5 ways to facilitate discussion and foster collaboration with UIC Tools

Today, instructors and students have many discussion formats from which to choose: chat, video chat, audio, discussion boards, and more. With powerful tools like Zoom, and collaboration apps like Google Docs or Slides, instructors have the flexibility to design and facilitate discussions in fun and engaging ways.

  1. Breakout Rooms: For small group discussions, try Zoom breakout rooms. Especially for larger classes, small group discussions allow students to negotiate their own understanding of the content. Instructors can move among the breakout rooms, send messages to all students across all breakout rooms, and control when students come back to the main room.

Suggested Breakout Room activity:

  • Create a list of topics to discuss.
  • Have students pick one of the discussion topics by adding their name to a Google Form.
  • Create a Google doc which lists the topics and space to add discussion notes.
  • Share the Google doc with the students and instruct them to add the main points of their conversation.
  • Create breakout groups based on the discussion topics.
  • When students are back from their breakout sessions, have a representative from each group present their notes and discuss with the class.

Tips for Student Success: The most important guideline when using breakout rooms is to be purposeful with what you want to achieve. Assigning groups clear tasks, deliverables, and a timeframe helps. Consider using small group work or think-pair-share type activities. Use Google Drive to set up activities ahead of time and also collect and share student work with the entire class after everyone reconvenes post-breakout session.

  1. Community building with breakout rooms: Breakout rooms can serve as a space for students to recreate some of the banter that happens in a physical classroom. It also offers the opportunity to meet new students in larger classes. Try setting aside 5 minutes of course time for a social or fun activity when time allows. Promise not to drop in on their discussions so that students feel comfortable to speak freely, and let them know that breakout rooms are not recorded. This type of activity builds community and serves as a personal outlet for students during this unusual time.

Suggested Breakout Room invitation scripts:

  • I am opening breakout rooms for the first 5 minutes of class for everyone to discuss their favorite song in high school.
  • To give everyone a break in this session, visit the breakout room to type one word describing how you are feeling today.
  • The last activity today is to discuss the following in the breakout room:
    • What was the most important topic of this lecture?
    • What are you still having trouble with understanding?

I’ll be sending out an anonymous survey if you want to share any observations with me later.

  1. Chat: Many instructors worry that they will lose control of the class discussion if they allow students to use the Zoom chat during a class discussion. However, using Zoom chat can promote inclusion and provide a comfortable participation option for students who would otherwise feel reluctant to join the conversation. It can also be leveraged as a way to enhance participation, especially among students who are dealing with technological constraints.

Suggested Zoom Chat activities:

  • Pose discussion questions and review student responses.
  • Solicit questions from students (if available, you might ask a TA to monitor the chat window and field questions for large classes).
  • Ask for feedback on course content or more broadly about the online learning experience, at the start, middle or at the end of class.
  • Provide an alternative for short in-class writing reflections (e.g. the one-minute paper).

Tips for Student Success: When using chat, be sure to give your students enough time to think and type (virtual wait time), just as you might pause for a moment in person to allow students time to process. It is good practice to read aloud questions and sample responses from the chat, especially for students who are only joining by audio due to technological or learning needs. Instructors can save chats manually or automatically to share with students.

If you are using Google Docs or Sheets in your class, you may know that these apps also include a chat feature where students can ask questions or make observations for everyone to see. While students are engaging in a document-building process in breakout rooms, you could monitor the documents without having to join the group, and add comments to encourage the group, pose questions to solicit deeper meaning, or simply answer questions about class procedures.

  1. Polling: After covering a particular concept, provide students with an opportunity for practice and feedback. The Zoom polling feature allows you to conduct multiple-choice polls with your class. You can set up a poll ahead of time in a scheduled meeting, or create it in real-time by clicking the “Polling” button during a meeting.

Polling is an especially useful tool for engaging students in large classes where it is difficult or nearly impossible to hear from all student voices verbally or in the chat window.

Suggested activities:

  • In a discussion, ask students to pick the option that is most important to them.
  • In a debate, choose a side to agree or disagree.
  • For a question on grammar or math, have students select the correct answer.
  • Check for understanding and mastery level of a topic. Students can select from
    1 = completely confused, 2 = feeling comfortable, or 3 = expert.
  • Apply a pre-session survey on the topic to be discussed. Send out a brief survey or poll a few days before to find out the students’ existing knowledge and their beliefs. Doing these things can help you to better prepare the session plan, materials, and activities.
  • Conduct an exit poll. At the end of the session, ask the students to rate the session to help you to gauge its effectiveness and to make improvements for future online classes.

Tips for Student Success: Polling allows students to respond anonymously, making it safer for students to share their perspectives and take risks since their peers are not aware of their individual responses. When more students can respond to a question honestly, more students are prepared to engage in subsequent discussion.

  1. Nonverbal feedback: The Nonverbal Feedback feature provides opportunities for quick in-the-moment feedback from your students. Nonverbal feedback includes a variety of icons students display next to their names in the Participants tab, including yes or no, thumbs up or down, go slower or faster, or need a break. If you don’t see the icons option in your session, follow these instructions to turn it on in your Zoom settings.

You might consider using nonverbal feedback to:

  • Quickly (and perhaps spontaneously) collect answers to a yes/no question related to course content, or to make a group decision.
  • Generate responses to clarify potential confusion (e.g. asking your students, “Would you like me to try explaining that differently?”)
  • Check in with students as individuals in the online context, and ask how they are feeling/doing on a given day (e.g. thumbs up/thumbs down feature).

Tips for Student Success: When using nonverbal feedback, you can scan through student names in the Participants tab to view individual responses or watch number tallies for each response grow in real time, which is especially helpful for large classes. Note that participant responses will not be saved as part of Zoom recordings.

If you have questions about teaching with technology, please contact the Center for the Advancement of Teaching Excellence (CATE) to request an appointment with one of CATE’s Instructional Designers at https://go.uic.edu/IDappointment.

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