Student-Centered Remote Learning

August 12, 2020

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Using Student-Facilitated Discussions to Enhance Remote Learning

Dr. Becca Adams was upset with her experience of remote teaching in the spring semester, when her campus shut down due to the coronavirus. Now with the shutdown continuing into the fall semester, she wanted a better approach, a way to make remote learning more student-centered.

When she thought about the challenges from her spring courses, most of them boiled down to a lack of active student engagement. It was obvious that her presentations via Zoom weren’t holding the students’ attention. The sessions lacked the energy from her normal in-class presentations, where students’ reactions helped her judge their level of engagement. With videoconferencing, it was harder to tell if the students had read the material or were understanding the concepts she was teaching. She recalled a comment from a faculty member who had piloted an online student-centered discussion class:

“I have been teaching online courses for several years, and I have long felt the weight of having to drive discussion and sometimes to ‘chase’ students to get them to participate, but I didn’t feel that way at all this summer. I wouldn’t say that I had less work to do, but my work was different; rather than me feeling responsible for all aspects of the discussion, I could observe my students, evaluate them, and then reflect on their work and their progress.”

Adams decided to change her courses to integrate student-centered discussions (some relevant resources are here). The classes would be still be held via Zoom, but with students taking more of an active role. Her plan was to use one of her two weekly class sessions for student discussions of the class materials. She would divide the class into five discussion teams of six students each. One student from each group would serve as a discussion facilitator for each class period. Students would rotate their turns as facilitators.

As usual, students would be asked to read the course material and come prepared to discuss it. The new twist was that the designated facilitator would be assigned the task of developing a facilitation plan, with discussion prompts and questions to develop their team’s understanding of the topics (you can find a Workbook for student facilitators here). Some questions might be designed to show whether classmates read and understood the material, but most of the prompts would be focused on promoting deeper reflection. She planned to schedule pre-facilitation meetings with the week’s facilitators during her online office hours so students could share their facilitation plans and so she could give them feedback.

The plan for the student-centered discussion sessions was to have the class convene as a whole with Adams as the Zoom host. Then she would send the discussion teams to separate breakout rooms, where each student facilitator would take over as co-host. During the sessions, Adams would join each team as an observer to get a sense of how well the discussions were going. Each team would take notes on a shared Google doc, so she could also monitor the progress of the different teams via their notes. For the final 10-15 minutes of class, Adams would reconvene the class in the main Zoom room for debriefing. She would use this time for the teams to share their insights and for them to debrief about the discussion process. She could also share feedback and pointers about what she noticed as an observer. The debriefing could help make sure that critical points from the material were understood. It would also help Adams target what to highlight in her next session.

In the first several class periods of the semester, Adams planned to demonstrate how a discussion should be facilitated. She also planned to describe what it would take to get a good grade on the discussions (IF’s Guidebook has material on many of these topics, including evaluation of student discussion facilitation and participation). She would provide each facilitator with targeted feedback, to help them improve their skills–and to make sure they understood they had to take this role and the team discussions seriously.

As she looked ahead to the start of the fall semester, Adams felt some jitters. This approach would be new for her–and for her students. She knew there would be stumbles along the way. But the more she thought about the debacle of the spring semester, she felt she was moving in the right direction, especially if she wanted to avoid the sense of disengagement that plagued the spring classes.


“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” – Albert Einstein

This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons. 

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