Small-Group Discussions (online)

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Facilitating small-group discussions in an online learning environment.

Time and Effort

Instructor Prep TimeMedium
Student Activity TimeMedium
Instructor Response TimeLow
Complexity of ActivityMedium


Small-Group Discussions provide students the opportunity to share ideas or opinions without having to address the entire class. Small-group discussions range in levels of structure. A simple small-group discussion asks students to divide into small groups and democratically discuss a prompt provided by the instructor. Groups often nominate a member to report highlights from their discussion to the entire class. Facilitating a highly structured small-group discussion may take more planning but may also provide a richer and more inclusive experience for students. The elements of small-group discussions that can be structured include the following:

  • Group member roles (e.g. note-taker, devil's advocate, expert, spokesperson, etc.),
  • Turn-taking rules for speaking (e.g. passing an object that permits speaking or losing a token each time a member speaks), and 
  • Team or individual discussion question worksheets to submit to the instructor.

Use it when you want...

  • To create an opportunity for students to listen to, generate ideas, practice comments, and generate ideas with peers,
  • To increase students’ willingness and readiness to speak in a larger group,
  • To improve the quality of students’ contributions, or
  • To engage students in a warm-up activity before a whole-class discussion.

What students will need


The following workflow is meant as guidance for how you can facilitate small discussions within a classroom with an online learning environment.


  • Identify an engaging question or problem that has many potential responses. Try responding to the question yourself.
  • Select the desired approach and prepare the technology to facilitate the activity (ex. Create a shared Google Doc for each group or set up your Zoom session for the class or create a CanvasDiscussion for asynchronous discussion - make this a group discussion if small group discussion is desired over whole-class discussion).

Online (Synchronous)

  • Direct students to the Zoom session during scheduled class time.
  • Set up students into small groups. Consider limiting the group size to 2-3 students. The easiest way to do this in Zoom is to use the Random Assign feature. Identify the number of groups you want and it automatically populates students into them. You can also use Custom Assignment to create groups or use the Allow attendees to switch groups option. 
  • Pose the question to the class. Determine the amount of time the discussion should last.
  • Direct students to their breakout group spaces and have students have their discussions. Assign a group member as the Reporter to share the outcomes of the discussion.
  • The instructor should check in to each breakout room to make sure the discussion is progressing and answer any questions.
  • After the allocated time, end the breakout sessions and have students return to the main session room.
  • Ask the Reporter from each group to share a summary of their discussion.
  • Review and synthesize results. Draw conclusions from activity or use results to guide another activity in response.

Online (Asynchronous)

  • Direct students to Discussion tab in Canvas or add the discussion to the current Canvas module or link to the discussion from the current lesson Canvas page. If students have been assigned to small groups for the discussion, they will only be able to see posts from students in their small group. Small groups can be created when the discussion is created by the instructor - select "This is a Group Discussion"). Either allow Canvas to randomize group assignments or allow self-sign up.
  • Consider the overall goal of the discussion by reviewing four categories of online discussions.
  • Use a discussion rubric to evaluate discussion posts and responses. Share rubric with students prior to the discussion.
  • Assign a group member as the Reporter to share the outcomes of the discussion (optional).
  • After the discussion deadline has passed, ask the Reporter from each group to share a summary of their discussion on a shared Google Doc (optional). The link to the shared doc can be added to the current Canvas module or link to the discussion from the current lesson Canvas page.
  • Review and synthesize results. Draw conclusions from the activity or use results to guide another activity in response.


  • Review the outcomes of the activity.

Accessibility and Room Considerations

  • Be aware that some students might not have the bandwidth to participate in synchronous sessions. Make sure students turn off their cameras to reduce bandwidth. Students can also use the dial-in phone connection for audio, instead of their network connection.
  • The technologies recommended here should meet most campus accessibility requirements. However, you should check with the McBurney Disability Resources Center for guidance on any specific accommodations for your students.

Technical Document


Louisiana State University. Active Learning While Physical Distancing. URL:

See Also:

Keywords:discussion, small, online, synchronous, asynchronous, online discussion, synchronous discussion, asynchronous discussion   Doc ID:104409
Owner:Timmo D.Group:Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
Created:2020-07-27 15:51 CSTUpdated:2021-08-20 14:09 CST
Sites:Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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