their implicit assumptions.

It also tells the instructor how completely the information has been absorbed. By engaging in discussion, the leaders is able to appreciate quickly which members understand in a deep way, and which ones need more help.

Discussion promotes independence because for the most part, students must come up with responses on their own during discussion. Such independent creativity is identical to what they must do when they use the same concepts in real life. Lecture centers on the speaker’s thinking. Discussion centers on the learners’ thinking.

Discussion is particularly good at revealing students’ attitudes, and these will likely never come out in other forms of teaching. When we see attitudes, we see our work as leaders cut out for us. The members themselves may not realize until after a good discussion what their own attitudes were.

Lowman says, "An instructor who, by means of discussion, asks for students’ opinions communicates that he or she cares about their reactions. . . Discussion enhances rapport between student and teacher partly because it gives instructors so many chances to show acceptance of student ideas."6 Viewed this way, leading discussion is an opportunity for leaders (and other members as well) to encourage and build up people who share. We will often find issues coming up that we can pray for in each other’s lives.

According to Lowman, "Student comments are offered to the instructor in the hope of approval and verification of their academic competence. The quality of the instructor’s response potently influences both the student offering the comment and those observing the interchange."6 Leaders are able to motivate whole groups to become sharper, more effective sharers. Members who see themselves as victorious contributors to the group discussion will invest more at every level, both at meetings, and when alone at home. These can, in turn, become the building blocks of future spoken ministries by members.

It is possible that leading discussion might involve more learned skills than does effective preaching. Good preaching often seems possible for some, but not for others. Leading discussion also draws on the abilities of the group, which in our context, include mature Christians who are ready to help.

Potential Weaknesses

But discussion is by no means always successful. Good discussions seem spontaneous to visitors, but they are not. Leading discussion is no easier than good lecturing:

"Discussions must be well planned in order to be effective, but their quality also depends greatly on how well the instructor performs. Leading excellent discussion demands just as much stage presence, leadership, and energy as presenting a lecture—and considerably more interpersonal understanding and communication skill. Because of these additional requirements, some educators believe that leading an outstanding discussion is more difficult than giving a lecture of comparable quality."7

"A discussion leader who lets students talk on and on with little control or direction will soon lose the group’s attention."6

Discussion is probably not effective for presenting new information, which the student is already motivated to learn. Though not effective for presenting content per se, discussion does aid its mastery by encouraging students to actively process what they learn as they sit in class. Discussion helps students assimilate and integrate information they have initially acquired from readings or lectures.7

Discussion is the most interpersonal of all teaching methods; thus it is the first to reflect a rise or drop in group morale or teacher enthusiasm.8

Discussion is slower than lecture when covering content. Group conclusions are reached very gradually. Lowman says, "Discussion always represents a tradeoff of time and objectives; the instructor must decide if a particular objective is better met through discussion than through lecture, demonstration, etc."9

Group size and maturity affect how much discussion might be appropriate. Large group discussions should normally be short because people grow frustrated when they are not able to contribute.

Promotes independence because for the most part, students must come up with responses on their own during discussion.10

Planning a discussion

Planning a discussion begins in the same way as planning a regular teaching, or lecture.

If you are teaching a passage expositorily (either didactic or narrative) you need to:

  1. Do your inductive study taking special care with the "strategic" question. The strategic question points to the author's purpose for saying what he says. That usually means your purpose as an expository teacher will be similar. To make your points seem like they rise up out of the text, you need to be in line with the author's purpose, although the differences between his audience and yours will dictate some modifications.
  2. Then create appropriate antitheses for each strategic point. The antitheses may be:
    • What will happen if we fail to do, know, or believe what he says.
    • What we typically see in real life instead of the thesis.
    • The opposite of the thesis (good with abstract ideas or moral qualities) (See sample below) Antheses are used in teaching to make the presentation interesting. The violence of collision between your theses and antitheses makes the teaching seem dynamic and makes your points seem important. This collision, or debate, brings in the emotional component in preaching or in discussion.
1:3-11 For the Phillipians: Love, Discernment and Fruit
Paul in Prison 
Partnership = support? Their local ministry? 
Lacking knowledge & discernment? 
Needing the longer view?
Historical - His relationship with them = very important and affectionate


  1. Thanksgiving connected ministry relationships, good feelings that come from partnership are part of the 12 baskets full.
  2. The partnership of committed workers = one of the key joys God has intended for us.
  3. "Confident" v. 6 could be a figure of speech meaning he believes God will do it. It was spoken to a specific audience in light of his knowledge of them. Whether it would apply in a literal sense to all Christians is doubtful.
  4. Vs. 8 Love includes affection and feelings, not just doing and serving.
  5. The "affection of Christ" must refer to Jesus warm-heartedness.
  6. Love contains the component of knowledge or that love is contained by knowledge, or truth. These are not antithetical or inversely proportional. Implies that love could grow without knowledge,
  7. Good discernment is needed—it is connected to knowledge. The ignorant have a hell of a time discerning.
  8. Knowledge that doesn’t lead to purity, blamelessness, and fruit is carnal knowledge. Fruit is connected to knowing, loving and discerning. "To the glory of God" = non-egotistical


  1. Camaraderie with Phillipians remembered before instruction-- Warm up the water with people before going on to imperatives. Relationship is the best context for admonishment.
  2. v.6 Confidence in them expressed before admonishment
  3. Affection, expressed before admonishment
  4. Love is not enough—knowledge and discernment are also needed, especially seen by their flirting with legalists
  5. Bearing fruit must follow from godly knowledge, but are the legalists bearing fruit? 
    Or, if you want to bear real fruit, go with God’s truth, not with the pseudo fruit of self-effort.


  1. a. Hit people with the truth and they can take it or leave it—no relational work needed 
    b. Lone ranger minister, Autonomous worker who misses joy of teamwork
  2. Negative vision—warnings are the mainstay of the relationship
  3. Admonishment w/out affection
  4. Love is enough, who needs knowledge? 
    Or, "Knowledge undermines, 
    or impedes, love 1 Corinthians 8 
    [also postmodern "relationship only" or interpretive community theories]
  5. Dead knowledge that fails to affect the city for God 
    Fruit of righteousness comes form focusing on the law


  1. Points 1-3 are real sore points for me, especially when I’m not being deliberate, ie. Daily life. Wife and kids are the easiest to omit, also closest friends.
  2. Paul was a type-A personality, but had learned the importance of nurturance.
  3. Antithesis#4a. is loose in our church. Bring in I Cor. 3 and Heb 5 on milk and meat. Proverbs on hating instruction and loving ignorance. Teach the Word as a means. Answer 1 Corinthians 8, 1,2 with Matthew 22 loving God with our mind
  4. See student we know who went to seminary and lost his ability to minister and invest in people
  5. Check your balance between love, knowledge, and discernment by the fruit you are bearing. Must define fruit in pretty broad terms—both ministry and character

Exercise: Write a question that might elicit each of the strategic points above and each of the antitheses. Then write one or two for each of the application points or similar points

  • Thesis: We should remind people of our relationship and the value we place on them before moving to admonition. 
  • Antithesis: Tell people the truth and let the chips fall... If they can't handle the truth, maybe that's bringing to light some pride they need to deal with. 
  • Thesis: People respond to our admonition when they know we believe in them 
  • Antithesis: People need to have their butts kicked pretty often! 
  • Thesis: Knowledge is a crucial component in true, biblical love. 
  • Antithesis: Most Christians today are into a head-trip. They think their knowledge makes them spiritual. 
  • Thesis: Grace bears more fruit than law. 
  • Antithesis: God's rules are there to help us bear fruit. 
  • Application: Our home church needs more discernment, or more love. 
  • Application: Our home church is too ignorant. 
  1. Select the points you want to focus on—usually 2 or 3 points unless your are going to compile a list together. 
    List-compiling is a form of brain-storming where the group assembles a list of causes, possibilities, results, reasons, examples, etc. on a given topic. Brain-storming is highly engaging and encourages creative thought, but can be weak in instruction value.
  2. Determine which points could reasonably be discovered by the group during discussion, and which will need to be supplied by you, the leader. You may call on them to:
    • come up with everything from the theological points on
    • or you may supply the strategic thesis, and ask them for antitheses
    • or only ask them for application
    • or, in certain passages, even the background may be elicited in discussion (i.e. teaching them how to "use their eyes" in interpretation)
  3. Prepare an introduction including the information needed to get going and something emotionally stirring. Could be a paradox, a passionate appeal, a challenge etc.
  4. Prepare questions for each of the sections you plan to discuss. Consider Lowman’s comment: To promote discussion, questions must give students permission to be wrong: cf. "How does the text define entropy?" or "what is the definition of existentialism?" vs. "What is your first association to the word entropy?" or "What does existentialism mean to you?" Pay attention to your wording. 
    Your questions may run several deep on each point. Usually, only the first is planned, along with your goal. Then keep probing with spontaneous questions until your goal is reached."
  5. Prepare transitions between sections, and contingencies in case discussion lasts too long. Decide what you can jettison.
  6. Prepare a plan for cutting sections off if time prohibits covering them.
  7. Prepare a conclusion.

If you are planning to cover a narrative spread over numerous passages (e.g. not expositorial coverage of a specific narrative in one passage):

  1. Prepare your introduction.
  2. Prepare a list of passages to read, and plan on assigning these to readers in the group wherever appropriate. Will you analyze the story as you read it (section by section) or go through the whole story before analyzing what it means? (Passages too long to read or lacking immediate interest should be summarized by you)
  3. Identify the themes you want to focus on and antitheses for each—will you call on them to discover the themes? Or will you supply the themes and call on them for antitheses and application?
  4. Prepare contingencies for unexpected duration of discussion in various parts. What parts will you dispense with if the group wants to focus on fewer themes?
  5. Prepare your conclusion.

If you are teaching a topic:

  1. Study your topic and identify your main points, Scriptural backing for each, other evidence, antitheses for each, and illustrations.
  2. Prepare an introduction.
  3. Decide what you are going to supply, and what you are going to call for, via discussion. Gauge the knowledge level of the group, including new people. Questions that seem too hard might intimidate new people. Questions that require specific answers may intimidate. But over-simplified questions seem like recitation. You may:
    • Give a general introduction and then try to lead them in discovery of your main points.
    • Give an introduction and present a contradiction: Either two passages that seem to contradict, or two contradictory positions that you argue persuasively. Call on the group to resolve the conflict, either in favor of one or the other point, or with a new position.
    • Give a general introduction and argue your main points. Then call on them for antitheses for each main point, considering what the implications for each are.
    • Introduce and argue your main points. Then call for comparisons with similar or opposing views or with related issues.
    • Introduce and argue your main points. Then call on the group for illustrations, especially in their own experience.

Finishing Touches

  1. Before God, what part of the plan really fires you with passion? Have you worked with this enough to develop a burden for your points? How are you going to let that passion fly?
  2. Check your questions with someone who understands discussion. Have you accidentally included questions that are boring, hard to understand, or are recitation?
  3. Are you familiar enough with your passage and subject to be flexible and relatively note-free? You can't engage people in discussion if you are looking at your notes all the time.
  4. Have you prayed by yourself and with your group members that the Holy Spirit will energize the church for sharing?
  5. Consider an audience plant: If you know someone in your group who has experience in the area you are discussing, why not call that person and say, "We're going to be discussing this area, and I wonder if you'd be willing to share about that time you..."
  6. Consider audience preparation: Most home churches have an email group set up. Why not send out a message to the people before your meeting: "We're going to be studying such and so, and these are some questions to think about for discussion..."

Running a Discussion

Starting Discussion

Start the discussion like you would any teaching. A lively introduction and a period of up-beat explanation from you to set the stage is essential. Groups come to the time of learning with their minds scattered and preoccupied. Only after the leader has focused attention and stimulated people emotionally can we expect good discussion.

After setting the stage and involving the whole group in the study, present your first discussion question. It should be worded well [see exercise on phrasing questions] and attainable. Then wait in silence. Resist the urge to answer your own question or to talk to fill the silence. The awkwardness you feel is also felt by the members of the group, and they will usually respond by answering the question.

If nobody answers after a full 10 seconds of silence, you can rephrase the question and ask again. If you are teaching a home church, don’t pick on someone to answer (even if he or she is well able to answer) as this may frighten new people who imagine you picking on them. Cell groups may allow for picking on people, but dead air is nearly always sufficient to provoke discussion.

Pacing a discussion

An improperly paced discussion is frustrating and even agonizing to all. The leader is solely responsible for the pace, and must use his or her authority as leader to enforce their will regarding pace.

A rushed pace leaves everyone feeling frustrated and angry that they aren’t getting a chance to share their views, or that people are being cut off before they finish. They may feel disgusted that the subject was only superficially discussed.

A slow pace leaves people bored and frustrated. Unimportant and uninteresting rabbit trails take up most of the time, or obvious points are repeated ad nauseum in different words. People don’t feel like they are being challenged or learning anything.

Therefore the leader must constantly monitor the discussion, evaluating whether people are excited and involved (either verbally or non-verbally) or whether they are losing interest. Also assess whether the content is worth hearing. Generally, if people are interested and engaged, let them talk. But continue to move the subject forward as needed.

A lively discussion may take you away from your anticipated outline. But a teacher who is more focused on covering his outline than on having a deep talk makes a poor discussion leader. Leaders have to be prepared to drop or alter plans if group interest spontaneously leads elsewhere. If the group moves into deep spiritual truth, and feel blessed by building each other up, why must the teacher insist on a certain outline? We should always have more material on hand than will actually be discussed in any event. High control people have trouble with the spontaneity and unpredictability of group discussion. As Lowman points out, "Because discussion is much more unpredictable than lecturing, it requires considerable instructor spontaneity, creativity, and tolerance for the unknown."11. ibid Learn to read the situation regarding pace and react appropriately. Listen to feedback after meetings on this, as well as developing sensitivity to the facial and body signals from the group during discussion. 

Responding to Comments During Discussion

Lowman says, "A useful Classroom discussion, unlike a dormitory bull session, consists of student comments separated by frequent probes and clarifications by the teacher that facilitate involvement and development of thinking by the whole group. Dynamic lecturers captivate a class by the virtuosity of their individual performances. Exemplary discussion leaders accomplish the same end by skillful guidance of the group’s collective thinking processes."11

According to this, leaders are there to lead, not to passively listen.

Finally, "Student comments are offered to the instructor in the hope of approval and verification of their academic competence. The quality of the instructor’s response potently influences both the student offering the comment and those observing the interchange."6 When considering response options, remember the following:

  • As a discussion leader, you need to take your attention off self, off your outline, and onto what people are saying. You need to sparkle in your best personality, exuding friendliness, enthusiasm, intensity, and good humor, all in proper balance.
  • As the leader, your probes, comments, and summaries will either urge the group on, creating excitement and participation, or will dampen interest like a wet blanket. "All successful discussion leaders direct the group’s thinking by following a series of student comments with brief remarks or additional questions that build on students’ comments."10 (See exercise on summarizing)
  • "But if the teacher speaks for more than 15 seconds between comments, it may turn off students motivation to speak up. Thus, make your summaries very brief, and avoid launching into comments of your own unless you are ready to shift focus or bring discussion to a close."12
  • Wait for at least two or three comments before changing direction or moving discussion along with another query, or moving back to lecture.
  • On the other hand, students’ enthusiasm for responding usually wanes after five of six comments and the instructor must then exert leadership once again.13
  • In general, the leader should be very positive in response to any comments from members, but not always. The positive response can be a challenge, especially when people aren’t saying what you hoped they would. People wonder whether to risk speaking up, and they decide the question partly based on how the leader responds to others who share. As the group wonders corporately how much to fear the instructor, response to dumb points is more important than response to obviously brilliant answers. You can usually find something positive to say even in wrong responses.
  • At times, you may elect to withhold positive response, but this is unusual. At times, the leader needs to be provocative. Provocative discussions in which assumptions are questioned require that instructors become highly involved in the group’s problem solving as gadflies or devil’s advocates, working to keep the group on its toes. 
    "So you’re saying that anyone who has a quiet time in the morning is a formalist?"
  • At other times, the need for positive reinforcement collides with the need to advance learning and truth. "A discussion leader who lets students talk on and on with little control or direction will soon lose the groups attention."6
  • Responding to statements that are clearly untrue or that take the discussion in a direction other than what you as leader want present a special challenge to our diplomacy and firmness. [see exercise on responding to wrong answers] Several possible types of response follow. What is being done in each?
    • "Yes, that’s interesting. I wonder how you would respond to someone who used a similar argument to justify infanticide?"
    • "Okay, what do the rest of us think about that?"
    • "Yeah, what about that?"
    • "Okay, that’s very thought provoking, and there are certainly a lot of people who would agree with that."
    • "I don’t think you’re saying all morality is relative to the individual, are you?"
    • "Okay, that squares with what Jim said. But whywould a person feel that way?"
    • "Would you say that’s a biblical teaching, or your personal opinion?"
    • "If I understood you correctly, Janice you are saying that. . ."
    • "I realize what you’re saying is important in some contexts, but I’d like to finish with the question I raised earlier."
    • "The only problem I see with that is. . ."
    • "Do you think what you are saying is compatible with. . .?"
    • "How would you reconcile that with what you said earlier?"
    • "Okay, great! But I wonder if we really ever addressed the question I raised earlier?"

Sometimes people will ask questions of the instructor instead of giving opinion or answers. Lowman points out that students learn most from struggling with a problem or issue, so you should not propose a solution too quickly even if directly asked. The default response should be, "That’s a good question. Who has an idea for an answer?" This kind of response turns the locus of expertise back from the leader to the group. In some situations, however, it may be best to answer the question yourself. What kind of questions do you think might better be handled by the leader rather than turned back to the group?

During some spontaneous discussion, members may burst into angry outbursts at other members or at the leader. When directed at the leader, such outbursts present no particular danger to the group, as the leader will no doubt be able to respond appropriately. However, when newer members of the group are the object of attack, the leader must spring into action. Even when older members are attacked, there is some danger that they may retaliate inappropriately. The leader is responsible for mediating such disputes, calling on either party or both for more self-control and understanding.


  • The presence of anger is not necessarily a bad thing in group interaction.
  • A panicked response from the leader or other members moving to quench the anger may do more harm than the anger itself. You must be perceived as fair and non-defensive in this situation.
  • You may elect to speak a word of discipline to the angry one. This may depend on the severity of the outburst, whether it has been a repetitive problem, and the spiritual age and accountability of the speaker. Samples might include:
    • "Well, I think what you’re saying may be important for us to discuss, but I hope we can discuss it without losing respect for each other"
    • "I see this upsets you quite a bit. Why do you think that is?"
    • Sometimes simply reflect feelings, "It sounds like you’re angry about the effect that white privilege has on understanding the experience of racial minorities." But follow up with a helpful suggestion.
    • For an accountable believer, "Why don’t you try to restate your question in a spirit of humility and love?"
    • "Are you upset because. . ." [speculate on what you think is the cause of their anger]

When someone shares a good point, we need a collection of possible responses. A leader who simply says "that’s a good point" is not necessarily advancing the discussion. Try to assess how to acknowledge and appreciate the point, summarize the point, while at the same time deciding whether to doing one of the following (this takes fast thinking on your feet):

  • Ask for a further distinction or relationship between the point just shared and something else said earlier: "Is what you’re saying the same as what Pam said or different?" "How would you distinguish between this and what the faith-healers teach?"
  • Refine or clarify the point: "I don’t think you’re saying this are you?" "So do you think this ‘turning the cheek’ also applies to governments?"
  • Ask for exceptions to the point: "Are there any cases you can think of where this wouldn’t apply?"
  • Ask for further implications of the point: "I think this might apply in some other areas too. Can anyone think of examples?"
  • Ask for qualifications to the point: "This is a good point, but can anyone think of qualification we should add?" The typical pattern for group lessons is a series of points made by the leader, interspersed with periods of discussion. Breaking out of discussion and back into lecture is usually very natural after fielding a comment:
  • "Thanks! That was very well-said. Now I’d like us to look at verse 5 for a minute."
  • "Good, that really puts a point on it. Now let’s look at a related point." If they have skipped points, say, "Let’s finish up on that point before we go on. . ." Or "I still didn’t hear how we are supposed to understand sowing and reaping in light of grace" Don’t assume new, unexpected directions are bad. Ask yourself whether they have potential and whether you have time. If the group is excited about the new direction, you smay want to go with it.

Ending Discussion

Don’t wait until everyone is worn out and refuse to talk.

Keep your eye on the clock and end on time. Time passes faster during discussion than under other formats. If people are still discussing excitedly, you may delay a bit, but warn them that we need to wrap it up soon.

Ask "Are there are any final thoughts before we tie this all together?"

Then, give a short summary and final thought or challenge before moving to prayer.

  • Be sure to use some energy for this part.
  • You may want to refer to a point or two made by others earlier, naming them
  • Consider thanking your group for their participation (but this could also be done one-on-one afterward)

When teachers give a summary of discussion, research shows it will appear in students’ notes and will be remembered. 

Infusing Energy into Discussion

What makes a discussion exciting and energetic?

  1. Content
    • "Content per minute" has to be properly paced. Too little content per minute makes people feel like they are being patronized, as obvious points are repeated or belabored in an unenlightening way. Too much content per minute leads to confusion. We believe too much content is better than too little. We would rather have people challenged than bored.
    • Content that is provocative, either of previous assumptions, or of listeners' lifestyles, tends to be stimulating. But use tact and care, because while insulting people may be interesting and create feelings, we will not usually win the day this way.
    • Content that is new and unknown to listeners may cause excitement, but only if we can show them why they would benefit from learning something new, or why it is simply interesting. Also, new content must be backed up with convincing evidence, because people are more suspicious of new content.
    • Some content is simply not that interesting. Ask yourself, "Would I be interested in this subject if I wasn't teaching?" If not, you have to be creative enough to make it interesting, or edit it out. Some truths are uninteresting because they don't seem to apply or tie in with other knowledge. We have tried to show you how to use thesis-antithesis thinking to make otherwise dry content interesting. Likewise, strong illustrations, personal sharing, and applying as you go can all make content interesting.
  2. Leader pathos -- Study the outline on authoritative speaking In addition:
    • Pathos is feeling. The truth is important and should be served up with some feeling--otherwise we are sending mixed signals. "This is the most important truth in the world, but it doesn't move me to raise my voice."
    • To create feeling, the speaker should actually feel. When we let ourselves feel the urgency of our message, we are said to have a "burden" for the material. We develop a burden through prayer and wrestling with accusation and apathy during the days before we teach. This is a good reason to avoid waiting until the day before to prepare. Sometimes, our burden has to be taken on faith, in the sense that we won't actually feel the zeal until we actually step up to speak.
    • Leader inhibition causes us to want to be "cool" when teaching, and not risk being viewed as foolish. While extreme or corny displays would be considered foolish, most of us are in NO DANGER of suffering this fate! Video taping your teaching will confirm that most of us are much more reserved and inhibited than we think.
    • Consider the components of strong emotional communication:
      1. Voice - emotion is noticeable in the way we speak. An even, calm tone suggests a lack of emotion. Strong emotional speech is variable -- The tone of our voice should rise and fall in volume and in pitch. Also, emotional speech is generally louder (unless expressing grief or similar). Try going extreme in pitch and volume once in awhile on key points. Learn to throw the hardball, but save it for key points. Also, unusual ways of bending words, speaking with staccato gaps, repetition of phrases, and exaggerated, slow or fast speech all attract waning attention and arouse curiosity. Again, the important thing is not to throw all hardballs, but to vary our approach. Intense fury is most impacting when juxtaposed with happiness, humor, appeals, or sorrow. Throwing any pitch too often becomes either boring, or even annoying.
      2. Face - Research confirms that much of what we communicate emotionally is transmitted through the face. When teaching, especially a home church or cell, you are easily close enough to people for them to get a good look at your face. Think about people who are emotional. How does their emotional state affect their faces? Faces that are screwed up in agony, faces with huge, happy smiles, faces that are solicitous or sympathetic, faces that are disturbed or suspicious, all help to convey strong pathos. A deadpan face suggest lack of interest and perfunctory discussion, unmoved by the subject. What a terrible mistake to communicate God's word that way!
      3. Body language - When people are emotional, you can tell from their body language. Unemotional people are stationary, calm, and relaxed. Emotional people become agitated and their body movements become pronounced. The head may begin to bob or jerk with our speech, punctuating phrases. The head may tilt to one side or rear back, as if in refusal. Our hands may gesture furiously, including broad sweeping movements when we are truly upset. Emotional people may bang their fists on the table. They may lean closer to the listener. They may become agitated enough to stand up and pace. They may point their finger directly at the face of the listener. They may act out with their arms what they are talking about. They may wrap their arms around themselves protectively. The possibilities are endless and should be matched appropriately to the situation. Again, wild gesturing and movement can be exciting, but only if limited to key situations and points. If we begin to act this way all the time, it becomes phony and annoying.
      4. Eyes - Regardless of what emotion we are communicating, speech experts warn us that we must make direct eye-contact with our hearers. Inexperienced speakers often tend to look down at their notes, thus momentarily breaking the rapport they have established with their hearers, and calling attention to the fact that this is a planned teaching, rather than a spontaneous act of communication--exactly what we don't want. Limit looking at your notes as much as possible. Two or three times should be enough for a whole teaching, because you are only checking to see if you left anything out. Inexperienced speakers also tend to stare just over the heads of the audience, or just below them at the floor. This helps the speaker to concentrate without distraction, but either of these would earn an "F" in speech class because they both suggest disengagement with the audience. Instead, learn to slide your eyes across the audience from person to person, looking directly into their eyes.
      5. Group participation - People are generally stimulated when others chime in. People like to interact with their peers and hear others' viewpoints, or ways of expressing the same point. As discussion leaders, we are in a unique position to draw on this avenue for pathos. As discussed earlier, when people begin to discuss, learn to goad them on to further exertion. When someone is emotional in their sharing or comments, be sure to encourage them.

If your group is being fed with good content, and stimulated by strong pathos, you have both heat and light. Such teaching have the power to impact people in a lasting way


1. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching (Second Edition), Joseph Lowman. San Francisco, Josey-Bass Inc., Publishers, 1995. p.172

2. Ibid. p.180

3. Ibid. p.162

4. Ibid. p.178

5. Ibid. p.163

6. Ibid. p.165

7. Ibid. p.161

8. Ibid. p.191

9. Ibid. p.174

10. Ibid. p.166

11. Ibid. p.159

12. Ibid. p.182

13. Ibid. p.182-183