(Online) Discussion

A good discussion helps students approach a topic from different angles and get to grips with it, which helps them to internalise the course materials. Facilitating the discussion is the key to success. Everyone should have their say and share their opinions, but you also need to keep an eye on the time and be aware of the purpose of the discussion. Consider the objective of the discussion carefully in advance, as well as which thought-provoking statements you want to discuss and whether you need assistance in facilitating the session.

Activity goal
Activate prior knowledge |
Brainstorm |
Exchange knowledge
In class |
Pre class
Offline |
< 10 minutes |
< 30 minutes
Group size
Small |
Medium |

Canvas, Zoom, MS Teams, Mentimeter, Tricider

Step 1

Consider the objective of the discussion. Do people need to vote at the end or is there a competitive element to determine who is the best debater? Also consider how you decide who wins. 

Step 2

Make sure that the statement is concrete so that students can respond easily to it. You can find tips in the Variations, tips & tricks section below.

Step 3

Describe in the assignment that students need to take a position and the minimum number of arguments they need to put forward.

Step 4

Consider how the discussion might go and whether you need an assistant to help facilitate, keep an eye on the time, or complement you. Which topics will be addressed, which sub-topics do you definitely want to cover, which questions can you (or your assistant) ask if participants get side-tracked or the discussion falters?

Step 5

To prevent that the debate ends up in a lot of chatter, produce a structure in advance; for instance:

  • Welcome
  • Short introduction to the topic and its importance, the objective of the discussion and the available time. If you have an online discussion, agree that the students have their cameras switched on. Conclude this section with your statement.
  • Discussion
  • Close the debate with a summary and conclusion and a vote, if necessary. 

Step 6

Close the debate with a summary and conclusion and a vote, if necessary. 

  • Variation 1

    You can get a discussion started and inspire students with a catchy statement or a case with a link to practice. There are hundreds of thought-provoking statements online, so if you can’t call any to mind, search on ‘provocative debate topics’ and you’ll end up here.  Using news reports or news videos is often a good way to enliven a discussion.

    Variation 2

    Students can stand in a virtual queue to give their opinion. Students take a viewpoint and use their mouse to select a position between agree and disagree. You can use the ‘stamp’ function in the Annotation tool in Zoom. You can also let the students select a number from 1 to 10 to give their opinion during the chat. In both functions, you can invite students to defend their viewpoint.

    Variation 3

    You can also have the discussion take place in writing, for instance via a discussion forum on Canvas.


    Discussion design can be done in various ways. Here are some examples:

    • Start a discussion forum in Canvas to have a written discussion within Canvas. This gives the opportunity to have the discussion a-synchronous/hybrid during your teaching session, or you can use a discussion element as a preparation or wrap-up for students. The content of the discussion can be used in the following class or workgroup. Always make clear what you expect from participating students: you want them to respond to each other, is there a deadline for the discussion, etc.
    • In online sessions you can divide the group in breakout rooms for smaller discussions. Give clear instructions about the duration of the discussion, what result do you expect them to bring to the larger group, do you want a short presentation of each group, etc.
    • You can use online tools like Mentimeter or Tricider to structure the discussion. In Tricider students can share a thumb up for a position. This will give a quick insight in what students think and whether they agree or not. These tools can also be used in live sessions to collect input.
  • Please consider the tools and materials mentioned here as suggestions. In many cases it’s possible to use alternative tools. Please turn to the Learning & Innovation team or your faculty (EUR of EMC) first to see which online and offline tools are available and how to apply them.

    Tricider, Mentimeter, the Annotate tool in Zoom, use the discussion functionality in Canvas (instructions available at Advice for Online Education), or use Breakout Rooms in MS Teams.