Updated article originally published November 13, 2018.
Instructors and students build effective classrooms on a foundation of two-way communication. Teachers should work to facilitate an environment where students feel comfortable enough to freely discuss theories and concepts. This in turn will improve comprehension and retention morale.
However, engaging students in the virtual classroom is not free from challenges, as students may regard discussion as one-way communication with the instructor as their classmates listen on or spiral into unrelated topics with their peers.
Tips for Facilitation
In a recent column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Gooblar outlines the following activities for shaping meaningful discussions that benefit everyone in the classroom:
- Ask follow-up questions Students will often provide a brief response to a question posed by an instructor without demonstrating the thought process leading them to that response. Not explaining their thought process may further confuse students approaching the question in another way or who arrived at a different conclusion. Asking students, “What do you mean by that?” or “Do you think this is true in all cases” encourages them to reflect upon their thought processes and helps overall student comprehension by exposing them to different perspectives. It will also give the student a greater opportunity to show deep engagement with the course material.
- Use visual representation Write down the basics of each student’s response on a whiteboard during a class discussion. This visual representation of the class discussion will help bolster and focus discussion while increasing student retention. Not only are many people visual learners, but by jotting down key beats from the discussion, the students will also know what is important to keep in mind and write in their own notes.
- Distance yourself from the discussion Despite using the above activities, students may continue engaging with the instructor rather than each other. As an instructor, the most effective way to encourage students to discuss is to remove yourself from the narrative. If you are guiding the discussion, you can refer students to reply directly to the peer who spoke last. If you want students to discuss openly on their own, reading notes or grading student papers during discussion time will deter students from talking directly to you and encourage them to discuss with their peers. Consider incorporating the follow-up question technique with this one, as students with similar or differing ideas could be encouraged to expand upon their thoughts to enrich the discussion.
Taking Discussions Online
Given the continued persistence of remote instruction for many educators, it might be useful to consider how Gooblar’s points may be adapted to online classes. While his first point translates seamlessly to a video conferencing learning scenario, the second two may benefit from some helpful knowledge of your online course platform’s functionality.
On the matter of visual representation, many platforms have a shareable whiteboard feature, which allows instructors to highlight key points of discussion for students. This will frame ideas in a similar way to Goodblar’s premise, and students may even wish to simply screenshot the frames for future reference.
Distancing yourself from the discussion may seem strange or impossible in an online classroom, but through a targeted use of breakout rooms, it is certainly achievable. Placing students into small groups in breakout rooms will allow them to have a more manageable discussion. Floating around the rooms will ensure students are remaining focused and will give you the opportunity to ask follow-up questions to stimulate conversation.
Students learn from their instructors, but in a democratic classroom, they should also learn from their peers. Using effective discussion strategies will help focus class dialogue and foster a more effective learning environment where students can share, challenge, and learn from each other’s ideas. While these methods may seem more challenging online, having a familiarity with some of your online class platform features will help foster a similar environment and keep students engaged.
For more information on engaging students in the classroom, read: