Collaborative Learning

Don’t Leave Discussions Behind in Virtual and Hybrid Teaching

Interacting with each other helps middle and high school students learn, and can uncover points they don’t yet understand correctly.

May 3, 2021
FatCamera / iStock

Discussion has become indispensable for engaging middle school and high school students during both virtual and hybrid instruction. Using the power of discussion, students can communicate their viewpoints, ideas, misunderstandings, and more, through interactions with their peers and teachers.

While planning for discussions during such an unprecedented time can be stressful, it’s also created an atmosphere where teachers are willing to take risks to help students become better thinkers and develop their ability to engage in deeper civil discourse. By taking a position on an issue, asking questions, and sharing connections, students can become more knowledgeable about any content area.

Plan Ahead

So that students feel comfortable during discussions, you need to plan ahead and clearly provide your expectations, developed as part of the lesson plan. The following features of discussion planning are necessary for a successful conversation in a virtual or hybrid setting.  

  • Purpose: As the teacher, you must decide on the purpose of the discussion and the protocols, which in turn will determine how much instructional time you’ll need so that you can choose the structure. Reasons for a discussion could include developing understanding, generating ideas, applying understanding of learning, making meaningful connections, and assessing skills or content. Be sure to allot enough time to share the specific reason you select and the protocols for discussion with students.
  • Organization: The purpose will help determine how to organize the conversation, including the grouping, your role, and the rules for participation. For example, students can participate in pairs, in small groups, or as a whole class. Your role can include recognizing and clarifying student responses, asking follow-up questions, correcting misconceptions, or assessing students. Lastly, you should establish the rules for participation. For instance, use a variation of the Three-Before-Me rule to establish that three students must speak following your first response. A teacher can also incorporate the use of discussion chips or assigned roles. In thinking about the hybrid and virtual setting, you should also consider establishing that students must have their camera on while participating.
  • Closing the discussion: Wrapping up the discussion provides an opportunity for you to assess what the students learned or their major takeaways from the discussion. It’s also the time to reflect. Options for closing the discussion can include individual reflection such as exit tickets, self-assessment, or a whole class poll.


Discussion strategies that you used in a pre-pandemic setting are still useful in learning new content, formatively assessing understanding, and reinforcing previously learned concepts.

1. Value line discussion: For students who are present with you virtually and in person, you can share an editable Google Slide or Google Jamboard that includes a value line labeled Yes-No-Maybe. At the top, place your statement or question, prepopulate the slide with the students’ names, and assign a number. After reviewing the prompt, ask students to move their names onto the value line. Next, have the class respond in small groups such as odd numbers first or groups of four. Remind students that their placement on the value line is their opening statement and they will need to explain their decision.

2. Four corner discussion: As with the value line discussion, create an editable slide or Jamboard, and provide students with a controversial statement, one that will initiate debate among them, and four possible responses. Label each corner of the slide with Strongly Agree, Agree, Strongly Disagree, and Disagree. Students can move themselves into one corner of the slide. Using the same grouping system, ask them to share the reasoning for their placement, emphasizing that they can use personal experiences and class content.

To further enhance discourse, allow groups to work in breakout rooms before sharing their thoughts with the whole class. Following a brief breakout room discussion, ask the groups to present their top two reasons for choosing that response.

3. Think-Pair-Share breakout: Students can use the traditional Think-Pair-Share Model effectively online so they’ll feel better prepared to participate in discussions. Give students think time to consider their response to a prompt. After some wait time, use an online platform such as Google Meet to assign students (both virtual and hybrid) a partner to discuss their thoughts with.

As the conversation progresses, provide a place for students to record their thoughts before returning to the whole class. Choose to display students’ responses, or have them verbally share their responses with the entire class.

4. Sentence stem discussions: Sometimes, students struggle to participate in discussions because they’re unsure how to begin. The sentence stem option gives students a starting point and allows them to create a response without worrying too much about structure. In the hybrid and virtual setting, consider having students share their sentence stem responses by pasting them into a Google Slide so that they can choose who to respond to in the discussion.

Here are some examples:

  • I agree that _____ was the most influential historical figure because _____.
  • The most important event of this chapter was _____ because _____.
  • I think the text means _____.

Discussions are useful strategies in any instructional setting and give students the opportunity to interact not only with content, but with each other as well. Discussions also help students develop their critical thinking skills and show how well they understand content. By using the techniques above, both teachers and students can engage in deeper civil discourse.

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Filed Under

  • Collaborative Learning
  • Critical Thinking
  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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