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Leading Synchronous Online Discussions

By Heather N. Fedesco, Assistant Director, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

Cite this guide: Fedesco, H. N. (2020). Leading Synchronous Online Discussions. Vanderbilt University Course Development Resources.

After you’ve considered the advice offered in the Synchronous Meetings Overview section, you may now be ready to identify the different ways you can incorporate synchronous online discussions as a way to include interactional activities into your online course. In what follows, I provide suggestions for incorporating group discussions into your videoconferencing. Here at Vanderbilt we use Zoom, but these techniques will apply to most videoconferencing platforms.

Getting Started

Before identifying different discussion techniques, it’s important to prepare ourselves and our students for such discussions via Zoom. We can do that by setting realistic expectations for how Zoom conversations are unique from face-to-face (f2f) discussions, we can establish community norms to ensure these conversations go more smoothly, and we can prime students in a way that might encourage more active participation.

Realistic Expectations

We should all adjust our expectations and remember that while online synchronous discussions can be incredibly effective, they cannot completely replicate the kinds of discussions we are used to having in our f2f classes. A lot of this has to do with the fact that Zoom interactions are so fatiguing. Susan D. Blum summarizes why we are exhausted by Zoom, even if we have satisfying interactions on the platform. One main reason it is so fatiguing is because when we have conversations over Zoom, our ability to navigate conversational turn-taking and to gauge reactions to the discussion relies on our ability to interpret nonverbal behaviors, which is incredibly difficult to do while videoconferencing.

Community Norms

We can also prepare for these conversations by following recommendations made by Funmi Amboi, Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy, Norman Eng and others by setting expectations and norms with your students for how you would like to conduct discussions over Zoom. Students have had years of experience learning how to appropriately engage in discussions in a physical classroom, but for most instructors and students, we are all figuring out how to have productive conversations online. Starting by clarifying the details of how to communicate a message, how to respond, and how to engage non-verbally can set a great foundation for discussion by de-mystifying a process that is new to all of us.

With each norm you set, it’s helpful to identify why it is important to you and the class, and better yet, how it connects to your course learning objectives. Below are some norms you might consider in your own course:

  • Should students have their video and audio on during class?
  • What protocols should be put in place for students who may not easily be able to leave their video and/or audio on because of poor internet connection, distracting learning environments, health issues such as migraines, and so on? For example:
    • How should students communicate with the instructor when they are unable to be seen or heard?
    • Can students display a fun photo instead of a black box when their video is muted?
  • You can suggest that everyone dress as if they are going to a f2f class so that students feel more comfortable showing up on video.
  • Should students raise their actual hand or virtual hand when they want to speak?
  • Should students signal that they would like to speak in the chat?
  • Should you encourage all students to contribute to the conversation in the chat if they aren’t comfortable sharing via audio/video?
  • You can encourage students to nod along, smile, mime nonverbal feedback or use the Zoom signals like hand clapping or thumbs up, emphasizing that nonverbal cues are helpful in facilitating conversation, but typical backchannel responses like “uh-huh,” or “oh wow,” can be more disruptive via Zoom.


These are just some ideas to get you started. While it is useful to have a set of expectations for your Zoom conversations, you can also collaborate with your students by asking them what norms they would like for your class.

Encouraging Participation

Given the idiosyncrasies of Zoom class sessions, you may find that your students need more opportunities to warm up prior to group discussions. Consider incorporating the following strategies to activate student engagement and encourage more participation in subsequent class conversations.


Incorporating icebreakers at the start of class can help compensate for some of the challenges that Zoom creates.

  • If questions are posed at the beginning of class while students are logging on, it breaks the awkward silence that has plagued the beginning of many Zoom meetings.
  • Icebreaker questions can be used to prime students’ prior knowledge and/or help them recall that week’s course materials.
  • Questions that allow students to get to know each other and the instructor can also foster greater connections in the classroom, which enhances student motivation.

Dani Picard, Senior Lecturer of Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt uses icebreakers at the beginning of class by asking students to think about the most interesting thing that they came across from the course materials. Once a student shares, they can pick the next student to answer the question. Nina Martin, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt likes to ask self-care questions like having students name their favorite type of book to read, the shows they are binge-watching, or something small and boring that has brought them joy this week.


Other ways to warm students up for class discussions is to incorporate classroom polls by way of Zoom polls, Poll Everywhere, TopHat or any other classroom response system. For example, Dani Picard had students answer questions from a survey used in a research article the students had read prior to class via Poll Everywhere. She also recommended the Competitions feature in Poll Everywhere to resemble trivia-style competitions, where students answer a series of questions and get points based on correctness and speed, something that can also be accomplished via Kahoot.

Asynchronous Discussion Boards

In the Synchronous Meetings Overview section, you read about ways to ensure that the synchronous and asynchronous parts of your class work together. One strategy offered by Nina Martin that takes this advice further is to have students post a reflection on the discussion board prior to class. For example, she has asked students something as simple as identifying one idea or question that came to mind as they were reading an article. Rather than responding to each other on the discussion board, she then had students reflect on their post and discuss this during the Zoom session. Telling students that they will be asked to elaborate on their discussion post during the Zoom session can ensure that students have ample time to prepare to engage in the upcoming discussion.

Group Discussion Techniques

The following techniques can be employed using the various functions afforded within Zoom. They also address some of the challenges of having conversations via Zoom. Tips for executing these strategies as well as the benefits they provide are reviewed below.

Technique: Fishbowl

The fishbowl is a popular discussion technique in f2f classrooms and it translates well to online videoconferencing. The technique requires that a subset of students in your class gather to discuss a particular prompt, with the rest of the class listening in and often completing a task as they listen.

To conduct this technique online, you can ask for four or five volunteers to engage in a discussion. Alternatively, you can have a rotating schedule of fishbowl discussants so that multiple students participate, not just those who always volunteer.

Setting up the Fishbowl

To ensure that the focus is on the students in the fishbowl, instructors can ask the speakers and listeners to adjust their Zoom settings in the following ways:

  • Speakers
    • Have their video and audio on.
  • Listeners (including the instructor once all instructions have been delivered)
    • Have their video and audio off.
  • All
    • Select the gallery speaker view.
    • Hide non-video participants so that only the videos of those who are speaking are in view. To do this, right click on any participant that has their video off, or click on the 3 dots at the upper right corner of your participant box. Then select “Hide Non-Video Participants” to hide all users with their video off.

During and After the Fishbowl

Speakers and listeners can be given the following instructions during, and in some cases, after the discussion:

  • Speakers
    • Speakers should be informed how much time they have to discuss the prompt.
    • Just a few examples of prompts include:
      • Discuss reactions to a passage from the readings.
      • Share one’s approach for solving an open-ended problem.
      • Predict the outcome of an experiment.
      • Critique an image, video, or work of art.
    • Listeners
      • During the discussion, listeners can take notes on a collaborative document that is shared with the class (e.g., a Google document or Box Note).
      • Some listeners may be assigned to summarize the key points of the conversation.
      • Listeners might be asked to generate follow-up questions.
      • A debate can be set up such that the first group of speakers argues for a particular view. After their conversation, listeners will enter the fishbowl and present a rebuttal.
    • All
      • When the conversation has ended, you can ask everyone to turn their videos back on if they would like.
      • Everyone can reveal those whose videos are muted by clicking “Total non-video participants” at the top of their screen and selecting “Show Non-Video Participants.”

Benefits of the Fishbowl

  • The fishbowl cuts down on the challenges of orchestrating a large discussion via Zoom because there are less people conversing at one time, which can help reduce Zoom fatigue.
  • This technique works well for large and small class sizes, for a variety of discussion scenarios, and across all disciplines.
  • This technique solves the problem of students directing all their comments to the instructor. When the instructor’s video disappears, students are forced to talk with only those who are visible.


Technique: Breakout Rooms with an Opportunity to Report Out

At this point you might be familiar with the breakout rooms feature in Zoom, but perhaps you are less clear on how best to utilize this tool to facilitate class discussion. With this tool you can identify small group discussion prompts as you normally would in a f2f class.

You can assign students to random groups by having them be generated automatically, or you can assign groups manually by placing students into particular groups.

Random Assignment

Zoom allows instructors to automatically assign students to random breakout rooms. This feature is the quickest way to have students get into groups, assuming you don’t care about the makeup of those groups. The added benefit is that if you use this feature often, it means that students will get a chance to interact with more peers across the duration of the course. Unlike in f2f courses, in the absence of intentional ways to randomize groups, students tend to work with the same peers that happen to be sitting near them, and may never interact with any other classmates. This builds in more opportunities to connect with a wider variety of classmates.

Manual Assignment

Of course some instructors have permanent groups that work with each other throughout the course. Or they might have preferences for how students pair up within temporary groups (e.g., all the students who read a particular article for that week should be in the same group, etc.).

Although Zoom has a feature that allows instructors to pre-assign groups before the meeting, it appears that this feature can be unstable. There have been several anecdotes where instructors have spent time assigning students to groups before class starts, only to have those pre-assignments not actually exist when class starts. Rest assured, there are some workarounds:

  • Use the time it takes to manually add students to groups for the “thinking” time in a think-pair-share.
    • Depending on class size, it can take a few minutes to manually assign students to their designated groups within Zoom. This dead air can feel wasteful. One strategy is to monopolize on this time and have students reflect on the prompt independently before sharing with their groups in the breakout rooms.
    • Instructors can also use this time to take a Zoom break and have students walk away from their computers for a few minutes before returning to engage in the class discussion.
  • Students can self-select into breakout rooms.
    • You can assign breakout room numbers to each group and have students self-select the breakout room themselves to cut down on time. However, this feature can also cause problems because it requires that students have an updated version of Zoom, and it may not be supported on all web browsers. Instructors can notify students of these requirements before utilizing this feature.
    • One workaround to this feature that was suggested by Lisa Fazio, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt, is to name all the students as co-hosts and have them self-select into their assigned breakout rooms.
  • Have students change their Zoom name to reflect the group they should be part of.
    • All students in group 1 might have their first name start with the number 1, those in group 2 would have their name start with 2 and so on. In this way, it is much easier to know which students to assign to which rooms.
    • Similarly, students can change their names to reflect the composition of the groups, such that those who read the Smith article will change their name to Smith, those who read the Jones article would change their name to Jones, and so on.
  • Students in permanent groups can create their own Zoom links.
    • If students are working in the same group throughout the course, they can create their own Zoom links and post them in the course management system. When it’s time to work in groups, students can leave the instructor’s session and join their own Zoom meeting. By posting the links to the meeting in the course management page, instructors can still pop into their meetings as they see fit. Instructors can also utilize some of the suggestions noted below for communicating with students when they are working with their groups.

Providing Instructions

Before sending students to their rooms, you’ll want to make sure they know exactly what they should be doing in these rooms, because it can be a little harder – although not impossible with the “request help” button – to ask the professor questions once in their small groups. Unlike in a f2f class where you can project your small group instructions on a screen for all groups to refer to, once students head to their breakout room, they can no longer see the screen that you are sharing or any instructions you put in the chat.

Make sure you post your instructions in a place where students can access (e.g., the learning management system, a shared Google document) and tell students where they can find these instructions before they head to their rooms. In those instructions, be clear about how much time students have to work on the activity because if you call students back from the breakout room, unlike in a f2f class, they can’t take a couple of extra minutes to wrap up what they were working on since they will be forced back to the main classroom. To help students manage their time, you can periodically broadcast to all the groups how much time they have left.

Observing Breakout Rooms

One common approach to group work is for the instructors to check in on groups by moving throughout the room and listening in. On Zoom, this is still an option, although at times it can feel awkward popping into an ongoing conversation. One way to feel less disruptive is to pop in on breakout groups but make a note in the chat that you are just there to listen. You can even turn your video off to make it seem more like you are a fly on the wall.

Another alternative is to generate a schedule for students to pop back into the main room to check in with you. At designated times, you can have students send a representative, or have the whole group join the main room, so they can ask questions or report out what they are working on. You can then send them back to their breakout room once they are done.

If you’d like to communicate with all your students while they are working in breakout rooms, while Zoom does have a “broadcast” feature, there are limitations. This feature flashes a quick announcement to students in all breakout rooms but disappears after a little while. It also only allows you to write a limited amount of text and it doesn’t allow the sharing of clickable links. To overcome this issue, you can use a collaborative document that has the discussion instructions but that also has a designated spot where you can communicate with students. You might realize that you need to point them to a particular resource that will help them make progress on their work, you might need to clarify confusion that has been raised, you might want to post additional questions, and so on. You can then use the broadcast feature to let students know you’ve added something to the document.

Reporting Out

In your instructions, you can explain to students how they will be reporting out what they have been working on in their breakout rooms. Below are some options you might consider:

  • Provide a shared document that everyone can contribute to, such as a Google document, Google sheet, Google slide, or discussion board thread.
    • For responses that would benefit from more visual and less text-based responses, you can use Google slides – with potentially one slide per group – where students can post pictures or other creative elements more easily.
    • When the group comes back together, you can then review everyone’s responses, take a gallery walk through the Google slides, highlight a couple of important contributions, or ask a few people to clarify or elaborate on some ideas.
  • Have participants nominate a representative to report out to the larger group.
    • This type of sharing out resembles a panel of participants with each representative reporting out what their group was working on.
    • You can have each group work on a separate problem, case study, or topic. When representatives report out to the larger group, this could then resemble a jigsaw in a way, with each representative teaching the large class about their topic.
    • Groups can identify who the representative will be using fun criteria like whoever was born furthest from campus, whoever has collectively had the most pets over the course of their life, or whoever has the next upcoming birthday.


Benefits of Breakout Rooms with an Opportunity to Report Out

  • Much like the fishbowl, this technique cuts down on the challenges of orchestrating a large discussion via Zoom because there are less people conversing at one time, which can help reduce Zoom fatigue.
  • This technique allows all students to engage and participate within their small groups.
  • By talking in small groups, this allows for greater peer connections.
  • By giving students a mechanism by which they can report out on their conversations, it increases accountability and encourages them to stay on task.
  • If you use the shared document approach for reporting out, you can watch in real time the flow of conversation as they add their thoughts to the document, all while waiting in the main room and not interrupting their conversations.


Technique: Everyone Reports Out

One last technique that I will discuss is to pose questions that allow everyone to share their responses with the class. It’s best to identify a question that will likely result in a variety of student responses. Then, you can ask students to report out using any of the following methods:

  • Ready-Set-Go (suggested by Derek Bruff, Director, Vanderbilt Center for Teaching)

    • To start, create a series of dashes in the chat to resemble a line that signals to you and your students that this is the start of the prompt. You might even list the prompt after the line so everyone knows what question you are focusing on.
    • Have students write out their responses to the prompt in the Zoom chat – but importantly, they should hold off on hitting enter (Note: it is actually somewhat difficult to not press enter after writing a response in the chat – inevitably someone always does it too soon – but emphasizing that they should hold off will help).
    • Give everyone sufficient time to reflect on the question and then on your signal, tell students to ensure that “To: Everyone” is selected and then hit enter/return and share their responses with the group.
    • Give students a few minutes to review what everyone has shared out.
    • You can call on a few students to elaborate on their responses to the large group.
    • Tip: Rory Dicker, Director of Vanderbilt’s Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center suggested that you can ask all your students to rename themselves to the same name (e.g., a dollar sign) before submitting their responses to allow for anonymous posts.
  • Grids (suggested by Cait Kirby, Ph.D. Candidate in Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University)
    • Using Google slides, insert a table with enough rows and columns to create a box for each student.
    • Enter each student’s name in the box and once the question is posed, have students fill in their responses in their respective boxes.
    • If instructors are using Google slides as their presentational tool during class, the student responses are easily embedded within the presentation.

Cait Kirby notes that Padlet has the added benefit of being more accessible because the tool works with screen readers. Instructors can sign up for a free account and can share their boards with their students, without requiring that students also create an account to utilize the tool.

  • Whiteboards
    • Padlet – a collaborative digital whiteboard – achieves a similar purpose as grids.
    • Jamboard is similar to Padlet but may be preferred by those who are familiar with and frequently use Google Drive.
  • Whip Around
    • Pose a question and give students time to reflect on an answer.
    • Tell participants everyone will have about 30 seconds to share out their response using their audio. Then call on individuals, usually based on the order with which they appear on your screen.
    • It is helpful to have a timer set and to have participants hear the timer so they know when their time is up.


  • Everyone has a chance to engage and have their ideas heard by all their peers.
  • Ready-set-go questions allow participants to reflect on a question and compose an answer without being influenced by what others have said.
  • Reporting out in the chat, on Google slides, or a digital whiteboard allows students who are more introverted or quieter by nature to share their ideas with their classmates rather than having to speak up during a large class meeting.
  • Instructors can display a question and the grid at the beginning of class to give students something to fill out while they are waiting for class to start, which can reduce the awkward silence that often occurs at the beginning of Zoom meetings.
  • Having everyone share out during a whip around gives students a low pressure way to get comfortable letting their voices be heard during a Zoom session.


Moving Forward

For many educators across the world, teaching via videoconferencing is a new endeavor. There is a lot of room for creativity and improvement in whatever we might try. To continue moving forward with this pedagogical approach, I recommend you do the following: