Faculty Focus

HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS

How to Make Your Virtual Discussions Engaging, Effective, and Equitable in Eight Steps

Student talks to other students via virtual discussion while engaged

The perfect class discussion can feel like something of an alchemy. From the instructor’s preparation to the students’ personalities, many ingredients can enable or challenge the social construction of knowledge in a class community. As Jay Howard suggests, quality discussions require a great deal of planning and an understanding of social, emotional, and intellectual dynamics (Howard 2019). As we begin one of the most unusual semesters in the history of higher education, with institutions implementing a combination of remote, hybrid, and in-person instruction, it’s urgent to consider how we can facilitate meaningful discussions in virtual environments. In particular, if instructors used video conference software during the emergency remote teaching of the spring and summer, they may have experienced a ghost town of student reticence and awkward silences, and the occasional shuffle of video boxes like virtual tumbleweeds.

These challenges are understandable, but with practice there are some ways to reduce silence and uncertainty while bolstering engagement and equity in virtual discussions. If we’re open about trying new strategies, reflecting on them, and trying again, we can transform this moment into an opportunity to motivate and connect with our students.

1. Openly discuss how virtual discussions feel different than in-person discussions. Teachers are likely accustomed to seeing many faces looking back at them, but for students, the interface may feel disorienting and intimidating. It’s useful to name the awkwardness as well as our own misgivings. Allowing space for students to work through their own thoughts and feelings about virtual discussion as a sort of meta-exercise also communicates that you value student input and a collaborative learning environment.

Virtual discussions also might feel more “managed” than what we’re accustomed to in the physical classroom, but these discussions also need more explicit direction. As Viji Sathy and Kelley A. Hogan remind us, “All students appreciate and thrive from additional structure, and some benefit disproportionately,” (Hogan and Sathy 2020). With practice, things will feel more natural. Be kind with yourself and your students, and continue to provide opportunities for reflection on how the discussions are going and how they can better support students’ learning.

2. Clearly establish the expectations and mechanics for virtual discussions. This advice applies to any learning activity, of course, but in this case it’s important to attend to the unique aspects of the virtual format. Do you want students to use the “raise hand” feature to be called on? If not, should they identify themselves verbally before speaking? Even basic expectations such as self-muting can make virtual discussions go much more smoothly.

If a class meeting involves a mix of lecture and discussion, cue that shift explicitly, set a time frame, and let students know the specific goals of the discussion at hand. For example, do you want them to interpret a dataset? Should they aim to get a sense of how the class reacted to a reading? Or, will students pitch and critique solutions to a problem they’ve explored? If students don’t need to spend too much cognitive bandwidth on figuring out how to participate, the quality, frequency, and enthusiasm of their participation will rise dramatically.


3. Thoughtfully call on students to make for a more inclusive discussion. Wait time is a useful teaching technique, but extended silences can sap the class’s energy, especially in virtual environments. Prepare students to expect that you’ll call on them, but in a way that is flexible and kind. Providing questions and prompts ahead of time makes calling on students feel less like an intimidating pop quiz and more like an extension of the thinking they’ve already begun.

While students may perceive that they don’t have anything to say, templates or guiding questions make visible the diverse ways of contributing, for example, “What seems unclear about X is…,” “This reminds me of Y because…,” “I’m not sure but I think the first step is Z.” Discussions feel the most authentic when instructors acknowledge students’ ideas, weave them into the main discussion, and call back to them later when relevant. It’s also important for this approach to allow students to pass in the moment or indicate privately that they’d prefer not to speak.

4. Make space for all student voices. Most video platforms allow for a text-based chat option as a sort of “public backchannel.” Let students know if you’ll check the chat for comments and questions. In terms of class management, written comments allow more students to participate at a given time, leading to a richer and more layered discussion. Students can scroll back to reread important ideas or catch up if they had to step away for a moment.

If attending to multiple channels of communication feels overwhelming, you can request chat participation at specific times instead of constantly monitoring throughout the meeting. Other cloud-based platforms such as the Google Suite or Office365 can provide a collaborative space for thinking during a discussion, and you can use the ideas articulated in these spaces as a jumping off point for further conversation, or to ask students to reflect on what they’ve done.

5. Recruit help in managing the virtual space. It’s normal to feel intimidated by the amount of information to track during a virtual discussion. If you’re lucky enough to have a TA, they can help by monitoring the participants and chat window, bringing things to your attention at the right moment or preemptively responding to questions.

If you don’t have a TA, this can be a rotating responsibility among the students themselves, perhaps articulated formally as part of their participation grade, with the secondary effect of fostering communal rapport and advocacy among peers. Boosting the signal of a peer’s question or comment, perhaps with additional thoughts, provides students with additional opportunities for meaningful participation. It also encourages them to practice embedding their thoughts and questions in a larger context, a key skill for research and research-based communication.

6. Embrace forms of participation that do not involve live video. For many instructors, it’s the real-time reactions, evident in people’s faces and postures, that lends energy to a class discussion. By requiring live video, however, we are asking to insert ourselves into potentially private spaces. If a student feels self-conscious about their visible surroundings, they may feel less comfortable contributing to the discussion. We may look to video as evidence of students staying on task, but we also know that attention is a slippery concept, and that “Zoom fatigue” can manifest as a variety of negative psychological impacts (Conatser 2017, Supiano 2020, Jiang 2020). Video may also overload a student’s bandwidth if their equipment and connection are not ideal.

It’s important to acknowledge these considerations and discuss expectations for video participation with students, especially if it feels integral to your pedagogy (Davidson 2020). Find other ways to assess engagement such as polling questions or breakout activities. You may tell students that it’s okay to deactivate their video, but you’ll still expect them to respond verbally if called upon, to contribute actively in the chat, and so on.

7. Do some thinking in advance and require your students to do the same. When preparing for a virtual discussion, take time to mentally walk through the learning objectives, driving questions, and key takeaways. Students flounder in the face of poorly articulated questions or unexpected shifts of activities.

Students may submit their own questions in advance or provide commentary that can serve as a jumping-off point for discussion. More sustained reflections might be rotated among smaller groups of students in the form of blog or discussion board posts. Rather than face the pressure of coming up with an idea off the cuff, students build from their own and others’ thinking. Templates and discussion stems (e.g., Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say) help students find context for their ideas in relation to others. If discussion activities would benefit from written instructions, provide them in easy-to-access ways, especially if you’re using small groups.

8. Use small groups and breakout rooms to engage students in collaborative learning. Especially for larger classes, small group discussions allow students to negotiate their own understanding of the content. They also can make your classes more inclusive (Hogan and Sathy 2020).  While the instructor cannot observe all groups at once in a virtual meeting, they might use cloud-based workspaces to track students’ progress. For example, groups might take notes on different pages of a Google Doc or collect data on separate tabs in a Google Sheet. These apps often include a chat feature where they ask questions or make observations for everyone to see.

You can drop into the breakout rooms to check on individual conversations, or scan the collaboration space for groups that may need assistance. Overall, small group discussions are more focused when they have goals or deliverables, even if it’s something low-stakes or informal. As always, include instructions that make the process and expectations clear.


Jill Abney is a faculty instructional consultant at the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching and a part-time instructor in the department of history at the University of Kentucky.

Trey Conatser is the associate director of the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching at the University of Kentucky, where he also teaches courses on pedagogy, writing, and digital humanities.

Reference list and further reading:

Bernhard, Meg. “ In Assigning Group Work to Students, Designing the Group Comes First.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 July 2015. https://www.chronicle.com/article/in-assigning-group-work-to-students-designing-the-group-comes-first/.

Brookfield, Stephen. Discussions as a Way of Teaching:  Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.

Conatser, Trey. “The Apparition of These Screens in the Crowd.” Greater Faculties: A Review of Teaching and Learning. 1, no. 8 (2017). https://uknowledge.uky.edu/greaterfaculties/vol1/iss1/8.

Davidson, Cathy. “Cameras Optional, Please! Remembering Students Lives as we Plan our Online Syllabus.” HASTAC. 22 July 2020. https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2020/07/22/cameras-optional-please-remembering-student-lives-we-plan-our-online.

Hogan, Kelly A. and Viji Sathy. “8 Ways to be More Inclusive in your Zoom Teaching.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 7 April, 2020.  https://www.chronicle.com/article/8-Ways-to-Be-More-Inclusive-in/248460.

Howard, Jay. “How to Hold a Better Class Discussion.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 23 May 2019. https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190523-ClassDiscussion.

Jiang, Manyu. “Video chat is helping us stay employed and connected. But what Makes it so tiring – and how can we reduce ‘Zoom Fatigue’?” BBC 22 April 2020. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-so-exhausting.

Simon, Edwige. “10 Tips for Effective Online Discussions.” Educause Review, 21 November 2018, https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2018/11/10-tips-for-effective-online-discussions.

Supiano, Becki. “Why is Zoom so Exhausting?” Chronicle of Higher Education. 23 April 2020. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-Is-Zoom-So-Exhausting-/248619.

Wong, Crystal. “A Four-Step Plan: The First Day of Class on Zoom, Faculty Focus, 5 August, 2020. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/a-four-step-plan-the-first-day-of-class-on-zoom/.