Resources for Online Instruction

 Critical Discussions:
Best Practices to Foster Active Learning in Synchronous Online Classes
Evelin Suij-Ojeda. PhD, MA TESOL, MA Ed., LITE Center PD Coordinator 


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Here it goes…One more session to plan…All I can think of is how to make my class interesting, interactive, full of learning opportunities, fun, but a particular question keeps on popping up my head: How can I make my students think critically during our synchronous online sessions? In this article, I will share with you a few ideas and critical discussion strategies I have implemented in my online sessions that have helped my lessons go from a question – answer type of interaction to a really dynamic and active educational setting where students take control of their own learning process while using critical thinking skills to discuss with their classmates meaningful, purposeful and relevant topics that will help aid and enrich their learning experience. But, watch out! when I state that I will share with you some strategies, please notice I am not referring to using tech tools to engage and make students think in class, as tech tools are only one of the means we can use to foster active learning and critical discussions, but they are not, in my opinion, as important as the instructors and their way they facilitate and design critical discussions online.

Discussion-based pedagogies are dialogue-based approaches to teaching and learning that are intended to promote interactive and participatory classroom environments as “they empower students to take the lead in exploring complex and challenging issues, and to transform their classroom spaces into participatory democracies” (Mueller, Lind, McCaffrey & Ewashen, 2017, p.1). It is important to point out that, when using discussion-based strategies, instructors play the role of facilitators rather than “teachers,” and focus classroom efforts on encouraging dialogue and discourse rather than providing didactic transmission of information. A plethora of educational studies in higher education have demonstrated that using discussion-based pedagogies has undeniable advantages in terms of resulting learning outcomes for students, including enhanced development of critical thinking skills, problem solving ability, and understanding of diverse perspectives, amongst others (Mueller et al., 2017).

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay 

But first things first. Most of the time, I have been lucky enough to have motivated students (future teachers) who value the opportunity of having interesting in-depth critical conversations. But, to be honest, some other times in the past, I have planned my lessons incorporating what I would describe as “burning questions” that I could swear would spark interest and meaningful oral interaction among my students, and what do I encounter? Silence, students unable or unwilling to think critically about the topic, thus I feel like I failed them. But, as the reflective practitioners we should be, we should always look back and realize that, at times, lack of willingness to hold critical discussions in the online sessions has nothing to do with students’ attitudes towards the course, or the theme to be conversed during our lessons, but it sometimes has to do with the strategies we use to engage them into meaningful conversations that lead to real learning. To cope with these problems, I am sure you have encountered once or twice during your online teaching practice, below you will find a couple of ideas you can try out in order to incorporate critical discussions to foster active learning in synchronous online sessions.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

  1. Flip your classroom: Yes, we have discussed this before, but we cannot emphasize enough the importance of giving students vital opportunities to understand, remember and reflect about a specific topic before attending our sessions as this is key for them to be able to actively participate in critical discussions. Otherwise, how can they discuss something they are not familiar with? So, leave the lecture for students prior to logging in your lessons and fill your synchronous sessions with opportunities for learners to apply new learned concepts while engaging creatively in the subject matter.
  2. Move away from only posting questions for students to answer in groups and select the proper strategies to foster active learning during online group or pair discussions. Some you can try in your lessons are:
    1. Think-pair-share: A wonderful way to have students think individually first, and then move to sharing their thoughts with a peer. 
    2. Student-Designed Questions: Why do you need to be the one asking the questions? Encourage your students to write their own and share them with the class for further discussions. 
    3. 5-Minute Informal Writing in Response to a Question: Give learners time to think, take notes on their opinion as this is essential to be able to hold smooth and fluent conversations on topics that they are not familiar with. Thinking time is winning time! 
    4. “Stand Where I Stand” Debate: Debates (properly conducted) are a rich way to get your students to think critically, while supporting their opinions in an argumentative fashion. In a “Stand where I Stand” debate, students move from different perspectives to study and reflect on a topic from various points of views.  
    5. Socratic Seminar: Through this type of discussion, students practice how to listen to one another, make meaning, and find common ground while participating in a conversation.
    6. Affinity Mapping: This is a great strategy for groups to categorize ideas while discussing opinions and perspectives. For this sort of discussion, instructors give students a broad question or problem that is likely to result in lots of different ideas. Then, magic happens!
    7. Conver-stations: One of my favorites! In this case, students are placed into a few groups of 4-6 students each and are given a discussion question to talk about. Then, after sufficient time has passed for the discussion to develop, one or two students from each group rotate to a different group, while the other group members remain where they are. This allows for critical meaningful conversations that can last a whole session, so you better keep track of time!

As you can read, there are lots of ways instructors can foster critical thinking during online group discussions as the variety of these strategies are vast, and the benefits for students are endless. It is all up to you to give it a try and discover how you can change your class from a question-led session to a very engaging one where critical discussions are the core of the lesson.