IT Teaching Resources

Questioning and discussion techniques

Techniques to promote engagement and participation in discussions

Article Promising practices

This article is part of a series around bridging synchronous and asynchronous learning, including guides on direct instruction, learning activities, and assessment and feedback. To learn more about the basis for synchronous and asynchronous learning, see our guide here.

Lively classroom conversation is often an indicator that teaching and learning are going well. Hosting these conversations digitally, however, upends many of the traditional techniques honed by faculty. Still, online discussions have the potential to enhance community (Dawson, 2006) and accelerate information flow (Carr et al., 2004) allowing effective feedback (Giesbers et al., 2013; Hrastinski et al., 2010), direct correction of misconceptions, and high student engagement (Hrastinski et al., 2010; Strømsø et al., 2007). Whether the class discussions are hosted synchronously (through video conferencing) or asynchronously (e.g, using Canvas discussion boards), ensuring student participation, student-student interaction, and faculty-student clarity requires creative problem-solving techniques. The following promising practices can help address a range of challenges.

Challenge: Make everyone feel comfortable participating

  • Start synchronous classes with paired conversations as a helpful way to structure and introduce topics while promoting camaraderie (GSE instructors)
  • Amplify different student voices by setting the norm for students to choose from different trajectories of participation in synchronous discussions based on what is most comfortable for them. State that all forms of participation are welcome in the class. Keep in mind that students may lack a private/quiet space, or have an unstable internet connection (Interview with Nicole Ardoin; Lunch-n-Learn Instructor Panel #2, May 27, 2020; Psychology Teaching Town Hall: Lessons Learned from Spring Online, July 29, 2020). Some promising practices to amplify student voices are:
    • Students type questions privately to the instructor(s) in the videoconference chatbox, and instructors address them anonymously with the class
    • Students type questions in the chat and signal to the instructor to read aloud (e.g., “Could you explain what the authors meant by controlled sample? (read aloud)”)
    • Students hold up post-it notes with premeditated thoughts to inspire group discussion
    • Students voluntarily unmute and speak in whole-class discussions
    • Instructors refer to shared ideas heard in breakout rooms without requiring students to report out 
  • Establish classroom norms and design for building community and trust to create a classroom environment conducive to discussion.

Challenge: Promote critical thinking in live discussions

  • Have two instructors model effective discourse for students – such as premise reflection and Socratic questioning (Curtis, 2006; Yang et al., 2005)
  • Hold breakout room discussions in small groups, with well-structured activities and well-defined roles to increase participation and instances of critical thinking (DiPasquale & Hunter, 2018)
    • Use groups of 3-4 students to increase participation back in the whole class discussion (Psychology Teaching Town Hall: Lessons Learned from Spring Online, July 29, 2020)
    • Assign students with roles such as a starter, skeptic, or wrapper that are responsible for getting discussions started, challenging arguments from other students, and summarizing key points, respectively. This increases instances of integration, social knowledge construction, and collaborative learning (Olesova & Lim, 2017
    • Scaffold discussions by using Teaching Assistants (if available) in breakout rooms to pose questions to advance the conversation (Kanuka et al., 2007
    • Enter individual breakout rooms as the instructor and make comments or ask questions without interrupting flow of the conversation. By popping into smaller group discussions, instructors can more easily read the room and provide guidance and encouragement to students. A shared outside resource (e.g, shared Google Slides, where each breakout group takes notes on their own slide) can help instructors know which groups most need their support.
  • Use multimedia tools (videos, podcasts, interviews) to set up discussions in both synchronous and asynchronous formats. 

Challenge: Delve deeper using discussion boards and other forms of asynchronous communication

  • Use asynchronous discussions for expressing content-related opinions, and for expressing complex ideas, which benefits from more time for reflection (Bonk et al., 1998, Chou, 2002; Davidson-Shivers et al., 2001)
  • Use discussion boards intentionally to promote organic discussion 
    • Ask students to submit discussion questions articulating themes or tensions in the readings, giving students time to prepare and articulate their thoughts (Interview with Alvin Pearman)
    • Use guidelines or a word limit to avoid these becoming mini-essays and protect spontaneity in conversation (Interview with Victor Lee)
  • Enable alternate forms of communicating about a topic beyond written discussion 
    • Hold virtual gallery walks so students can view and discuss each other’s thinking. Ask each student to put their thoughts/solutions/quick sketch, or whatever they are comfortable producing, on a dedicated Google Slides in a shared deck so others can scroll through, add comments, and discuss (GSE instructors; Lunch-n-Learn Student Voices Panel, June 15, 2020)
    • Use collective reading annotation to allow students and instructors work together to comment on, highlight the main points of, and discuss reading assignments. Examples of tools for this include Perusall and Hypothesis (Lunch-n-Learn Instructor Panel #2, May 27, 2020
    • Allow multiple types of responses to discussion prompts, such as uploading a visualization or generating a meme (setting norms for appropriateness) to capture an important point
  • Foster continuity by having students prepare and submit discussion questions before class and discuss these during synchronous sessions (Interview with Sean Reardon)
    • Create a dedicated discussion board for the prompts in your LMS (e.g. Canvas) prior to class
    • Require students to submit discussion questions before class, allowing instructors to integrate the questions at strategic points to promote deeper learning or to serve as segues to new topics (Interview with Alvin Pearman)
    • Break students up into small groups to discuss questions during class, prompting them to refer to the discussion board, and include their group responses to prompts on the board (Lunch-n-Learn Student , Voices Panel, June 15, 2020
  • Have students take communal notes on a shared platform to allow for joint sense-making in a document that persists as a resource throughout the course (Interview with Victor Lee)