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Learning Through Online Discussion

In Fall 2020, we asked the student consultants to share their thoughts and experiences with synchronous and asynchronous discussion in the context of discussion-based courses (e.g., seminars and small classes) and non-discussion-based courses. Here is what they wrote on the following topics:

While the students’ reflections are specific to their remote learning experience, they provide insights that are applicable across all instructional modalities.

*To learn more about discussion strategies, see the CTL’s resource Learning Through Discussion.

Characteristics of Effective Discussion

What are the characteristics of an effective discussion? 

“Good mediation, validation of individual voices and opinions, true listening, fluidity.” – Yarin Reindorp, General Studies.  

“Mutual listening and mutual respect. Listening actively and respectively means valuing the contributions of the other members of the discussion and ignoring no voice, no matter how seemingly irrelevant.” – Donian Chyong, Columbia College. 

“A commitment to upholding a space where ideas, rather than individuals, are being challenged. This fosters a culture of assuming one’s peers have the best intentions so that we each feel comfortable voicing our perspectives” – Kalisa Ndamage, School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“1) Engagement – Are the participants excited? Is the person leading the discussion excited? Is this excitement contagious or self-contained? 2) Relevant discussion topics that allow for more relatability to the experiences of the discussion participants. 3) Open and nonjudgmental space to share opinions (even controversial ones) – I think this one is harder to achieve in general.” – Michelle Yao, Columbia College. 

Michelle Yao shares how to promote engagement, relevance, and a positive environment:

  1. How to create an engaging discussion:                                                 
    • Use your voice to show that you are excited! Students are easily bored by monotonous droning on about material. 
    • Explain why you are excited about a certain topic, and signal to your students when you get to a topic that you particularly enjoy talking about. Students really enjoy hearing more personal anecdotes of your experiences woven into explanations of the material.
    • Try asking “opposite” questions. Instead of asking students what they find interesting about a subject, try asking what they dislike about it (or if it bored them)–that might lead to new avenues of discussion!
  2. How to create relevant discussion:
    • Ask students what they’re interested in learning about and adjust your class time to focus around this. Anonymous surveys can be helpful for this (or Zoom polls)!
  3. How to create a nonjudgmental space:
    • Starting from the first class, make it clear that you are committed to open communication.
    • Be a good listener. Encourage people to say how they feel, and demonstrate to students how to engage in difficult discussion without offending or minimizing someone else’s experiences.

Synchronous Discussion

What have you found to be most effective in synchronous discussions?

“1) Breakout room sessions (with and without the instructor present); 2) people sharing their screens, whether for writing a paragraph together to present to the rest of the class, or watching a video that a student finds interesting about a certain topic; 3) an opportunity to share something interesting about your day, etc.; 4) playing a little introductory music before class starts!” – Michelle Yao, Columbia College.

“Professors using hand raising on Zoom in order to evenly assign speaking time to students, using breakout rooms with prompts, or assigning short group work in class.” – Kalisa Ndamage, School of Engineering and Applied Science. 

“If the class is small enough, and the discussion will not become too chaotic, then perhaps just encouraging people to speak up one after the other could work. If the class is too large, perhaps using breakout rooms to make the groups smaller could facilitate this type of discussion.” – Donian Chyong, Columbia College.

“In science classes, the level of accuracy and precision to which we can reach in understanding a concept given the ability to ask follow up questions and collaborate on a screen. In classes with discussions that are more intellectual rather than factual, the ability to challenge views, show support and agreement, present immediate responses and complicate the discussions are a huge advantage. 

I find that in a small cohort, when possible, if the discussion starts off with everyone unmuted, individuals may find it easier to chime in. There is something inorganic about having to unmute a microphone and jump in with a comment. When no one is muted, the discussion can often flow more naturally. ” – Yarin Reindorp, General Studies

Asynchronous Discussion

What have you found to be most effective in asynchronous discussions?

“1) Responding to people’s comments from the discussion question, 2) timely responses to people’s questions/inquiries (particularly on Piazza for classes that use it), 3) professors writing responses and engaging in the discussion as well!” – Michelle Yao, Columbia College.

“Courseworks’s discussion post tool and EdBlogs. Both were quite useful as mediums for homework assignments involving short answer/reflections.” – Donian Chyong, Columbia College.

“Assigning groups based on students’ time zones to ensure more even participation. Making virtual projects that require some form of external in-person exploration (if possible to do so safely).” – Kalisa Ndamage, School of Engineering and Applied Science. 

“Their availability. One does not have to be present at the time in which the discussion is taking place in order to have access to that information. The ability to add visuals to these discussions is also a great benefit.” – Yarin Reindorp, General Studies.

Experiences in Discussion-Based Courses

What did your engagement in discussion look like in discussion-based courses? What worked well in these types of courses? What suggestions do you have for enhancing discussions in these courses? 

“I was engaged when the material was particularly important to me or was very important to know for an exam. Being engaged included me asking and answering questions while ensuring every statement related to my peers’ previous statements. It’s also helpful when professors have guided discussions. I’ve noticed that polls are rather helpful in facilitating discussions as well since people realize how many people may (or may not) share the same perspective, inspiring more participation.” – Kalisa Ndamage, School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“Two technical aspects that have made discussions flow more naturally in my experience are gallery view and unmuted participants. Gallery view on zoom has been helpful in being able to see all participants even when a screen is shared. Being able to watch facial expressions and immediate reactions is an invaluable aspect of discussions. Having everyone’s microphones UNmuted has too been proven to be helpful with people speaking more freely. I, too, find myself thinking twice before unmuting myself, but when having my microphone unmuted, I find that I bring myself to participate in discussions more easily.” – Yarin Reindorp, General Studies. 

“Hidden behind a computer screen, I admit that my engagement in every discussion was not always 100% at attention. I found myself sometimes not paying attention to my peers. I try to resist this through active note taking or at least thinking through and planning my next response to the discussion. […] I suggest class participation and assignments be based explicitly on the topics discussed and responses made by other students in class. Because the grade will depend on the student’s paying attention during the discussion, I hope this will increase participation and attention.” – Donian Chyong, Columbia College. 

“To address a drop off in student participation in discussion toward the middle of the semester, instructors can: “continuously share WHY they are so interested in what they are teaching/WHY they have chosen to teach a course that is specifically covering this content. For many students, oftentimes a course is mandatory for a major, but if the professor is able to convey their enthusiasm to a student, I think this would also encourage students to look beyond the bare minimum and develop new interests in ideas they have never thought about before.” – Michelle Yao, Columbia College. 

Experiences in Non-Discussion Based Courses

What did your engagement in discussion look like in non-discussion-based courses? What worked well in non-discussion-based courses? If discussion was not being used, what are some effective ways you would suggest incorporating discussion into lectures, labs, and other non-discussion-based courses? 

“Large lectures often have breakout rooms. In those, students in my experience usually leave the camera off and don’t speak until one brave soul takes the lead. The placement of a TA or a student leader in each room can make a great difference. 

A classroom environment that will give rise to good discussions is one that provides room for questions on an ongoing basis. In my experience, when an instructor asks “any questions?” often enough, we start thinking about questions we may have knowing they are welcomed. This simple step can really go a long way and help foster an environment in which, even online, all questions are welcomed.” – Yarin Reindorp, General Studies. 

“Polls are helpful ways of facilitating discussion in lecture-style courses. Group projects can be a helpful way to discuss with peers regularly. There may be room for having students engage more throughout labs; I’ve had a TA who would give my group short periods of time to think about the next steps which makes everyone feel like they’re contributing to a virtual lab even if there’s only one student with the controller.” – Kalisa Ndamage, School of Engineering and Applied Science. 

“Having more videos or other forms of multimedia beyond powerpoints and pdfs would further engage students to pay attention and ask questions during lectures.” – Michelle Yao, Columbia College.

Student-Instructor or Student-TA Partnerships

How can instructors and/or TAs partner with students to have discussions that are inclusive and promote learning? 

“Ask students ahead of time about the extent of their technological resources. Ask students how they’re most comfortable communicating in classes and leave room for both spoken and written discussion responses during class.” – Kalisa Ndamage, School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“Listening to student concerns/questions and directly addressing these issues, whether synchronously or asynchronously. Oftentimes, instructors and TAs get many of the same questions, and it is easy to gloss over a subtle nuance or difference. Encouraging more “deliberate” answering of questions instead of “copy and paste responses” would be very helpful for making sure that students feel heard and are comfortable to share their thoughts about the subject matter.” – Michelle Yao, Columbia College. 

“I would love to see more discussions led by students and facilitated by the professor. These discussions should be the basis of some assignment to encourage participation and maintain accountability. To encourage student dialogue and leadership, perhaps the day’s content can be prepared and delivered by the students themselves under the guidance of the professor.” – Donian Chyong, Columbia College. 

“Asking for feedback and responses, asking more open ended questions. 

Silence is something many students and instructors may be worried about. However, enduring a few moments of silence can be extremely beneficial for class discussions. Often silence can represent processing and if we wait long enough someone will eventually ask a question or make a comment, because the odds are that no matter the size of the class, someone has a question to ask. I can think of so many different instances in which an instructor moved on to the next topic while I was still trying to construct the question I had about the previous one in my head. We simply need time, patience, and understanding.

Fostering an open and inclusive environment for discussions is an ongoing task. It requires constant work, from the very first class. Classes at Columbia are truly challenging, and an acknowledgement of that can go a long way. Rather than describing a certain topic as ‘easy’ or ‘intuitive’, instructors can relay a supportive message that tells us students that they acknowledge a topic may seem challenging and intimidating, yet that with the appropriate work it can become familiar, patterns can be identified etc. 

On a more practical level, making sure that the dominance of some does not take away others’ ability to participate is an extremely important aspect that can make a great difference. Referring to students by their names, connecting current discussions to previous ones, and reminding the class of a comment that a student had made in the past can create immediate engagement.” – Yarin Reindorp, General Studies.