Avoiding “Radio-Silence” in Remote Discussions

(4 minute read)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many instructors are now teaching their courses in a remote or hybrid modality. Many instructors are also reporting that they have found maintaining the same level of interaction as in physical classrooms and keeping students engaged in these new modalities presents its challenges. In general, it seems instructors have been finding it more manageable to engage students in smaller break-out rooms, while using collaborative documents and platforms; however, when it comes to the all-class discussion sessions, conversation is often paused or becomes awkward. 

Recently, a group of CAS Writing Program instructors offered tips in a listserv discussion on what they have found useful for engaging students in an all-class discussion on Zoom. Below are some of their suggestions: 

Cold-calling on students to read a passage or contribute to the discussion: While not all instructors may be comfortable cold-calling on students, research has suggested that there are indeed benefits to cold-call on students to participate (see this Chronicle of Higher Education article: Why Cold-Calling on Students Works). 

Cold-calling in the traditional sense of ‘a teacher calling on students who do not volunteer a response’ seems to have taken on different forms in education recently. One Writing Program instructor was surprised when students suggested cold-calling as a useful technique for participation:  the students and instructor collaborated on developing participation guidelines, and agreed that if students do not want to be called on any particular day, they can send the instructor an email prior to class. The instructor notes that so far no student has emailed with such a request. The experience of this Writing Program instructor is very much aligned with the idea of ‘warm-calling’ where the instructor gives students opportunities to either think about the question in advance or opt out of being called on. Read here about the experiences of a University of Amherst Professor’s different approach to cold-calling. 

Appointing student representatives from smaller break-out rooms: Instructors have been using smaller break-out rooms of 3-4 students for discussion of the assigned readings, but they recommend that students produce some kind of written collaborative document (e.g. Google doc., Google jamboard or collaborative mindmaps, such as Mindomo or Mindmeister). Given that instructors cannot attend all break-out rooms simultaneously, these collaborative documents serve as a record of the students’ engagement and progress.  

In addition, some instructors have found it helpful to assign 1-2 representatives with specific roles when assigning students to break-out sessions. These representatives are in charge of summarizing and reporting on their group’s talking points upon return to the main room. Other instructors have also found it useful to ask every break-out room participant to share some aspect of their group’s discussion points upon return to the main room. Of course, planning on how and when students will share their thoughts in the main room relies heavily on class size as well. 

Assigning students as discussion leaders: Instructors have reported success with assigning students as discussion leaders –individually or in teams– in class for a few minutes. This approach not only helps make students comfortable speaking up in class, but it also teaches them how to generate engaging discussion questions, or respond to questions effectively. In addition, you may ask your students to prepare for leading a discussion in advance as homework, or it may be assigned as a spontaneous activity during class. 

For example, one Writing Program instructor encourages their students to be prepared in advance by connecting a reading to some online visual (cartoons, memes, graphs, charts, etc.) of their choice. The range of choices has been opening up a lot of discussion in class. To avoid any technical difficulty, the instructor has students email them the image and discussion question in advance, so the instructor can share the files themself during the remote session. Alternatively, the instructor may have students post their images and discussion questions to the Blackboard discussion board or blog. The instructor may then choose some or all of the submissions to share with the class. This will also allow any asynchronous students to contribute to the discussion by posting their responses to the discussion board. 

Completing a collaborative task on a shared document in large groups: Instructors also suggest that students’ written assignments in collaborative documents (e.g. Google docs. or Google Slides) are helpful as a step in generating conversation. While instructors often use these collaborative documents in smaller breakout sessions, many have also found that using this approach in larger classrooms has given “voice” to the participants, and while they may not speak up to contribute, they engage in a non-verbal manner, which sometimes leads to a verbal conversation. 

Encouraging the use of the chat box: While this seems to be a simple solution, the power of the chat box should not be underestimated. Oftentimes, students have their reasons for not speaking up in class. Some students may be more active participants in the physical classroom, but may be hesitant to speak up online due to technical issues, their background and setting, shyness, language, etc. Enabling the chat box throughout your class session or during discussion times, will give “voice” to those who find it difficult to speak up. 

One instructor recommends a three step process for using the chat box: 1. Pose a question to the students; 2. Ask them to type but not submit their answers; 3. Ask students to submit their answers at the same time when the instructor tells them to. The instructor can then encourage participation by calling on particular students to elaborate on their written responses. For resources and instructions on using the chat box on Zoom see our Pedagogical Guide to Zoom Part 2: Instruction on Zoom

Use of timed-writing on course concepts: One Writing Program instructor assigns timed writing periods during class, and has students write for 2 minutes, 4 minutes, and finally 6 minutes. The instructor pauses in between each timed writing and asks a few students to share their ideas. Students are more willing and confident to share their responses because the ideas are still fresh in their minds.

Watch students’ “mute” status on Zoom: One instructor recommends keeping an eye out on students’ “mute” status if you have smaller classes. There are times when students may unmute simultaneously to speak up, but only one student has the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. The instructor may then direct follow-up questions to those students who unmuted, but did not have a chance to speak up. 

The more students have the opportunity to engage in discussion with one another and the instructor, the more likely they are to learn deeply. We hope these strategies from our colleagues inspire you to think about how you can engage your students in a meaningful way.

Thank you to all the following CAS Writing Program instructors who contributed to this discussion:
Carrie Bennett, Jessica Bozek, Christina Michaud, Marisa Milanese, Michael O’Mara, Holly Schaaf, Robin Stevens, and Max White