How to Improve Your Online Book Group Meetings

Laptop showing multi-cultural online book group discussion members

Getting together with an online book group to talk about what we’re reading is helping a lot of us cope with this disquieting time. Connecting with friends and to literary works that inspire, challenge, and entertain us can remind us of what really matters and lasts. But while the mechanics of online discussions are simple, it can be difficult to make them as interactive and community-building as face-to-face meetings. The practices that follow are gathered from the experiences of multiple Great Books leaders.

  • Plan ahead. Establish a reading list that works for your group’s members. Some groups alternate between shorter and longer readings so that preparation time doesn’t become too long.
  • Discuss priorities. Even if your group has been meeting for some time, going online is a great opportunity to talk about what you value. (Do you want to have a designated leader for each session or distribute that responsibility more widely? Do you want to reserve time at the beginning or end of the session to talk about more general topics?)
  • Set expectations. These can be both technological (asking members to mute themselves when they are not speaking) and procedural (asking all members to be aware of how often they comment and to make room for quieter members).
  • Laugh a little. Inevitably, things will go awry sometimes—a pet will knock over a laptop, someone will lose Wi-Fi, someone’s audio will mysteriously go out, etc. A little laughter and tolerance for less-than-ideal circumstances goes a long way.
  • Focus on listening. Allowing enough space within discussion for each comment to land before someone jumps in to respond can be difficult even in face-to-face settings. Online gatherings make this still more challenging. Encourage everyone to listen closely and allow a bit of wait time before they respond.
  • Go visual. Use your videoconferencing platform’s visual reaction options or give an on-screen thumbs-up to express your engagement with what others are saying.
  • Reflect and refocus. Build in some time at the end of at least some sessions to talk about how things are going and to allow participants to suggest ways to improve discussion. Even minor tweaks can make a big difference!

Looking for reading materials for your online book group? Visit our store for thought-provoking anthologies or see free discussion resources.

Senior Professional Learning Consultant and Editor. Nancy Carr has over 20 years of experience as both a professional development coach and a curriculum developer, working in schools throughout the country and with a wide range of student populations. Her work focuses on the intersection of curriculum materials and classroom practice, and she has helped develop many of the Foundation’s current K–12 materials. Nancy holds a PhD in English from the University of Virginia.