Learning through discussion is a key element of CEU’s seminar-style courses. Online and hybrid synchronous discussions will require advance planning and communication with students and an established set of norms and expectations. Here are some suggestions for online and hybrid class-wide discussions: 

  • Co-establish a set of discussion norms and expectations with students early in the course. For example, remote students will need an agreed-upon method for indicating that they want to speak, and in-person students will need to be mindful of the chosen method. 
  • Provide structured opportunities before class for students to start thinking and possibly share with you or class about readings or other preparatory material that you can build on during session.
  • Share prompts and discussion questions before the seminar. This gives students time to prepare and reflect. Alternatively, ask students to generate their own questions in a discussion forum before the class session.
  • For hybrid courses, ask in-person students to bring personal laptops or devices to class so that they can see and respond to remote students in chat. Remind them not to join audio or to "mute" themselves to avoid audio interference.
  • Ask a teaching assistant or a rotating on-campus student to monitor the chat for questions or reactions. 
  • Incorporate silent activities such as reflections on what students learned, want to know, or how they can apply topic in own work such as. Examples include "One Minute Papers" or "Muddiest Point" (Howard, 2015).

Given the logistical challenges of facilitating online and hybrid discussions, it is also worthwhile to consider alternatives to spoken discussions to ensure that all students can participate fully.

Small Group Discussions

Small group discussions can help students focus on important questions, grapple with key issues, and reflect before bringing their ideas to the whole class (Baines, 2004). While breaking off into small groups is fairly straightforward in a classroom, this may require more planning and structure in the online and hybrid environment. 

Well-structured discussion activities tend to work better in online and hybrid courses because they give students a clear idea of what they should be doing. It’s important to provide clear instructions before students begin working and to share examples or demonstrations. You can ask groups to take notes in a collaborative document or Excel sheet so that you can follow their work, and this document can also be used for a whole-class debrief after the group work is completed. During this debrief, consider how to efficiently share and build on the work done in groups.

For hybrid courses, consider whether it is more appropriate to group online and on-campus students together or separately. For quick discussion activities, it may be more feasible to keep groups separate. Remote students can utilize the Zoom breakout rooms feature while on-campus students split into small groups. Other times, you may want remote students to join on-campus students. In this case, we recommend that remote students join via an on-campus student’s personal device. For example, online students could log off of the main Zoom call, and then connect with their in-class partners or group via Microsoft Teams. 

1-2-4-All is versatile discussion technique that allows all students to contribute their ideas without one or two people dominating the conversation. Ask students to think or write about a challenging question or problem on their own for one minute. Then pair students for 5 minutes to discuss their ideas. For the last round, give students 5-10 minutes in groups of 4-6 to come up with 2-3 key points. Students can then share their points with the whole class verbally or on a shared document. 

Other structured small group activities include:
  • ​​​​​​​Debates: Students debate pre-assigned topics in groups of 4-6
  • Case Studies: Students discuss stories that show the application of a concept to a real-life situation
  • Jigsaws: Groups of students become experts on a reading or aspect of a topic. Then reassign the groups so each one includes one student from each of the previous groups. The experts teach their new group members about their assigned topic.

Online Discussions

Faculty can supplement live class conversations with online text or video-based discussions. This encourages "co-presence" – the opportunity for remote and on-campus students to connect – and provides an alternative form of engagement for students who may not thrive in a traditional discussion environment. 

Instructors can create discussion forums in Moodle [PDF] that ask students to brainstorm, discuss course concepts, or reflect after class sessions. For example, some online instructors create a discussion forum early in the course where students share and discuss topics for a final project or paper. Another way to engage students in discussion forums is to ask them to apply course content to their own experiences and lives (Darby, 2020).

Collaborative tools outside of Moodle, such as Microsoft Whiteboard and Padlet, can enhance synchronous and asynchronous discussions. For an example of how a digital whiteboard can be meaningfully integrated into a discussion, see the "Image Analysis" activity from the OSUN Connected and Blended Learning Toolkit (Padlet board example). 

Perusall, a social annotation platform where students can collaboratively annotate readings between classes, is another CEU-supported alternative to live discussions. More information on how to use Perusall can be found on Moodle. 


Visit CEU's Moodle Site for support guides on discussion forums and other tools mentioned in this article. For Moodle support, contact Gábor Ács (acsg@ceu.edu). For a consultation on how to set up any of these discussion activities or others, contact Kaitlin Lucas (Lucask@ceu.edu, Academic Technologist).

View the Elkana Center's pages on Live Class SessionsLectures, and Assessment for more about online and hybrid teaching at CEU.