Best Practices for Live Discussions in Virtual Classrooms

Özgür Özlük & Christine Looser
April 8, 2020

This article was originally published by Christine Looser.

When things suddenly went online, it was not the time for new tools or techniques. But, now that you’re settling in, you might be thinking about how to level up. If you’ve decided to run live class sessions and realize that active learning will make them more engaging, excellent! First, permit yourself to believe that this can be just as good, if not better than classes you’ve run in the past. Now, let’s talk about how to make that happen.

Before you even get to class, plan the appropriate amount of content; active learning takes longer but will deepen the retention of what you cover.

  • When you lecture, you can transmit a lot of content in a short amount of time, but transmitting information doesn’t always mean it gets encoded. Asking students to actively engage with the content will deepen their knowledge, but it will take longer as they work through the material themselves. Find the main point of the session and ruthlessly cut out the extraneous information. Resist the urge to lecture, even in small doses. Keep monologues to five minutes; reserve your airtime for explaining what will happen in class, posing questions, and interpreting answers — simply, orchestrating the class flow. You are the conductor.
  • Generate one or two simple learning goals for each session and design activities around them. These will look different depending on your discipline (math, lab work, philosophy, history) but there should be a profound and singular reason for what students do in class. Consider using the SUCCES framework from Chip and Dan Heath; overview here. Make the goal clear at the onset of each activity, tell students what to pay attention to so they achieve the goal, and take a moment to reflect on the goal after the activity.
  • When implementing the activities, keep in mind Commander’s Intent, a philosophy where people are told the purpose of a mission but given the flexibility to accomplish the goal in any number of ways. Soliciting student contributions means you’ll have to adapt on the fly; do so! Just constantly steer students’ contributions toward the learning goal.
  • Know your tools: Breakout groups are fantastic for collaborative problem-solving. Give clear instructions and explain what they will be responsible for sharing after the breakout. Polls are an excellent way to get all students involved and they can be as simple as a thumbs up, thumbs down vote. After everyone has answered, ask several quieter students to debate their position. You can also ask everyone to type out the answer to a free-response question, which is particularly effective for reflecting on an activity. Most video platforms have a chat feature; you can communicate breakout session instructions, and solicit poll responses or questions. Tell students how you expect them to use the chat functionality. Collaborative editing environments let students feel like they’re working towards a common goal. Consider using shared google docs so they can problem-solve or take notes together.

Explicitly set social norms for the virtual classroom. New environments are the right time to establish new habits (Wood et al., 2005).

  • We suggest: require students to be on video and ask that they mute themselves until they contribute; discourage talking to people off-screen, sitting in loud areas, or walking around with computers. Talk about the responsible use of technology. Acknowledge that our brains weren’t built for this environment, but it can work, and explain that everyone will have to contribute to keep class engaging.
  • Make it clear that you expect people to be engaged and ask questions; explain how to signal a hand raise and tell them you will “cold call” so that quiet people can contribute. If this isn’t a prior norm, explain that the purpose is not to embarrass or put them on the spot. Rather, you care about their learning, and cold calling will help to ensure that everybody is engaging with the class material. Point out that wrong answers will not be penalized and missteps are opportunities for growth.
  • Leverage the power of community. Instill the idea that class will be more interactive, so students are responsible for helping each other learn. Students (especially those who have been sent away from campus) will want to connect. Channel that desire into course-relevant interactions.
  • As early as possible in the virtual class, prompt students to let you know if there is a large scale tech problem (remember to have a backup plan). This way, you share the responsibility of running the class with them. Once you set this expectation, resist the urge to constantly ask if students can hear you or see the slides or polls; trust they will let you know about large-scale problems. Ignore individual tech issues as much as possible, instead of “I can’t hear you, please reload while we all wait for you to return,” jump to someone else. Students will pay more attention to what their classmates are saying if have to pick up another’s train of thought.

Make students feel respected and heard.

  • Arrive early on the online platform. This allows you to check the set up of the classroom so you don’t have to deal with tech issues once students have arrived.
  • Let students speak, you conduct. Pose questions, listen, interpret answers, and pass the baton to someone new. When you are listening to a contribution, find the point that gets you to the next step in the discussion and highlight it for the next student to build on.
  • When you call on someone, you risk them rambling with no point. When this happens, you may want to say, “Alright, thank you” and quickly move on. This reaction can make it sound like you had no idea what the student’s point was, or worse, let other students think a terrible or irrelevant point was good. Don’t be afraid to tell someone they’re off-topic, unclear, or rambling. A brief pushback, (e.g., “Jacqueline, you had a lot of stuff in there, can you tell me the most important point” or a redirect, “I heard Brian say X, which makes me wonder what others think about Y; Cynthia what’s your take on this?”) establishes your credibility and gets the discussion back on track.
  • If a student tries to contribute and has tech issues, acknowledge that you had trouble understanding but pick out something you heard that sounded like it was “on the right track,” then move to a new student to avoid disrupting the flow of the class.
  • If people have hands up and you need to move on for the sake of time, acknowledge them by saying you’ll circle back around later, e.g., “I know a lot of people have thoughts here, but we have to move on; if your points don’t come up later, we can talk about them after class.”
  • End on time. End on time. End on time. Respect the students’ time and yours. If people want to keep talking past the end, tell everyone else they are free to go.

Be specific.

  • Use names as much as possible. In real life, when you ask a question, you make eye contact; people know who you are looking at, so they know who should answer the question. In a virtual classroom, you ask a question, you look at someone, you think you made eye contact, but everyone is just looking at a camera; no one knows who is looking at whom. Even if you feel you are specific, you often are not. Asking “Group 1” to share after breakouts means no one will speak because no one knows who in Group 1 should speak. Using names avoids this confusion.
  • When covering prep work, rather than asking, “Does anyone have any questions about the readings?”, prepare questions for them to answer. Cover only the concepts that are necessary for getting the activities done. Make it less of an open-ended, “ask me anything” and more of an interactive pop quiz to make sure they have key information.
  • Throughout the discussion, be as specific as possible with your questions. Asking an open-ended question like, “Stephen, do you have anything to add?” when no one has their hand up will almost invariably lead to dead space. If you’ve established norms early on, students won’t be shy about raising their hands when they have something to add. If you’re trying to get to a specific point, ask a leading question.

Turn your session into a collaborative storytelling performance.

  • Every course should have a narrative arc; each session is a point in this arc, and students should know where they are. Start sessions asking: Where are we? Where have we been? Where are we headed? Make your learning goals the backbone of your story; always tie the discussion and exercises back there.
  • Create tension. Stories are compelling because they involve a tension that gets resolved. Tensions usually arise as a result of roadblocks or constraints. Challenge the students with pre-planned constraints such as, defend an opinion opposite to the opinion that you hold; give a 10-word summary of someone else’s point; provide an answer without using a few keywords (like in the game Taboo); summarize the key points so that a child can understand it. When making up your own challenges, keep these action verbs in mind: defend, oppose, support, summarize, restate, compare, connect, respond, identify, present, organize, ask…
  • Bring your personal experience to the table. In small doses, provide relevant first-person stories. Students engage when we pair theory with real-life applications. Encourage students to add their own experience into the mix.
  • Give students explicit directions about their role in this collaborative performance. Upfront, let them know what they should pay attention to even when they are not speaking (e.g., “ listen for points of disagreement or improvement”). Call on students to explain difficult concepts to each other before you jump in to rescue them.
  • Have fun. Your mood as the facilitator is contagious — your dread or your joy easily becomes the overall feeling of the class.

Above all, remember that if you’re brave enough to venture into this world instead of just throwing your hands up and assigning textbook chapters for the rest of the term, you’re probably a pretty great professor. Most of these suggestions apply to well-run in-person classes; you’ve probably been doing some all along. Just because you’re now physically separated doesn’t mean that you cannot connect with your students. With clear goals, engaging activities, and well-run discussions, virtual classrooms can weave together disparate physical locations into a shared reality with a surprisingly strong sense of community. With so many students scattered across the globe, they’ll need you, and each other, more than ever.

Özgür Özlük and Christine Looser are professors in the Business College at Minerva University.

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