Students will engage in discussion if the topic is meaningful to them. It has to be relevant to current new topics, current research, current learning, their community and their environment just to name a few. If students feel like they are contributing to an authentic conversation they will feel their input has value. Students are not clueless, and are able to identify non-authentic discussions rather quickly.
Set the ground rules for the discussion early on. A friendly and respectful environment will foster better discussion than one in which students will feel criticized or condemned for their opinion. Explain to your students that differing opinions are inevitable, but that they must respectfully disagree. When students feel safe, they will have more confidence to engage in discussion. Don’t forget to layout all the rules. No interrupting, no coarse language, and no dismissal of a peer's opinion or statement. Express to your students that all opinions and statements hold value in the classroom. Learning the differences between student arguments in a discussion is valuable to the learning process. It helps students make connections between the different pieces of knowledge that get introduced into the discussion.
Let students know that they are expected to argue the stance they take. They need to support their reasoning and shouldn’t just express their opinion as a for or against answer. Why are you for or against topic A? If students don’t offer their reasoning, stop them and prompt them for it. Not only does this challenge the students to critically think about their statements, but it also prompts more discussion, and shows the students you are interested in what they have to say.
Encourage the students to ask question, not just of you the instructor, but of their peers as well. The instructor is not the only one who can prompt discussion. If students begin asking questions of each other’s arguments, it does a few of things. First it allows students to see that the rest of the class is interested in what they have to say. Second, it develops students investigative skills by getting them to formulate appropriate questions. Finally, asking questions is a great way for students to become more active participants in class. They learn through conversing and arguing the intricacies of the concepts they are dealing with.