Using discussion protocols

Asking students to engage in small-group discussions can feel like a risky pedagogical choice. Are students talking about the content that is assigned? Are these student-led conversations helping students deepen their understanding of the course content? In this video, Gretchen Brion-Meisels explains a discussion protocol that she uses to ensure that students are having generative discussions aligned to the goals of the lesson. In this protocol, students are asked to provide initial reactions to course content before selecting a focal question. They then use a series of guided prompts to try to answer this question. By giving students a protocol that guides but does not restrict them, Brion-Meisels equips students with the autonomy and flexibility to authentically engage with class concepts in their small-groups.


Gretchen Brion-Meisels, Lecturer on Education

Student Group



Harvard Graduate School of Education


Partnering with Youth in Educational Research and Practice

Group Size

23 students

  • Modeling the protocol for students can make the purpose and process of the protocol clear for students. Trying out the protocol yourself before using it can help you test the protocol and anticipate questions students might have about how to use it. 
  • Protocols are designed with particular discussion objectives in mind. Choose what protocols to use based on your daily learning goals. 
  • Aside from modeling the protocol, it can be helpful to read through the protocol with students and provide printed or electronic copies for students’ reference. 
  • Consider modifying your protocol to best fit your class agenda or needs. For example, you might consider changing the length of time of different sections or providing protocol roles such as time keeper and facilitator.
  • Research by Chen et al. suggests a link between the use of protocols in course discussions and group cognition (2017). 
  • While research on the effectiveness of protocols in the classroom is limited, Pomerantz and Ippolito argue that protocols can be used to promote professional learning (2015).