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You are here: Home > Online Articles > Supporting Classroom Discussions in Remote and In-Person Learning Contexts

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Supporting Classroom Discussions in Remote and In-Person Learning Contexts

Stronge & Associates Educational Consulting, LLC

By Rachel Ball

02/16/2021

Supporting Classroom Discussions in Remote and In-Person Learning Contexts

Classroom discussions present a powerful instructional tool for engaging learners and releasing responsibility to students. It is critical for both in-person and remote learners to have opportunities to meaningfully participate in discourse with their peers. Classroom discussions offer an occasion for students to collaborate, learn from their peers, challenge the viewpoints of others, and extend their ideas. Additionally, classroom discussions also can be used by teachers to formatively assess student understanding.


Despite their utility and value, replicating a typical classroom discussion is a challenge while teaching during a pandemic. For in-person learners, mitigation strategies such as masking and social distancing result in a classroom environment that provides physical barriers to productive discourse. Teachers in a virtual setting may observe a lack of student engagement and unwillingness of students to participate or turn on their cameras during synchronous instruction, resulting in classroom discussions that feel strained. Below are some instructional tips that will support the integration of class discussion amid your current teaching context.


1. Build a classroom community that supports positive student discourse FIRST. Students will only participate in a classroom they deem to be safe and supportive. This notion was true prior to the pandemic and may now be more important than ever. Before asking students to participate in class discussions, students should develop shared norms that are regularly taught and reinforced. In order for all students to feel comfortable, ensure all students have an opportunity to be heard. Additionally, model for students various ways to respond to their peers. For younger learners, use modeling and the gradual release of responsibility to help build their understanding of their role when participating in class discussions.


2. Provide a task or product as an outcome of the class discussions. This provides an opportunity for accountability, assessment, and reflection. As examples, this could involve a synthesis of what was discussed, follow-up questions that they may have, something new that was learned, or even something that students disagreed with or would like to know more about. When using small groups in both virtual and in-person settings, providing a task or activity as a follow-up to the discussion ensures students are on-task and responsible for their own participation.


3. Provide question stems. Classroom discussions are often sparked or limited by the questions we ask. Open-ended questions can be a catalyst for great conversations. When encouraging students to discuss information in a small group setting, consider providing students with question stems they can use to support an ongoing dialogue. With practice and regular modeling, students will become more acclimated to using question stems on their own, without prompting. Additionally, question stems can be used as an instructional accommodation for English Language Learners or students with disabilities.


4. Collect data on student participation in class discussions. Use class discussions as an opportunity to collect data on who is participating and the content of their contributions. You can start by first recording data on which students are speaking to ensure that all students have an opportunity to have their ideas represented. To further analyze your classroom discourse, you can begin recording and analyzing the quality of student discussions. Are they applying relevant classroom content? Are they providing opportunities for others to share their ideas and/or opinions? Are they substantiating their ideas with evidence? The data you collect will ultimately be driven by your intended learning outcomes. Using data to inform the extent to which all students are meaningfully engaged also will assist you as you provide individualized feedback to students. Additionally, it can help identify students who would benefit from additional scaffolding.


5. Ensure content is engaging and lends itself to class discussions. Be mindful of which content or topics you select when integrating classroom discussions. Remember that students will likely be more inclined to participate if they feel the topic is relevant and interesting. Capitalize on opportunities for students to make personal connections in their discussions.


6. Be comfortable with wait time. When using whole group discussions, resist the urge to answer for your students. Allow think time for students, and do not let students become accustomed to complacency. If the wait time persists, consider rephrasing questions or modifying questions to be more open-ended.


7. Use think-pair-share models. Providing an opportunity for all students to think before responding will give the necessary process time for all types of learners. Additionally, sharing with one other peer first may be less threatening for students who are uncomfortable talking in larger settings. Furthermore, sharing out allows all learners the opportunity to benefit from the aggregation of ideas shared by their classmates.


8. Practice patience. Class discussions can be unsettling if teachers and/or students are unaccustomed to using them to support student learning. Provide opportunities for modeling, practice, and reflection when using discussions. Over time, student contributions will evolve and become more sophisticated. Ask students to provide their own feedback about their quality of engagement in the process.


Classroom discussions yield tremendous potential to positively influence student engagement and the overall classroom climate. Additionally, teachers can capitalize on classroom discussions to formatively assess student understanding. By integrating some of the aforementioned strategies, students will be better equipped to effectively participate in classroom discourse. Continue to select, adapt, and reflect on strategies that work for your population of learners in your current instructional context.


Rachel Previs Ball, Ed.D., currently services as the director of the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School for Marine and Environmental Science while also working on special projects for Stronge & Associates. She previously served as principal in a public school district in Virginia. She received her undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate degrees from The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her dissertation addressed Virginia principals’ knowledge of classroom assessment and support of assessment for learning practices. She is a graduate of the School University Research Network’s Principal Academy, where she completed a two-year action research project that focused on providing formative observation feedback to teachers regarding student engagement. Her participation in this research and academy led to presentations at national conferences as well as a co-authored article in JSD: The Learning Forward Journal. As part of the S&A team, Rachel has worked with the Virginia Department of Education to develop a guidance tool that supports the issues of chronic absenteeism and student behavior in Virginia’s public schools.


Stronge and Associates Educational Consulting, LLC (S&A), specializes in researching, developing, and supporting the design and application of educator evaluation systems both in the United States and internationally. We work extensively on the related issues of teacher and leader effectiveness with our research-based hiring protocols, professional development workshops, and technical assistance to districts, states, and other U.S. and international educational organizations.




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