A brief conversation with 2 students crystallized for me why two things I have been doing in my classes for a while work well, and I want to recommend them to other teachers; and also make a recommendation for students.
Background to the conversation. The class is very small, just 14 people (this is unusually small—my normal class sizes are around 25, 80-100, 150-170). R&M live together; G, who is also in the class, lives with them. They have a 4th roommate, MA. Class was once a week on Wednesday nights.
R: “MA might come to class on Wednesday. I mean, it’s like she’s in the class, so she might as well just come along”
Me: “What do you mean?”
M: “Well, we all just argue about class in our apartment for half the week, and she can’t really avoid it”
R: “Yes, as soon as the memos start coming in on Sunday, we start reading them to see what everyone says”
M: “We always look to see what S [a very poised, provocative, freshman] says, because at least one of us will disagree with her”
R: “And even if M and I agree, G always disagrees with us. Our apartment is just full of argument from Sunday through Wednesday”
So what are the two things I do?
1.About 6 years ago I started requiring students in my smaller class to post several memos a semester online. I’ve scaled it up lately: they have to write a memo on the reading every week and respond to someone else’s memo. (The deadline for the memos is always 30-40 hours before class, and the deadline for the comments is the moment class starts). I have recently started requiring this in my larger classes too. The benefits for me are huge: first, everyone has done the reading, and second, I know what they do, and do not, understand, so am in a much better position to organize class time more effectively. The fact that they have done the reading transforms class discussion: they are all able to be fully engaged, and the amount of time spent clarifying the reading is hugely reduced. The fact that they have written about it enables me easily to induce the more reticent students into discussion. Of course, I have to do a lot of reading (I read all of the memos, and all the comments that are in by about 20 hours before class, for my smaller classes. I read more selectively – maybe 1/3 or so of the memos a week for the large classes – with the TAs expected to read them all; and the two large classes in which I have done this I led my own discussion section for which obviously I read the memos, and used them to shape discussion). But the time cost is easily compensated for by the reduction in anxiety that I am going to be wasting people’s time.
2.The other thing I have started doing in my small classes is requiring the students to introduce themselves over and over again. Probably the first 6 or 7 class meetings in a row I make them do this, and then again occasionally, later. My initial purpose was so that I would learn all their names more quickly, and learn something about them, as a kind of aide memoire. (There’s also a bonding effect: after one student said she had visited every state in the Union, another student and I simultaneously said, incredulously, “What?… North Dakota?”) But the more important effect, that I have become increasingly deliberate, and explicit, about, is that they learn one another’s names. A senior said yesterday that after taking many small honors classes, my class was the first in which she knew the name of every student.
When I was in college I would go to the refectory, or a café, with Adrian, and often with others, after every lecture and we would discuss the lecture, or what we had read, over lots of tea. Almost all my learning came from reading, writing, and discussing my classes with him. In her wonderful and depressing book My Freshman Year Rebekah Nathan identifies some of the structural reasons why students in institutions like mine don’t do that. They have to take 4 or 5 (or 6) unrelated classes a semester; they are hardly in any classes with people they know; their schedules do not coincide with those of their friends. At my own institution there are just two 45 minute periods a week when no classes are scheduled, so suppose you wanted to make a weekly formal meeting time – it would be difficult. Space is limited: rarely is there more than 10 minutes between classes, and students often have to have back-to-backs (an additional consequence is that it is hard for groups of students to hang around with the professor after class/lecture because the room is needed, and once anyone starts moving out of the room the group breaks up). Students tell me that there is a fairly fixed norm against making friends in classes. Lots of them want to do it (those who talk to me) but think it will come off weird if they talk to people in class. So they sit one chair away from anyone else, look at their phones until class begins, and make friends in their dorms, or at parties, or in their student organizations – none of whom take classes with them. 
The idea behind getting them to know each other’s names is to induce them to spend more time talking to one another outside of class. The hunch is that if they are talking with people they are taking class with, there is a chance that they will talk about what’s going on in class. In my case, because my classes are so intrinsically interesting, and talking about them is fun, the chance is reasonably high. 
The memos give them something to talk about. You have to be deliberate about the memo prompts. In the initial weeks I give them prompts which are pretty directive – the trick is for the prompt to require them to do the reading, while simultaneously getting them to express a view about some part of the reading. As things progress, or if I think the reading is easy enough, I more frequently ask them simply to comment on what interested or confused them in the reading. In the large classes, of course, many memos are perfunctory; but many others are not, and even the perfunctory ones reveal that they have read the material (and can reveal helpful misapprehensions). In the smaller classes, though, the online discussion can be intense, and fruitful.
So, my advice to professors is: Make your students get to know each other, and tell them why they are doing it, and tell them to discuss the content outside of class (something which many students genuinely seem to need – and appreciate – being told is a good idea). And make them write regular, and frequent, online memos – and read them yourself.
My advice for students: 1) recruit suitable friends to take your classes with you; 2) make friends in the classes that interest you and talk to them about class.
 In my large classes I have been less assiduous about making them get to know each other, but will start next semester.
 Another conversation with 2 business students: “When you said on the first day that you wanted us to spend our evenings talking with our roommates and friends about what we discuss in class, we both thought, “huh, some hope, he’s ridiculous”. But now we do it all the time!”
 I have to say this: the truth is that R&M went to pre-school together. But their roommates didn’t, and I have similar, if less striking, evidence from plenty of other students.