A Fun Way To Get Students Engaged In Great Discussions

Smart Classroom Management: A Fun Way To Get Students Engaged In Discussions

One of the challenges of group work is getting students to actively participate in discussions.

Providing clear expectations and compelling topics help, to be sure.

So does modeling what group learning should look like.

But it’s not always enough. Many students struggle with what to say.

They become self-conscious and tongue-tied outside of their circle of friends and family.

They have it inside, but just don’t know how to get it out.

It takes practice.

What follows is an easy way to get students to open up and engage in generous, give-and-take conversations.

It’s a game of sorts that takes just a few minutes and can be used as a warm-up activity or a lesson unto itself. It’s also a lot of fun.

Here’s how it works:

Form groups.

Mix your students randomly into groups of three or four and be sure to switch them often. The greater variety of people they work with, the more comfortable they’ll become.

Although sitting around a table or cluster of desks is okay, the act of standing tends to encourage more animation, which is a key reason the strategy is effective.

Choose one ET and one translator.

Have each group select one person to pretend to be an extraterrestrial who has just arrived on Earth, and one person to be a translator who speaks the ET’s language.

The object of the game is for the one or two other students to try and learn as much about the ET as they can. The ET may pantomime all they want, but must otherwise speak in gibberish.

The person playing the translator can try to understand what the ET is trying to convey, but will otherwise make up the rest. (This aspect makes the activity particularly fun.)

Turn them loose.

Depending on your grade level, you may want to show what the game looks like by modeling it with a few volunteers. Offering examples and ideas can also be helpful.

However, I’ve found that it’s often best just to turn them loose. Give them the gist of the activity and then let them run with it.

After a few minutes, call for their attention and allow them to switch roles.

Try it without a translator.

A variation of the game is to remove the translator. See if they can communicate using only movements, expressions, and body language.

Although the ET may act out how they crash-landed or got lost on the way to another solar system or are looking for their droid, it’s important that they accompany their enactments with their extraterrestrial speech.

Tone of voice can provide an important clue to understanding.

Why It Works

The ET game is an improvisational exercise that has a unique way of drawing students out of their shell.

The fun, creative nature of the activity helps overcome feelings of shyness and self-doubt and frees them to relax and just be themselves.

It teaches them to focus on the speaker using their full array of senses, and to be clear and expressive when it’s their turn to talk.

The result is that the quality and energy of their group discussions will improve.

After just one session of playing the game, you’ll notice an increase in participation. You’ll notice an eagerness to share their thoughts and ideas and to listen to each others’ point of view.

They’ll make eye contact and nod their heads. They’ll gesture emphatically and assert themselves with greater conviction.

They’ll be better communicators.

PS – Recently, I was interviewed about classroom management by Patty Palmer of the Art Made Easy podcast. To listen, click here.

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12 Responses to A Fun Way To Get Students Engaged In Great Discussions

  1. Fatma Zohra March 26, 2016 at 8:32 am #

    Thank u a lot .. so helpful 😊

    • Michael Linsin March 26, 2016 at 10:54 am #

      You’re welcome, Fatma.


  2. Karen Nolen March 26, 2016 at 8:51 am #

    This sounds like a great activity to try!

  3. ALDE March 26, 2016 at 7:14 pm #

    This seems like an activity for elementary, though.

    • Michael Linsin March 27, 2016 at 7:13 am #

      Hi ALDE,

      The game works wonders for high school students and above. In fact, it’s more commonly known as an improvisational exercise for adults studying public speaking and improv theater.


  4. Danielle March 28, 2016 at 9:20 pm #

    Great for ESL, too. Thanks so much!

    • Michael Linsin March 29, 2016 at 7:38 am #

      You’re welcome, Danielle.


  5. Pat Flannery March 29, 2016 at 6:17 am #

    Can’t wait to try this! Thanks!

    • Michael Linsin March 29, 2016 at 7:39 am #

      You’re welcome, Pat. I think you and your students will enjoy it.


  6. Helene Bassous March 29, 2016 at 10:34 am #

    Can’t wait to try it. My students are obsessed about space, planets and aliens…

  7. Kaylee Walk April 4, 2016 at 6:51 pm #


    I really enjoyed reading this article. It most definitely can be a challenge to get all students engaged in a discussion whether they are shy or prefer not to participate. I love this activity because it can work with almost ANY grade level! I do have a a couple questions for you.

    1. Is this a one time activity or do you use it throughout the year?
    I imagine that you do it every so often because I’m sure student discussions tend to slow down throughout the year.

    2. Do you find that your shy students feel more comfortable during class discussions after this activity?
    I was a student who was always afraid to share my thoughts because I always had the question “What if I’m wrong?” flowing through my mind. I’m not sure how comfortable I would feel communicating with my thoughts with the class after this activity so I’m interested how this works for similar students in your class.

    A way that I like to get my students to participate is providing discussion starters. I place three color coded questions at each desk that relate to the lesson. Each table has the same set of questions. After the lesson, I have the students start with one question and every student has to answer the question. Once the questions are discussed as a group, we discuss as a whole class. This ensures that every student has a possible answer in their mind when discussing it as a whole class. I do find that it makes every student feel comfortable answering because they have heard their peers ideas and shared their own. They may share an idea that someone in their group shared or of course their own. Try this out if you haven’t already! I can’t wait to try yours!

    • Michael Linsin April 5, 2016 at 6:59 am #

      Hi Kaylee,

      1. You can use it sparingly throughout the year.

      2. Yes, definitely. There is often immediate improvement.

      The book Dream Class has an entire chapter devoted to getting shy/less confident students comfortable participating in class.