Online Teaching and Learning

35 Synchronous Discussions

Jennifer Smith

Meeting with some or all of your students regularly can be a good way to build your learning community. It can also help students to stay on track and provides a bit of social pressure to keep students accountable for doing the course work. Synchronous activities conducted through a conference platform such as Zoom can make good use of the breakout rooms. Advanced planning is critical in order to provide an efficient and useful learning experience. A quick practice session to test the process and work out the bugs is a good idea as well.

Meeting Time | Good Practice | Activity Ideas | Grading | References

Meeting Time

If a regular meeting time was not listed in the Schedule of Courses when students registered, it may be difficult to require all students to attend a live session. It is possible to provide multiple sessions and ask students to sign-up for a Canvas group that meets at a specific day/time (use the meeting time as the sign-up title). Many factors can conspire to keep students from attending a synchronous session such as different time zones, family obligations, work obligations, and illness. Just as with face-to-face courses, it is wise to have an alternate learning activity ready for students who may need to make up a session.

NOTE: If the synchronous meeting time is important for your course, double-check your course listing in the Schedule of Courses to ensure that it has been correctly listed before students begin to register. Once students have registered, it may be too late to add a synchronous meeting time.

Courses that are part of UF Online are strongly urged to avoid synchronous meeting sessions. Many UF Online students work or have family obligations that make it difficult for them to attend live classes.

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Good Practice

Depending upon the size of your class, breaking students up into small groups (5 – 10 per group) can help students connect with each other. It is important to provide guidance to help students have a meaningful discussion. Here are some tips on “How to Make Breakout Rooms Better”(McMurtrie, 2020).

Group Discussion as a Compliment to Lecture

Give your students an opportunity to synthesize the concepts you have just covered in the lecture. Divide them into small groups of 3 – 10 students to:

  • Apply a methodology
  • Relate new material to previous concepts
  • Grapple with inconsistencies
  • Find the flaw in an argument
  • Suggest what could go wrong
  • Identify points of disagreement
  • Identify themes and similarities
  • Compare notes

It is a good idea to give students a specific task and a set time to do it. Ask each group to identify a spokesperson (this can be a rotating role) to share the group’s ideas or conclusion with the full class. You can keep the same groups for each class session by uploading a .csv file into Zoom before the meeting. Details on how to do this are in the Zoom section of this guide.

Explain the Benefit

It is more work to participate in a synchronous group activity than to sit passively and listen to your instructor talk. Group discussion takes more time online than face-to-face because moving people into and out of breakout rooms takes a full minute each way. So it is important to tell your class why the activity is worth their time. (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005)

  • Describe the benefit to students
  • What are the skills they will develop?
  • Why do students need these skills?
  • How will you help them?
  • Providing credit means that you think the activity is worthwhile

Ground Rules

If students are unclear as to what is expected of them, they may be less willing to participate. Online discussions can fall prey to the same challenges as small group discussion in the classroom. Some students may talk too much, while others talk too little. Work with your students to create ground rules that foster a safe space where students help each other to learn. (Landis, 2008)

  • Identify the rules you think are needed before the class meets
  • Each group generates a list of good/bad practices
  • Groups share the top good/bad practices with the full class
  • Guide the class to a consensus
  • Work with groups to identify sanctions (they generally want something more punitive than you would prefer)
  • As the instructor, you have the last word!
  • Remind students of the rules when you begin a discussion


Prepare students to participate fully in synchronous activities before the class meets. Provide an assignment that keeps them accountable for doing the reading, watching videos or reviewing other materials.

  • “Worksheet” quiz
  • Case study
  • Collaborative reading assignment in Perusall
  • Provide the prompt in advance (if possible)
  • Preparation activity

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Activity Ideas

It is possible for students to do many of the small group activities that could be done in a face-to-face class. The exception might be working paper and pencil problems. Even those might be possible by having each student work through the problem and compare results.

List Brainstorm

  • Practice divergent thinking by having students write down as many items they can think of in response to the prompt
    • Groups then work to categorize their ideas
    • Identify useful elements
    • Synthesize the ideas they with to share back to the full class
  • This type of brainstorming can help to engage quiet students because there is no pressure to provide the one “correct” answer
  • A variation of this idea asks students to brainstorm as many questions about the topic as they can


Create a list of quotes and number them. Put them into a GoogleDoc or GoogleSlides so that you can provide the link to the groups. (Brookfield & Preskill, 2016)

  1. Put students into the breakout rooms
    1. Ask each group to select a leader
    2. Students within each group number off
  2. Provide the link to the quote list in the chat
  3. Each student has “drawn” the quote corresponding to their number
  4. Give them 1 – 2 minutes to consider the quote
  5. They can Interpret, build upon, affirm, or contradict
  6. Group members share their thoughts as a “round robin”
    1. Round robin is where each student shares their thoughts one at a time with no interruption
    2. A second round can allow students to ask a question about one person’s thought
  7. After two rounds, the discussion opens up for free response
  8. Optional: groups can report out


Giving students the opportunity to experience a topic from a particular viewpoint can provide a very engaging learning experience. Through the use of roles, students can participate as members of a discipline, stakeholders on multiple sides of an issue, or characters in a literary work. Typical roles used in discussions or other small group work include:

  • Fact checker – responsible for ensuring that information presented is accurate
  • Explorer – finds new resources
  • Facilitator – ensures that all members participate fully
  • Scribe or reporter – documents the work of the group
  • Innovator – researches and suggests new directions for the group to explore

Roles can rotate among group members over the course of the semester. Even if you choose not to use roles in the discussion, it is a good idea to create a “tracker” role to monitor the participation of each group member.

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If you want students to take the synchronous activities seriously, it’s important to provide some type of course credit for the work. The easiest way to do this is to let the class know that there will be discussion or activity-related questions on the exam, and then be sure to make it clear in any exam review or follow up which exam questions came from the synchronous session topics.


The next easiest way to give credit is by providing “participation” points. Basically, if students attend the session, they get the points. To take attendance in Zoom

  • Ask students to type their names into the chat box
  • Once everyone has typed in their names, click on the chat icon
  • Then click the three dots next to the file icon and choose “save chat
  • You will be able to access the saved chat in your files after the session
  • Include a slide in your presentation (if using) to remind you take attendance and/or auto record the chat

Discussion Summary

Provide some reinforcement and accountability for the synchronous activity by requiring the submission of a summary to a Canvas assignment. This could be individual submissions or a group submission (which would be more efficient to grade). The role of summarizer can rotate to different members of the group.

Peer Review

If communication and collaboration practice are one of the course objectives or goals, detailed guidance and feedback on how to do this will be important. In order to get the most out of peer review, students will need a good rubric and practice applying it. It is also good practice to provide an avenue for appeals in the event that a student feels they have been evaluated unfairly by a peer. Just knowing that the opportunity for appeal exists helps students to feel more comfortable with the peer review process.

You can use the Peer Review tool within Canvas, however, this tool can be tricky to implement. Get help from an instructional designer (ID). For the best results, request instructional design assistance as early as you can. Contact your college IDs if you have them, Center for Instructional Technology & Training support is available for other units.

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  • Barkley, E.F., Major, C.H., & Cross, . P. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques; a handbook for college faculty. San Francisco; Jossey-Bass.
  • Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: tools and techniques for democratic classrooms (Second). Hoboken: Wiley.
  • Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (2016). The discussion book: 50 great ways to get people talking. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Howard, J. R., & Weimer, M. (2015). Discussion in the college classroom: getting your students engaged and participating in person and online. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (1998). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.
  • Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 85-118.
  • Landis, K. (Ed.). (2008). Start talking: a handbook for engaging in difficult dialogues in higher education.
    Anchorage, AK: University of Alaska Anchorage
  • McKeachie, W., & Svinicki, M. (2014). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • McMurtrie, B. (2020). Teaching: how to make breakout rooms work better. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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UF Instructor Guide Copyright © 2017 by Jennifer Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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