Tips for bringing the unique learning opportunities of small-group discussions to online class sessions.

Small-group discussions can be difficult to manage, but this collaboration is essential for learning. And because students are likely to spend at least part of next year learning at home, it’s especially important for teachers to plan opportunities for them to engage with their peers online, Rhonda Bondie of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education writes in ASCD.

“Small peer-group discussions enable students to practice academic language, gain feedback on their ideas, and further understanding,” Bondie notes. “Students need to engage with their peers to know that they belong and are valued members of many communities, especially their school community.”

Bondie suggests that teachers use three tools in facilitating and monitoring small-group conversations to ensure that they’re productive and to measure learning when students are in breakout rooms.

A Google Doc can be used as a central location for students to take notes during discussions in breakout rooms, and teachers can monitor and help guide discussions in real-time. “Teachers can provide feedback efficiently by inserting comments and questions into the note catcher,” writes Bondie. “When the teacher sees a group having difficulty getting started, then the teacher can enter that breakout room to help.”

Use the same discussion structure techniques you rely on in the classroom. Leave directions for students in the note catcher, using graphics or pictures to provide simple, clear directions. Include links to helpful resources and model discussion notes so expectations are clear. Set the standard for student responses, Bondie advises, by including “high-quality criteria in the note catcher as a means for students to monitor their responses and to add challenge to the discussion.”

Teachers can help students prepare for online peer work via pre-assignments designed to help them formulate questions and collect ideas and comments in one place. Bondie suggests teaching students to use a variety of free tools such as Google Slides to create slide shows, Flipgrid to record short responses to a query, and VoiceThread to collaborate on slides with video, voice, or text comments.

Review these before class and group students “in ways that support productive discussions,” Bondie writes. Then, “direct students to discuss a specific slide or look for patterns across the class and report their findings to the whole group.”

Gauging student perceptions of their collaborative work can be difficult when working online. Bondie suggests reserving five to 10 minutes at the end of each session—while the work is still fresh in students’ minds—for gathering feedback via a brief Google Form questionnaire. “Students have a tendency not to complete surveys after class, so incorporate the survey into lessons,” she suggests, adding that teachers can switch this part up by alternating between using a questionnaire and requesting group feedback in the note catcher. “Students generate incredibly useful ideas that often solve technical problems and promote better learning for everyone,” she writes.