George Lucas Educational Foundation
Online Learning

4 Tips for Productive Online Discussions

A debate coach with experience guiding virtual discussions explains how to get students to engage with each other and with the course content.

July 9, 2020
Teenage girl talking on a vdeo conference at home.
praetorianphoto / iStock

It has become part of the new normal for teachers to deliver their lessons online via videoconferencing tools. The situation reminds me of when I utilized similar technology to coach my students for inter-school debate competitions.

There are a number of rules I follow at various stages of online discussion sessions.

Establish Online Etiquette and a Discussion Agenda

At the beginning of the session, the teacher has the responsibility to draw students’ attention to basic etiquette rules, such as muting the microphone while others are talking, unmuting the microphone when they need to speak, and avoiding talking over each other. If any of these rules are breached, the teacher should remind the students of their right to speak or listen.

Of equal importance is asking the student leader to set the agenda or the intended outcomes of the discussion in order to make the discussion purposeful. When students veer off into another direction, the leader should bring them back to the subject matter.

Make Time for Research

A discussion session should never start with a discussion. If we start by asking students to express their views on an unfamiliar topic, they will probably not be able to contribute much, since activating schemata depends on prior knowledge. On the other hand, if students are very knowledgeable about a particular topic, it can be tempting for them to bluff all the way through without providing substance.

It is therefore vital that we ask students to carry out research before the session. If this isn’t possible, we should give them time at the beginning of the session, say 5 to 10 minutes, to perform informational searches. This research stage enables students to develop a solid understanding of the topic and ensures a high-quality discussion.

Students should be asked to organize their ideas effectively during the research stage. In the framework we use in the debate team, ideas are categorized as background information, arguments or evidence useful for Side Proposition, and arguments or evidence useful for Side Opposition. After categorization, debaters should post the source link (which is usually a web address) and an excerpt. If needed, an article can be revisited by clicking the link at the discussion stage later.

Be Purposeful About Group Size and Role Assignment

The group size should be small to increase students’ involvement in discussions. If the group size is large, I will break the team into groups of three or four. Turn-taking will then be rigorous, and passive students will have more opportunities to interact with their group mates.

To increase students’ sense of ownership, there should be a clear definition of roles in each group, similar to how we carry out cooperative learning in a real classroom. The types of roles can include a leader, who facilitates the discussion; a secretary, who types and notes any important consensus reached; a timekeeper, who keeps track of the amount of time for each sub-task; and a strategist, who suggests the main approach that should be used in defending the team’s side and rebutting the opponent’s arguments.

The choice of leader is critical to increasing participation. If it is a mature group, we can of course leave it to the students’ own devices. For junior students, we should pick a very responsive participant to be the leader, since these are the students who are best suited for generating group dynamics and arousing a heated debate or discussion within the group.

Facilitate Discussion

Teachers should avoid dominating the discussion. One of the problems that’s often overlooked in a language classroom is the amount of time the teacher talks. It’s almost inevitable for very passionate teachers to deliver lengthy monologues in an online session without realizing it. Not only does this significantly reduce students’ participation in lessons and demotivate them, but also it denies students opportunities to practice their speaking and critical-thinking skills.

However, while the student leader is supposed to act as the facilitator, the teacher still has a role to play in the discussion.

The teacher should constantly encourage the leader to invite others to respond once one student participant has finished talking. If several students are of the same position but the argument may be logically flawed, the teacher should act as a devil’s advocate and introduce another perspective by asking what-if questions. Never should the teacher explicitly point out the mistake, since this hampers critical-thinking development, nor should the teacher refute students’ arguments directly by expressing his or her personal views, as they can be easily perceived as authoritative ideas that can’t or shouldn’t be disputed.

It’s also the teacher’s responsibility to ask for clarifications about the reasoning in slippery-slope cases. “Why” questions are especially useful in helping students build cases and arguments. If the discussion dries up in the middle, the teacher should prompt students with yes-or-no questions, or questions involving another consideration, so that the discussion engine can be switched on again.

All in all, teachers should cultivate a welcoming rule-based and student-led environment to maximize interactions in online discussion sessions.

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  • Critical Thinking
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  • 9-12 High School

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