Ed Sheeran was not the first to ponder the concept of “Thinking Out Loud”. In 2008, John Hattie released a meta-study about visible learning, and since then, the education community has shifted its focus from teachers as presenters of knowledge to facilitators of learning.

Using collaboration and communication to empower students to obtain ownership of their learning and make sense of content through a productive struggle has shown us a much deeper learning through conceptual development. Knowing the power of facilitation and how effective it is in a classroom cannot be forgotten in virtual learning. Teachers will continue their role as a facilitator of learning; however, we now have a different platform, which requires a modified skill set. Leading effective discussions can be intentional and meaningful but, as a teacher, you need to do the frontloading prior to jumping online.

Establish Rules and Etiquette and a Discussion Agenda

If you have ever been in an online meeting and heard the chaos that is “unmuted” chatter upon entry, you understand the importance of educating your students regarding online etiquette. No different than the first day of school in a classroom, a teacher should establish what the normalized behavior expectations are for their online discussion. So, what should that look like? Depending upon the grade level of your students, you may have to shift.


  1. Be respectful.
  2. Raise your hand and be called on before you unmute yourself to talk.
  3. You should be dressed for school before joining a video chat.
  4. If you must move locations (i.e., go to the restroom), turn your video off first!
  5. If you are participating in class and are able, you should have your video on.
  6. Be in a quiet place where you can participate.
  7. Only bring your animals, toys, or other people to your online classroom if your teacher gives you permission first.

Middle/High School:

  1. Be respectful.
  2. Be aware of your surroundings. Inappropriate at school is still inappropriate for online learning.
  3. Be dressed appropriately for school.
  4. Utilize the “Raise Hands” function of the platform to notify your facilitator you have a question or idea to share with the group.
  5. Participate in the discussion.
  6. Be prepared for class by completing pre-assignments before joining the discussion.

For all students, establishing these rules and sharing them at the beginning of each discussion will set the tone for your online learning. This could be a new concept for students, as well as educators, and they need to know what is expected. Teaching common online “netiquette” is also important.


  1. Be respectful and kind.
  2. Be careful when using sarcasm.
  3. Do not “flame” others.
  4. Report anything suspicious to a trusted adult.
  5. Get permission from your parents before you speak with others online and allow them to approve the people with whom you are engaging.
  6. Do not type in all capitals, use multiple punctuation marks, or overuse emoticons and acronyms.
  7. Be aware of the type of conversation. Academic conversation is different than chatting with friends.
  8. Do not share emails or messages from others unless they give you permission.
  9. Do not use online content from other people without giving them credit.

Discussion Agenda

Students should be made aware of the topics they will discuss, the order in which they will be discussed, and how long the teacher plans to spend on each topic. This will keep the meeting moving forward, engaging students, and it provides security for the online learner because they know what to expect from their teacher.

Be Purposeful Regarding Roles and Group Size

Similar practice that is encouraged in the classroom should be utilized in an online environment, as well. Teachers need to carefully consider the role students will play in the virtual classroom and educate them on the expectations of that role. A student’s role may be more accurately defined based on the type of classroom in which they will engage; synchronous or asynchronous.

Group size is a major contributor to the effectiveness of the online instruction. When considering the task given to students, teachers need to be cognizant of the role each student will play in the task and the time it will take to complete the task. Poorly written tasks will illicit faulty learning and could create misconceptions, student disengagement, and frustration with online learners. Some elements to contemplate when planning an online discussion include: timeframe, age of learners, depth of background knowledge, and learning goals.

Set Aside Time for Research

Intentional planning around the pre-work will determine the depth of conversation during an online discussion. Students should be expected to read, research, watch a video, or interact with the content of the discussion prior to beginning an online discussion. The teacher’s expertise on developmental appropriateness and how students learn should be a primary driver when determining what content will best prepare students to be active learners in the online classroom.

Facilitate Discussion, Don’t Dominate It

Teachers cannot facilitate a discussion when they are doing all the talking. If a teacher is instructing during the entire conversation, the pre-work was not robust or impactful for the students to comprehend the learning. Just like students have roles in online discussions, so do teachers.

  • Encourage student responses
  • Provide feedback
  • Move the discussion forward
  • Prompt deeper learning by asking questions
  • Manage student behavior

Teachers have vital roles in engaging students in online learning platforms. Being aware of the teacher and student roles, intentionally planning for online discussions and how to prepare students for those meetings using best practices, and successfully facilitating a productive conversation will not only provide an opportunity for new learning for students, but it will also give students an advanced skillset that will serve them well throughout their lives.