How to equip students to lead discussions

When I tell people that students sometimes teach and lead discussions in my ministry, I often hear something like, “Must be nice. What did you do with all your time off that week?”

What people don't often realize is how much work it is to equip students to lead discussions. I could write a discussion – from scratch – in a fraction of the amount of time it takes to walk a student through this process. Yet, I willingly invest time and energy into this equipping process because I know leading discussions is a vehicle in the faith formation of students. What's more, the process of equipping students to lead discussions is a powerful form of discipleship.

With that in mind, here are 15 steps for equipping students to lead discussions.

1. Decide what your student will teach on. Since students began leading discussions in my ministry, I've only approached a student once and said, “I think you should lead this discussion on X.” Every other time a student has led a discussion, the student has approached me and said, “I'd really like to lead a discussion on X.” The latter accomplishes two things. It ensures a student is serious about wanting to teach. It also ensures a student is passionate about her topic, something that's important since she will immerse herself in her topic for months as she prepares her discussion.

2. Choose when your student will lead the discussion. In general, I schedule a student-led discussion for approximately two months after they first approach me. This capitalizes on their enthusiasm while still ensuring they have ample time to prepare.

3. Assign reading material. Give students commentaries about relevant Scripture or applicable chapters on their chosen topic. Provide students with material that will broaden their perspective on a subject and in the process, help them grow in their own understanding of it while enabling them to gain some expertise on it.

4. Set a due date for turning in their first-round of questions. Set a minimum number of questions you expect from them and require them to manuscript their questions. This ensures they've thought about what they will ask while also providing them with something to use the day of their discussion, when their nerves suddenly threaten to overwhelm them.

5. Schedule a time to meet, one-on-one with your student to give her feedback on her discussion questions.

6. Before you meet with your student, require her to make a list of what you do (and don't do) when you lead a discussion. What types of questions work well? What types of questions flop? How do you encourage multiple people in the room to talk? How do you silence overly talkative people? What do you do when no one answers a question?

7. When you meet with your student, help her process what it was like for her to craft questions. Ask questions like, What was easy / hard about this for you? What did you do particularly well? What weren't you super happy with? By the end of your discussion, what do you hope your peers will know? and When your peers leave your discussion, what do you hope they'll be thinking about? Build upon what your student says by affirming what she did well. To do this, finish this sentence, “You were at your best when...”

8. When you meet with your student, ask her to share what she noticed during your discussion. Answer any questions she has as a result of this observation. Ask her to reread her own questions in light of her observations. Based on what she saw you do, what does she need to change?

9. When you meet with your student, edit for clarity and content. Help your student evaluate each question in light of what she hopes students will leave thinking about. Eliminate unclear questions. Rephrase questions to ensure they're open-ended. Add follow-up questions when necessary. To ensure your student does not run out of material, equip her with more questions than necessary.

10. Help your student design the flow of her discussion so that it moves logically from one question to the next. Encourage your student to start with easy-to-answer questions before posing questions that require more vulnerability in order to answer.

11. Discuss timing for the discussion. Help your student think through how much time she wants to spend on each question. Help her think through which questions she could easily skip should the discussion surrounding some of her other questions run long.

12. Discuss basic strategies for leading a small group with your student leader. Important things to hit on include how to engage quiet peers, how to silence overly talkative peers, the importance of summarizing what a long-winded person says, and how and when to ask follow-up questions.

13. Assign your student leader a deadline by which she needs to send you her final draft of questions (based on the changes you've discussed together). Make the deadline at least a week prior to when she's scheduled to lead the discussion so she has the chance to practice it.

14. Challenge your student to practice her discussion, aloud, in the same way she'd practice a speech for school. While this will feel awkward, it will help her feel more comfortable when she leads the actual discussion. The more she can look up from her sheet, the more she'll be able to engage with her peers and read their body language.

15. After her questions are finalized, give your student permission to mark-up her discussion. Tell her to number the pages or highlight key words so that as she leads she can look down briefly and be reminded of what she's planning on asking next.

Throughout the process, bathe your student in prayer. Pray during your meeting. Pray for her throughout her time of preparation. Encourage her to pray for her leadership of the discussion and for those who will be present during it.

Finally, trust that God will use this process – and discussion – in powerful ways, in both the life of your student leader as well as her peers.

Read Part 1 of this series, Student-led discussions as vehicles for faith formation, here. 

Read Part 3 in this series: Processing: The key to learning after leading discussions.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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