Facilitating Synchronous Conversations

Engaging discussions are one of the hallmark characteristics of a college course, and facilitating them can take many formats.  Use the resources on this page to spark fresh ideas for creating rich synchronous dialogues – whether you are teaching face-to-face or online.  (Check out this Idea Spark page for resources related to asynchronous conversations via discussion boards)


Practical Tips

? Norman, M. (2017, June 26). Synchronous Online Classes: 10 Tips for Engaging Students. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/synchronous-online-classes-10-tips-engaging-students/ 

  • Ten straightforward and easy tips to help prepare students for on-line synchronous discussion These tips can also apply to face-to-face course discussion. The key is to help students prepare to engage before the discussion by collecting information, telling students what to expect from the discussion session, and asking students to come with “one burning question”.  This article talks about the importance of relevant discussion topics to the students and why embedding novel content is essential.  

? Tucker, C. (2020, May 4). 7 Strategies Designed to Increase Student Engagement in Synchronous Online Discussions Using Video Conferencing. Caitlin Tucker. https://catlintucker.com/2020/05/7-strategies-to-engage-students-in-synchronous-online-discussions/ 

  • In this article, the author lays out seven simple strategies to increase engagement during online synchronous discussion sessions. These strategies are straightforward and really focus in on preparing students for discussions ahead of time. 

?Teaching Commons. (n.d.) Small Groups and Discussions. Stanford University. https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/resources/teaching/small-groups-and-discussions 

  • Multiple resources are listed on this website including: How to Lead A Discussion, Leading Group Discussions, How to get Students to Talk in Class, and Sample Small Group Exercises. 

?Think-Pair-Share Technique 

Science Education Resource Center (2020, June 24). Think-Pair-Share. Carleton College. https://serc.carleton.edu/sp/library/interactive/tpshare.html 

  • Think-Pair-Share (TPS) is a useful technique to get students talking to each other in classroom discussion. The resources on this webpage showcase the praxis of think-pair-share. With COVID-19, there are ways to incorporate TPS while considering social distance practices. Flipgrid and Trello (see technology section) could be used as a tool in class between students and teachers. 

? Souza, T. (2020, June 1). Responding to Microaggressions in Online Learning Environments During a Pandemic. 

  • This article discusses tensions that arise and how to work through them.


Technology Tools

? Stachowiak, B. (2019, January 15). How to Get Students to Engage with Each Other. Teaching Higher Ed. https://teachinginhighered.com/2019/01/15/how-to-get-students-engaging-with-each-other-in-online-or-blended-classes/ 

  • Technology tools and how to integrate them into both face-to-face and on-line classroom discussion to boost student engagement on the topic and with each other. Some of the technology tools from the article are listed below.
    • https://www.tricider.com/ – Tricider is a social voting tool that can give students the power to determine topics for both face-to-face and online discussions. This can be used when preparing for future class discussions.
    • https://info.flipgrid.com/ Flipgrid is a Microsoft Office tool that can mimic social media for educational purposes and boost student engagement in synchronous and asynchronous discussions. Flipgrid can be pulled into most learning management platforms or used in Microsoft Teams. Pose a discussion question to your class, then they can answer with short videos. Students can engage with one another by making comments on classmates’ videos.
    • https://www.instructure.com/canvas/higher-education/platform/products/canvas-studioUsing Canvas Studio is another great way to engage students in discussions. Creating video content is popular with most college students. Students can engage with each other by making comments throughout videos.
    • https://trello.com/


Barkley, E.F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Brookfield, S.D. and Preskill, P. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Pub. 


? https://teachinginhighered.com/podcast/get-students-to-participate-in-discussion/ – In Episode 015 of Teaching In Higher Ed podcast hosted by Dr. Bonni Stachowiak, Dr. Stephen Brookfield discusses techniques to get students to engage in classroom discussions. Some of these techniques include structured silence, allowing time for thinking, and modeling what discussions should look like in class. The discussion touches on bringing introverts into the discussion as well and managing the extroverts in class. 


? https://teachinginhighered.com/podcast/engage-students/In Episode 023 of Teaching in Higher Ed podcast hosted by Dr. Bonni Stachowiak, Dr. Jay Howard discuss how to get students involved in discussion in class and online to facilitate better understanding of material and topics. 

Faculty-to-Faculty Ideas

Idea TitleSummary
Turning Technologies with ClickersIn large face-to-face introductory communication classes with 120 students, I needed some type of technology that allowed me to take attendance and create a point of engagement with the students. Turning Technologies is an option that ECU offers. I implemented the clickers into my large lecture to serve two purposes: 1. A tool to capture attendance every day. 2. Create points of conversation. Questions were embedded throughout lectures using PowerPoint and Turning Technologies. Question slides would open up a poll. I would give the class one-two minutes to answer, then the answer would be revealed. At that point we would discuss the question and topic it focused on to ensure student understanding. I typically receive a lot of questions. Sometimes it generates debates between the answers. After class, I saved the session data and could upload it to Blackboard for attendance and daily quiz points.

(Brittany Thompson Teaching Instructor, Communication)
ECU Information on Turning Technologies - https://ecu.teamdynamix.com/TDClient/1409/Portal/Requests/ServiceDet?ID=10605https://ecu.teamdynamix.com/TDClient/1409/Portal/Requests/ServiceDet?ID=10605
Making large lecture feel like smaller communities and encouraging discussionHistorically I have not done discussion boards in Comm 1001 (large introductory lecture). I have done reflection/theory application exercises, but there’s been no interaction between students.  This semester I am going to put the students in groups of 20 for the entire semester.  In Canvas we can create groups—I will assign groups of 20 week 1 and they will stay in these groups all semester. Then, they will complete discussions like I usually do in small classes—so now, they will have a close group of students in a large class where they can respond to/with for the entire 8 weeks/16 weeks.  I am hoping that this will organically foster a community for these students to not only complete the discussion boards but maybe be an online outlet for everyday life, studying. etc.  I am considering having them complete their theory application exercises this way as well…still thinking through that.

Guess my biggest thought with this, is that in an 80+ student online class, having these smaller discussion groups allows for more connection and a closer feel.  I think there are benefits to changing the groups each week, but I am hoping the peer connection will be a benefit here.

(Dr. Nikki Nichols, Teaching Associate Professor, Communication)
Getting Students Engaged in Discussions in STEM classesFreshman level - I assign each group a short video (related to the topic of the day) that they have to present in front of the class, at the start of every class. Each member of the group presents and, at the end of their presentation, I ask the class to chime in if anyone would like to expand on a point mentioned in the presentation, or if the group forgot to say something, or if they had a different interpretation of any point mentioned by the group. This does get in class discussions going for about 10-15 mins. There are points attached to incentivized.

Sophomore and junior levels - I assign short journal review articles to the class, along with guiding questions. On the day of, I pick a random group to present in front of the class, after they have worked on it for 40 minutes, in class. This makes sure everyone reads the article and is able to participate in the conversation. The presenting group explains the figures in the article and looks for the corroborating information in the text of the article and also presents how it relates to the PowerPoint lecture on the topic. My topics are usually "hot button" topics like the genetics of cancer, stem cells, personalized therapy based on genetics. This also gets in-class discussion going for about 15 minutes. Also, while the presentations are not directly for points, the figures featured in the exams the students will be taking, therefore they have to pay attention to it.

(Lynnsay A. Marsan, Ph.D., Assistant Teaching Professor, Biology)
I think you have to set the tone early on in a course, especially in STEM where discussions aren't standard.  You explain the advantages of discussing a topic to the students (helps misconceptions come to the surface, creates deeper conceptual understanding, etc). Then you have to pose questions that conflict with common student misconceptions. I like to use Eric Mazur's Peer Instruction approach of posing a question, letting students think about it for 30s, then discuss it for 2 minutes, then share their answers with the class.

For homeworks, I have students make an initial attempt on their own, which I check off, then they come together in groups of 3-4 to discuss and revise their solutions before submitting a group answer. Having students first work on their own forces them to confront their knowledge base before looking up answers or gong to others to help.

(Dr. Nathan Hudson, Assistant Professor, Physics)

Related Literature

Engagement in STEM Courses

  • Gasiewski, J. A., Eagan, M. K., Garcia, G. A., Hurtado, S., & Chang, M. J. (2012). From gatekeeping to engagement: A multicontextual, mixed method study of student academic engagement in introductory STEM courses. Research in Higher Education, 53(2), 229-261. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11162-011-9247-y
    • This article looks at pedagogical outcomes from student engagement in introductory STEM courses. “At the broadest level, our findings show that the actions of faculty affect the actions of students, in this case students’ engagement with their introductory courses” (Gasiewski, et al., 2012). There is some discussion on the use of clickers as a way to engage students in large lecture courses. 

Technology in Face-to-Face Large Lectures

  • Caldwell J. E. (2007). Clickers in the large classroom: current research and best-practice tips. CBE life sciences education6(1), 9–20. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.06-12-0205
    • This article covers the use of Clickers or audience response systems (ARS) as a method for in-person classroom engagement and facilitation of discussions especially in large lectures. Provides a list of best uses and practices. The information helps layout a strong foundation for increased interaction in the classroom. 


Techniques Used During Discussions and Outcomes

  • Elise J. Dallimore, Julie H. Hertenstein & Marjorie B. Platt (2004) Classroom participation and discussion effectiveness: student-generated strategies, Communication Education, 53:1, DOI: 10.1080/0363452032000135805
    • This article focuses on student responses to high expectations and grading of participation in class and cold calling during discussions. The findings indicate that these techniques can lead students to have increased interactions during in-class discussions. 
  •  Philip H. Pollock, Kerstin Hamann & Bruce M. Wilson. (2011) Learning Through Discussions: Comparing the Benefits of Small-Group and Large-Class Settings, Journal of Political Science Education, 7:1, 48-64, DOI: 10.1080/15512169.2011.539913 
    • This article looks at the use of discussions in larger lecture (50+ students). The results show that discussions facilitate critical thinking and deeper information understanding. Creating small groups in a large lecture was found to increase learning opportunities for students. *Due to COVID-19, small-group usage may have to take a more technology route. 
  • Flaherty, C. (2020, April 29). Zoom Boom: Synchronous instruction is trending, but experts say a more intentional mix of live and asynchronous classwork is necessary for future remote terms. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/29/synchronous-instruction-hot-right-now-it-sustainable
    • This article discusses best practices of using synchronous online class activities that benefits student learning. 


Instructor Reflection as a Discussion Facilitator

  • Finn, A. N. and Schrodt, P. (2016). Teacher discussion facilitation: A new measure and its associations with students’ perceived understanding, interest and engagement.
    • The article in Communication Education covers the development of a measure for students’ perceived understanding, interest, and engagement.