Survival Guide for Leading Discussions Online

This guest post comes from Dr. Johanna Schuster-Craig who graduated with a Ph.D. in German and Feminist Studies from Duke and is now an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University. Our thanks to Dr. Schuster-Craig for sharing these insights.

So you didn’t teach online in the fall, you have responsibilities in life, and 10 hours of online training won’t help you? 


Some quick and dirty tips I gathered as a recap for myself for previously discussion-based classes taught synchronously: 

Jamboards are excellent warm-ups. (Don’t forget, they need warm ups, now more than ever). 

Zoom sessions start quiet. Maybe their cameras are off. Maybe it’s like a radio silence class. 

You don’t have to talk into the void. Set up a Jamboard through Google Drive with a prompt. Jamboard is one of the options under +New along with Google Sheets or Google Docs (click More if you don’t see it right away). Use sticky notes, images and pencils to collect ideas, discussion questions, etc. Tools are in the bar on the left of the screen. Once you collect, students can also “sort” or “group” topics, questions and ideas. Everyone in the Jamboard can move everything else.

Any class over 4 people will benefit from a breakout room. 

Give them more time than you think is necessary to discuss. They need social opportunities. Stay out of the room if possible. Many will feel intimidated if you watch them for no reason. Encourage use of the “ask for help button.” 

(Editor’s note) See Learning Innovation’s recent post on breakout rooms for more guidance.

Try real-time editing on a Google Doc in groups. 

Prepping for a take-home exam? Trying to get summaries or main ideas out of them? Let them write in a Google Doc (you can just place multiple groups down a page) and offer them comments using the comment function in real time.

Group project planning? Use tables in Google Docs and get groups to fill in the information as they work in breakout rooms together. 

Grad students? Have them group edit an abstract for the reading, esp. when finishing a section, topic or theme. 

Grad students also do pretty well with a radio session: no cameras, not even the professor’s, and you have to have a radio discussion about a text. We debrief with cameras on about the experience.

Put close reading passages in a Google Doc (type a paragraph) and use comments to close read. 

You don’t need to learn another fancy software. Many students can barely remember the functionality of Word or Google Docs because they are just learning to use them. Stick with industry standards, IMO. Also: hardly anyone but select Humanities instructors practices this with them any more – they need the vocab as well as critical attention to reading, even in Social Sciences. Read with them! Especially when trying to lay out historical or social processes. 

Can you synthesize with or for them in real time? 

I live alone and built a chalkboard in my basement. This is extreme. (But they love it. It’s a tiny bit of visual normalcy.)

An iPad as a document camera, with a marker (thicker tip) and multiple sheets of white paper can assist the visualizing previously provided by boards and group notes. A wire locker shelf can be an appropriate stand, or you can even prop up your phone in between two canned goods of sufficient weight.

Set your Zoom settings to allow you to log into the call twice: once from iPad/Phone, once on a computer. 

Students are anxious. Practice ungrading or reflective grading if possible. 

Jesse Stommel (@jessifer) is the expert at this. Ungrading this semester only was difficult with enforcing deadlines. Otherwise, it changed little about their performance and students were more likely to be brutally honest about the grades they would give themselves. Ungrading doesn’t mean no feedback. I give extensive feedback and do lots of revision-based assignments for mastery. 

Content feedback is more efficient and has bigger bang for your buck than line edits at the undergraduate level. Plus, I cut grading time in half. No one has time for micromanaging anything right now. Make it easy on everyone.

Other resources for the Spring

Learning Innovation would like to call attention to these tips for teaching remotely this Spring that emerged from student surveys of what’s worked well.