Learning to Have Collaborative Online Discussions, Part 3

Reflecting on the 2020 school shutdowns and the challenges of learning during a pandemic, one of the top problems a recent survey identified was that students miss collaboration and peer-to-peer interaction: “Many students shared that they missed collaborating with their peers and teachers—both for socialization and to help their understanding of the content.” Whether future schooling is delivered in a remote, hybrid, or live environment, having collaborative online discussions is clearly a 21st-century skill set that all our students need to hone.

Releasing Responsibility During Sustained Interactions Deepens Learning

To help students learn to have better collaborative online discussions, it’s useful to start small and sustain interaction with complex texts and content over time. Here are two basic plans for gradually releasing responsibility to students over multiple units or cycles of learning. Layer by layer, use a sequence of such interactive activities, and include time to help students learn how to use any technology, as well as how to work together. Remember to reflect with students afterward on what went well and how to improve, with everyone setting learning goals each time.

Start with simple or familiar routines, especially for younger students or during the earlier stages in the process of preparing for more in-depth discussion. For example, Ryan Tahmaseb, director of library services at a K–8 school in Weston, Massachusetts, translated Think-Pair-Share to Zoom. Tahmaseb divided his students into Zoom breakout rooms, had them record their answers to a class-wide prompt in a shared Google Doc, and then had volunteers share their responses with the whole class.

Rhonda Bondie of the Harvard Graduate School of Education offers other good ways to use tech tools before, during, and after discussions in this ASCD Express article. To support students in sharing their ideas, especially those who are new to this type of learning, part 1 of this series offers suggestions for establishing discussion guidelines, as well as a variety of sentence starters for students.

Moving Collaborative Online Discussions Beyond Sharing and Taking Turns

When we are working together and achieving that “flow state” where ideas bubble up freely and verbal exchanges are truly productive, group discussions become more than just meetings, or Q and A sessions, or a series of random, isolated comments. The sum really can be greater than the parts. Research shows that participants construct a deeper understanding of content and advance their thinking when everyone is asking effective questions that push at the edges of their current “knowns,” thus moving everyone’s learning into new territory.

Is it possible to more predictably achieve this level of engagement and effectiveness in collaborative online discussions? What makes some discussions better than others? How can we increase the potential for such collaboration and deeper learning?

An Inquiry Stance for Teachers Improves Discussion and Student Collaboration

Consider your own role as teacher in any given discussion. Researchers and others who have spelled out criteria for excellence in teaching and learning agree: your overarching goal should be to enable others so that your input gradually goes down as group members’ skills improve. Plan for a gradual release of responsibility so your discussions go from being too teacher-centered (or just free-for-alls) to being academically rigorous, respectful, yet learner-centered conversations. How to make that plan and reach that goal with each specific group is the perennial question of good teaching, of course.

So first, check yourself. Both your questions and your statements matter. The way we frame discussions and the words we habitually use affect what students expect and how they respond. If we say, “Tell me where you saw that in the text,” for example, the implication may be that students are being subtly tested, rather than being asked to explain the roots of their thinking to the whole group. In a recent article in Educational Leadership, teacher and education consultant Mike Anderson calls this “teacher-centric” language and offers a number of helpful suggestions for reducing the impact of this largely unintentional habit of implying that discussions are more for educators than for students.

With the Shared Inquiry Method of Learning, Everyone Is a Learner

What if you’ve thought about it, checked that this is indeed the right content aligned with the right learning objectives, and you are sure your intention is to create a more learner-centered experience? If now is the time to be the “guide on the side” who is helping students learn both complex content and how to have collaborative online discussions, then the Great Books Foundation’s Shared Inquiry approach offers a practical, research-based method of doing so.


Shared Inquiry involves an active and collaborative search for answers to questions of meaning about complex texts or other subjects of inquiry. The leader (whether a teacher or, potentially, a student) is focused on being a learner too—one who listens, models good thinking and communication, and uses curiosity and questions (both prepared and spontaneous) to deepen understanding and encourage collaboration.

Students Asking Each Other Questions Is Key to Truly Collaborative Online Discussions

As discussed above and in part 1 of this series, over time, teachers who are Shared Inquiry leaders model for students how to learn from others. By really listening to students and asking questions that show interest and our own curiosity, we are showing them how to use a tool that will serve them throughout their lives.

Depending on your group’s goals, consider focusing on student-to-student questioning as a next step toward even more engagement and deeper understanding. Explain to students that good learners are not just passively listening to others but are monitoring their own comprehension of what each person is saying. Asking polite questions for clarification or evidence demonstrates interest in someone’s ideas and encourages students to speak to one another, rather than always to or through the leader. See these Shared Inquiry learning supports for question stems to share with your students, then help them practice listening and asking better questions during any group work.

When we also regularly reflect with our group on the whole process, they and we understand that people learn and improve as we practice. As teachers, we can approach our own lesson-planning and questioning skills that way too. That’s one reason this type of learning has such potential for effective, embedded professional learning: we can always gain new strategies and resources.

For more support in creating vibrant communities of learners, visit greatbooks.org to find rich texts, engaging questions and activities, and professional development in the research-based Shared Inquiry method. We love to share ideas and learn from others!

This is part 3 of “Learning to Have Collaborative Online Discussions.” See more resources and ideas in part 1 and part 2.