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2020 Fall Teaching Resources from the Remote 2.0 Committee: Discussions and Group Work

Curated resources for faculty reviewed by members of the Remote 2.0 subcommittee.

Discussions and Group Work

Discussions, both with the entire class and in small groups, and group work allow students to talk to each other, not just to the instructor. Their use increases student engagement, helps students develop critical thinking skills, speaking skills, and interpersonal skills.

They can also help an instructor gauge how well students are understanding content, disciplinary methods, and disciplinary vocabulary. They are a high-touch practice.

graphic with 3 outlines of people with speech bubbles above their heads.

Discussions Online

If you want synchronous, oral discussions, video conferences are the best option. However, there are other options for students to respond to the ideas of their peers. Some also have lighter bandwidth demands and asynchronous options.

  • Chat feature in a videoconference tool (text discussion is on the side)
  • Sakai Chat Rooms and Forums (text discussion is the main thing)
  • Flipgrid (video responses, not really for back-and-forth discussion; available as a Teams plug-in, too)
  • Blogs (in Sakai or online, for example, WordPress)
  • Padlet (text discussion in a slick format)

As an instructor, you facilitate a chat or forum discussion the same as one in a classroom.

  • Ask leading questions to encourage students to respond and discuss with each other.
  • Periodically redirect, sum up, point out patterns or threads you see developing.

Logistics for text-based discussions in Sakai

  • Provide a rubric or guidelines in advance and offer feedback on posts.
  • Provide open-ended prompts to get the conversation going.
  • Run two or three simultaneous chat rooms at a time to keep numbers manageable in a large class.
  • Offer forums with different prompts to provide student choice.
  • Do not overuse: stave off "discussion fatigue." One online text discussion per week is probably enough for most courses.


  • If doing synchronous discussions, stay around to facilitate (don't leave class early).
  • If doing asynchronous discussions, drop in every day to facilitate, redirect, sum up, point out patterns or threads you see developing (visibly showing up is important).
  • In all cases, participate visibly but sparingly and model the kind of posts you want to see.
  • Use students' names in your posts to personalize and acknowledge.

Linda Putchinski (U of Central Florida) gives the following advice for designing discussible prompts:

  • Make the prompt relevant to your course content.
  • Make the prompt current, such as something in the news.
  • Add a bit of controversy, such as an ethical twist.

Discussions as Contact Time

Like in-class discussions, online discussions, whether synchronous or asynchronous, count as "contact time." 

The Workload Estimator 2.0 (Wake Forest U) calculates one 250-word post as counting for one hour (50 minutes) of asynchronous contact time.

Issues with Required Synchronous Participation

You require active participation in a synchronous video conference.

  • What is the equity problem?
    • Time-zone issues, inadequate internet access or availability, competition for computer resources
  • What to do instead?
    • Let remote students join those in the classroom via telephone. This still may not be enough for a clear audible experience. 
    • Let remote students join those in the classroom with cameras off; let them participate via the chat box (this still may not be enough for a clear audible experience).
    • Offer the option of a comparable online activity as a replacement (for discussion, for example, consider the option of a post to a discussion board to account for the contact time; for group work, take the assignment asynchronous).
    • Make the required participation in the video conference optional.

Resources on Discussions

"10 Tips for Effective Online Discussion", from Educase. Within this article is a link to a Discussion Board Guidelines document that you may find helpful for making your expectations for participation in online discussions clear to students. 

"How to Host a Cocktail Party on Zoom (and have better classes, conferences and meetings, too)," on Medium, by Misha Glouberman. Excellent advice on using breakout rooms for small-group work."

Building Community," from Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes by Flower Darby and James Lang. The best book for online teaching in the liberal arts tradition. (If you are in a rush, jump to the summary on p.103).

“Discussion prompts,” U of Central Florida, from Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository

"How to Foster More Authentic Discussion," Arizona State U, by Brendan Lake. Recommendations for  guidelines to give students for asynchronous discussions.


Michael Caulfield (WSU-Vancouver)

Group Work in a Time of Social Distance

Annotation tools are a good way to get students working together to comment on a document. They are low-bandwidth options and can be used asynchronously. It is a good idea to "seed" a few questions in the text to get things going. Note: Uploading content that is protected by copyright to these sites may be an infringement. Additionally, if the content came from a library database, uploading would be a violation of our licensing agreements.

Collaborative documents allow students to write together. Also a low-bandwidth option that can be used asynchronously.

  • Google Docs and Google Slides
  • Microsoft Teams files, notebooks (students can add "comments" to a Word Doc, for example)

Digital whiteboards are available within Zoom and Teams. Microsoft's One Note and even a PowerPoint slide shared in Teams can be used. Best results when used with a tablet and stylus. Results can be saved.

Videoconference breakout rooms allow for an experience closest to that in a classroom and are excellent for incorporating students learning remotely.

  • Zoom allows you to create breakout rooms easily and in many configurations.
    • You can assign students randomly or arrange the groups in advance.
    • As a meeting "host," you can create the breakout rooms and then drop in and "visit" each group.
    • You can add hosts through "Manage Participants."
    • Finally, you can broadcast announcements to all groups and set timers.
  • Microsoft Teams has formal breakout rooms in development. For now, you add channels to achieve a similar effect.
  • Features to appear in the desktop app (like Polling) can be enabled at the W&J Zoom website:

Logistics for Group Work

Breakout rooms

When all students are online, breakout rooms work very smoothly.

In-class use can be tricky. How well it works depends on the number of students and the arrangement of the classroom.

  • If you have questions or prompts for students to address, copy them into the chat box before activating the breakout rooms so all students can refer to them.
  • Have students bring laptops and earphones, earbuds, or headphones to class. Earphones help minimize audio echo.
  • While it is best for social reasons to start a breakout session with microphones unmuted, echo problems might result. If so, ask in-class students to keep their microphones muted and to speak softly when they unmute. Students participating remotely will not have this problem.
  • If you are recording with Zoom to the cloud, the recording will pause during breakouts and resume when the host returns to the main room.
  • If you are recording with Zoom locally (to your computer), the recording will follow the meeting host.
  • Individual Zoom breakout rooms can be recorded only if the meeting host grants the participant permission to record (two ways: using the "Manage Participants" panel or making the person in advance of the meeting an alternate host). 

Collaboration outside of class

Students will need to work with others on group projects. The trick is helping them make initial contact with each other when they cannot chat in class.

  • Ensure that students have each others' full names, email addresses, and, if desired, social media handles. You might even post the list on Sakai.
  • If you have stable groups working for several days or weeks on a joint project, set up a Teams "team" for each.
  • Encourage them to videoconference with each other (Facebook Messenger Rooms, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom)