Fishbowl activities allow a student to practice a skill under peer review and audience. In the fishbowl activity, a group of students are chosen to discuss a given topic. The rest of the class watches, listens, or reads the transcript of the discussion. A secondary discussion occurs concerning the outcomes and process of the first. Another technique is to remove one student from a discussion who is then responsible for providing a summary.

Appropriate Content Areas

Useful in speech, political science, advertising, philosophy, and business, but really applicable to most areas. Less useful in procedural-centered courses.


The first examples are intended for face-to-face instruction, but could be modified for online. The final example includes a sample from an online classroom.

Goals and Objectives

There can be several primary goals of a fishbowl activity. The goals can actually differ based upon whether the student is inside or outside of the fishbowl as well. The following suggestions are separated by the participant’s duty.

During and after performing the Fishbowl activity, students will…

  • If in the fishbowl
    • demonstrate their knowledge of topic A…
    • provide a logical argument for a position concerning topic A…
  • If observing the fishbowl
    • evaluate the arguments presented by others…
    • reflect on new insights provided by the discussion.
  • Everyone
    • develop a higher awareness of the concept…
    • have an increased understanding of various viewpoints…

…as determined by successfully attending to 80% of rubric items.


The instructor usually decides on the topic. The instructor should provide some carefully constructed questions to help guide the discussion.

Students in the fishbowl must become well versed in the topic and able to discuss it intelligibly.

Materials and Resources

The instructor provides instructions. Students in the fishbowl may require more active online access during the activity.

Guiding Questions for this Lesson

How well can the student learn and subsequently discuss a given concept?

Lesson Outline and Procedure

Students in the fishbowl discuss and possibly debate a point of information or topic currently being learned. Students observing the fishbowl provide feedback and personal observations.

  1. First, the instructor introduces materials for the students to learn a given concept.
  2. A group of students are then assigned the fishbowl role. These assignments can be made at the beginning of the term in order to facilitate student schedules during the course.
  3. Those in the fishbowl then actively discuss the topic. This discussion can be purely informational or it could be in the form of a debate. The students could also be conducting group work while others watch. The bowl may also be synchronous or asynchronous or even both.
  4. During the fishbowl discussion, the instructor may provide guiding questions. Only those in the fishbowl should respond or actively participate.
  5. Following the fishbowl, the observers compose a constructive critique or summary of the discussion. These can be public or submitted directly to the instructor.
  6. All students incorporate what they have learned during the activity into another activity such as a journal or module reflection.
  7. The instructor may provide a final summary point for the discussion before beginning the next unit of activity.

Teaching Strategies

  • Keep it constructive. Any student comments need to be constructive from the gallery in order to make those in the fishbowl comfortable.
  • Keep the topic interesting, to motivate some students to actively participate while being observed by others.
  • Students in the fishbowl must have the opportunity to share what they know.
  • Be careful of peripheral participation. Some students learn best in the observing role, but everyone must participate at some point in the actual fishbowl in order to demonstrate competence in action rather than just from an evaluative standpoint, although both are important.
  • Expect some students to get frustrated by this activity. For example, an observer may have what s/he believes to be an excellent point that everyone in the bowl is missing. It can be difficult for some students to keep that idea to themselves until after the activity without getting frustrated.
  • Allow the students to self-facilitate within the group or appoint a leader if the activity goals include being able to lead a discussion on the given topic.
  • One advantage of the fishbowl for online education comes when synchronous sessions are used. By limiting the active participants to those in the fishbowl, the online synchronous discussion does not become difficult to manage.


What accommodations may be needed for students with disabilities or other special needs? In some cases, students with certain physical disabilities will simply not be capable of performing certain actions. Rather than marginalize, an online course can allow for accommodations such as alternative activities or the performance of activities with the help of a physical aid or human helper.


For those in the fishbowl, this can be an intensive activity requiring perhaps 5 hours in a given week. Those in the fishbowl need to be online every day that they are actually assigned to be in the fishbowl. The observers can come in at the end and observe the entire discussion in under an hour often. A typical activity will run one week. There are also options for performing the fishbowl in a synchronous setting, but there will still be about 5 hours for the fishbowl members since they will be required to more carefully read materials under discussion. The timeline may also change depending on whether students have advanced knowledge of the fishbowl activity and their role.

Ideas for Lesson Evaluation and Teacher Reflection

How did the students like the lesson? End of semester evaluations should ask about the usefulness and learning accomplished through such activities.

How was student learning verified? The instructor can directly observe the activities of the group in the fishbowl. Observers can be assessed based on summaries or other activities concerning their experiences. Observers can also be used to assess the performance of the students in the fishbowl.