One of the primary roles that a teacher plays in an online class is the facilitation of learning. Facilitation is the teacher’s ability to clearly communicate learning objectives and support learners as they make progress toward those objectives. When teachers are working with students online, their role as facilitator encompasses their interactions with students in conferences, the feedback they give students on their work, and their ability to assist students in making meaning in online discussions, both synchronous and asynchronous.

This last component–facilitating online discussions–can be especially challenging for teachers who are not used to engaging students remotely. However, video conferencing platforms, like Google Meet and Zoom, are making it possible for teachers to connect with learners in real-time. This presents myriad opportunities to engage students in active learning online. Given the critical role that discussion plays in meaning-making, many teachers are experimenting with using their video conferencing sessions to engage students in conversations about texts, videos, podcasts, and online resources. 

Just like real-time discussions that can fall flat or be dominated by a handful of voices, synchronous online discussions using video conferencing software presents unique challenges for teachers. Students may feel self-conscious about jumping into a conversation online for a variety of reasons. Below are seven suggestions to help teachers maximize student engagement in synchronous online discussions. 

1. Provide students with an agenda and a list of discussion questions ahead of time.

Students will feel more comfortable if they know what to expect from a virtual conferencing session. If teachers provide the discussion questions ahead of time, students who need more time to process the questions have time to do so. Similarly, students who may be shy or more hesitant to engage in real-time conversation can prepare some “talking points” in advance of the synchronous session, so they feel comfortable engaging. 

2. Communicate your expectations for participation and behavior online.

Learning online is new for many students. Teachers need to be clear about their expectations, and proactively teach students how to engage in this new learning landscape. For example, you should explicitly tell them if you want them to leave their video on for discussions and explain why it is vital for the class community to be able to see each other’s faces. If you want them to contribute at least one idea to the discussion, you need to tell them in advance of the conversation what you expect. 

TIP: I encourage teachers to include the expectations for behavior and participation in the agenda or planning document that they share with students in advance of the conversation. 

3. Ask students to generate their own discussion questions.

Ask students to come to the virtual discussion with at least one question they would like to discuss. This encourages them to think about the topic the group will be discussing in advance of the conversation and identify some aspect of the topic that interests them. When students can steer the conversation with questions they care about, they are more likely to engage in discussion. 

4. Start every virtual conferencing session with an icebreaker question or a quick check-in.

Instead of jumping right into academic work, teachers should begin video conferencing sessions with a fun, informal question that helps students to feel more comfortable. Students who are learning remotely are likely missing the social interactions associated with being in school. Giving students a chance to connect on a social level with their peers before jumping into an academic conversation can help them feel more comfortable sharing their ideas with the group.

5. Use the chat window strategically. 

Just like in a classroom, students need a moment to process a question and formulate their responses. I encourage teachers to share their screens and project each discussion question so that students can both see and hear it. Then ask students to take 60-90 seconds to share their initial thoughts via the chat feature or using a tool like Mentimeter. Once students have had the opportunity to share their thoughts in the chat window, invite them to raise a virtual hand to expand on their response. Individually, unmute students to allow them to share their ideas without interruption. 

6. Host shorter sessions with fewer students.

Teachers may prefer to offer one long synchronous session each week for their class; however, large group discussions are rarely as dynamic or equitable as small group discussions. Teachers will have more success offering three 20 minute discussion sessions with eight to ten students each, compared to one 60 minute session with 25-30 students. This creates opportunities for the teacher to group students strategically to ensure students are more likely to engage in conversation. 

7. Ask students to assess their participation online.

End your video conferencing session by asking students to take a moment to assess and reflect on their participation online. Self-assessment is an important strategy that encourages students to think critically about their skills. Teachers who make a habit of ending discussions with a quick self-assessment and reflection activity are more likely to see students take these sessions seriously. Online discussion is a critical part of online learning, and as such, students need to develop the skills necessary to engage in this space. 

As with any skill, learning to engage in discussions using a video conferencing tool will take time and practice. Teachers are more likely to experience success if they provide students with support, scaffolding, and feedback.

47 Responses

  1. Please provide suggestions and thoughts on what more can we do for students who receive Level 2 and Level 3 Special Education Services.

    • Hi Lisa,

      That is not my area of expertise. Hopefully, someone else can jump in and share ideas with you about how this can be modified for students who receive level 2 and 3 special education services.

      Take care.

      • Give level 2 and 3 students some of the questions that will be asked, in advance, so they have time to think about answers. Also, consider providing parts but not all of the answer to these students. Consider having a “virtual vocabulary wall” and/or do some vocab pre work with these students. Really, keep considering the differentiation strategies that you would use anyway…you are just using them now in a virtual/online way.

        • Preteach vocabulary and big introduce big ideas in small group before whole group chat.

          Follow up whole group chat with Reflection in small group breakout chats and vary the levels of support as needed.

  2. I’m a huge fan of your work and reference you and your blog frequently in my communications with teachers and instructional coaches in my district.

    My team and I are working to build up resources for teachers to increase student engagement and work to effectively plan for ongoing blended and online learning. What better resource to tap than Catlin Tucker?!? May we please have permission to use resources and information like this post and others to share with teachers in our district?

    Thank you for continuing to provide guidance and inspiration to so many of us!

    • Thank you for the kind words! I’m thrilled you have found my blog valuable.

      You are welcome to share my resources and information with your teachers. I’d love for you to link back to my blog and tell folks where they can connect with me if they have questions.

      Take care!

      • Hi! I’m an instructional coach and I would LOVE to use your stuff during our PD next week. You’re such a great resource. Thank you for providing all of these wonderful ideas and templates to go along with your posts!

        • Hi Marti,

          You’re welcome! I’m so glad these resources have been useful for you and that you can share them with your teachers. Please let them know how to find me online if they want to access additional resources or have questions.

          Take care.

  3. Thanks for sharing! These tips could be beneficial when holding faculty meetings or running PLC sessions as well, as many educators are also trying to become more familiar with the remote learning process.

  4. They are great ideas for students in what grades.How do keep pre k engaged during a zoom meeting

  5. Thank you very much for your very logical suggestions. I wish I had this information when the pandemic began! But, this is very helpful and it makes total sense.

  6. Massive failures in this county due to horrible time lag in connection and Internet outages. Many of us have needed extensions for our assignments, not everyone has Internet in their homes, they relied on university for use. Many in my cohort uncomfortable with this platform as they were unable to participate and take notes.

    I personally prefer blended learning but wait to see what October brings in Wales.

  7. Great tips to keep in mind. I’m a school counselor and my meeting might just be about making and keeping connections with kids.

  8. These are very good tips to keep in mind. I like the idea of having several smaller groups instead of a large group. Some of my classes can have 40 plus students. This will give some people a greater chance to be more vocal and participate.

  9. I like the idea for smaller groups. Some students don’t process as quickly as other and may need additional help and clarification of the lesson taught.

  10. Amazing recommendations! I could literally think of my students engaging in various ways and different levels. Most of the strategies shared are of a preventive approach, which means by following these I could keep unnecessary challenges at bay. It would not only make my students motivated to participate but the small groups would also give rise to deeper thinking and inquiry due to the differentiated strategies used prior to whole group teaching. (Sharing reading material)
    Thanks for sharing this with us Catlin Tucker! 🙂

  11. I enjoyed this article. In preK, I think I’d have lots of visuals and keep the sessions shorter.

  12. Your suggestion to start with an agenda and an icebreaker seems very interesting and valid. I will apply these strategies in my sessions.
    Thank You!

  13. I really think the point about the students starting their own discussion boards is genus.
    I believe this will give them ownership of the lessons you would like them to learn as will as make them accountable for the content.

  14. This is very helpful. I hope it is OK that I use your content for teachers I am helping here in Iceland. I translate it and give your name so that people can find your blog to read more if they like. We do not have much about online learning in Icelandic so everything is helpful. I find what you write easy to understand and easy to transform over to Icelandic reality.

    • Hi Anna,

      I’m glad you are able to translate and share this information with your teachers in Iceland! That’s wonderful! Thank you for giving me credit. If any of your teachers want to connect online, they can find me on Twitter @Catlin_Tucker.

      Take care.

  15. All of the forethought and planning makes so much sense. I have bookmarked this page as a checklist for future lessons.

  16. thank you too much for tips. could you give me some examples about icebreaker question or a quick check-in. thank you again.

  17. Virtual meetings usually show the most active participants. Adding Gridview can show more students but maybe not all. Teachers want to monitor the inactive participants. Do you have any ideas?

    • It’s helpful to build in engagement with tools like Mentimeter to check how many of the students are staying engaged during video conferencing. I use a variety of question types in Mentimeter from the real-time word cloud to multiple-choice question features during virtual conferencing sessions. Tells you how many students are engaging. You could do something similar with a Kahoot! or Socrative too.


  18. I think using the chat feature sparingly and communicating our expectations to our students is a very good idea.

  19. Having students connect on a social level before beginning the online course of study is a powerful icebreaker. This will certainly contribute to an air of comfortability and strengthen their sense of community. With this in play, our students are more apt to be actively engaged in facilitated learning driven by the strategies and tools we have thoughtfully selected.

  20. Virtual learning can be hard for some students , so icebreakers will be an important tool in setting the tone for a lesson.

  21. Hi Catlin,

    I find your blog and practical tips truly invaluable!
    For discussions, I ike the idea of 3 smaller groups for 20 minute sessions! If I am using Microsoft teams for live synchronous learning, do you know how I might do that? My students would like to do small group work tasks but I’m having trouble figuring out how to accomplish that. I know that google slides/docs, padlet are helpful for text based sharing but I’d love some help with small group chats. I also google classroom as my online learning platform.

    Thank you,

    • Hi Karen,

      If you are using Microsoft Teams, you can create private channels and add the students you want in each group. That way they can interact with each other in a smaller group dynamic.

      Alternatively, you can group students on a shared Google Slide deck or document to collaborate on tasks.

      Take care.

  22. I am wondering if I can insert my on- line Spanish course activities into Nearpod presentations.

    • I’m not sure, Yanira. It may depend on the types of activities you are trying to embed. You may want to check out the Nearpod site to explore what resources are compatible with the platform.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *