Discussion Courses and Sections

Discussion Courses and Sections

Why do we have seminar-style classes and sections?

Relatively small, discussion-based classes, as well as discussion sections of larger classes, have a number of advantages for student learning. As you think about the best way to transition your course online, consider your primary course goals. For example:

  • Is it important that students engage in discussion in real time through speaking and listening? Are there aspects that could be moved to other formats (e.g. writing, recording audio/video)?
  • Is it important that the entire class engage in a single discussion? Could small group discussions also accomplish learning goals?
  • Are there also lecture elements to your course or section? How will you integrate these?
  • If multiple TAs are leading discussion sections in a larger class, how important is it that students in those sections engage in discussion in the same way?
  • How will students know or contribute to community norms for discussions?


Small, interactive, discussion-based class

Orally communicate about course ideas.


Recognize the value of multiple perspectives and interpretations.


Actively analyze and debate complex ideas.

Collaboratively generate questions, ideas, and analyses.

Conduct class discussions on Zoom. In a very small class, a full class interactive discussion is possible on Zoom. For classes with more than ~15 students, consider using Zoom breakout rooms. Written synchronous discussions are possible in Collab/Canvas Chat, Piazza, and Microsoft Teams.

Use Collab/Canvas Discussions, Piazza, or Microsoft Teams for asynchronous written discussions. Use Annotations tool for written interaction with text, image, or film. For asynchronous oral grappling with ideas, students can audio record think-aloud sessions.

Using this practice, how do I...

create equitable and inclusive learning experiences for my students, particularly in difficult and uncertain times?
  • On the first day of class, work with your students to build community norms for engaging in productive discussions. See examples of classroom interaction guidelines from the University of Michigan.
  • For a variety of reasons--among others, variable internet access, different time zones, and home-based responsibilities and distractions--your students may have inequitable access to full participation in synchronous, Zoom-based discussions. Consider offering both synchronous and asynchronous ways of interacting with course material.
  • Wherever possible, build in multiple and flexible ways for students to engage with course material and demonstrate their learning. This helps all students, but it will be particularly important for students for whom this semester is proving especially difficult (e.g.., students who are themselves ill or are caring for ill family members, students who require accessibility accommodations that are difficult to manage in an online environment, students whose homes are unsafe or otherwise not conducive to their learning, etc.).
  • Use anonymous surveys to ask students how they are best able to engage with the course material and make class decisions based on this feedback. Check in with students regularly to make sure the course is continuing to support their learning.
acknowledge students as whole people and design for their social, emotional, and intellectual development?
  • The shift to online formats requires students to engage differently than they would in face-to-face classrooms. Most tasks take longer, and particularly if you are shifting from in-person oral discussion to writing-based interaction, you will need to assign less material. Writing and reading takes more time and effort than speaking and listening.
  • Students are adapting to many changes and stressors right now, and all of these can affect their capacity for academic work. The “same” course work may be much more difficult to complete now.
  • Increase student motivation by providing opportunities for students to connect course material to their interests and lives.
  • Allow students to propose new, and (if necessary) individualized ways of engaging in the course, in order to tap into their intrinsic motivation and work within any constraints posed by their current living situation. 
allow students to make connections and organize their knowledge in meaningful ways, recognizing their prior learning and addressing any inaccuracies?
  • An in-person seminar is often an environment that encourages students to collaboratively make connections and organize information. In an online seminar, these opportunities will likely need to be more carefully structured. Give multiple opportunities in different modalities for students to do this type of work, along with clear instructions.
  • In an in-person seminar, instructors can recognize students’ knowledge and correct any inaccuracies through listening to and participating in discussion. In online environments, these opportunities may need to be more structured. Consider using polling, a discussion board like Piazza, and shorter discussions with smaller groups to do some of this work.
enable students to acquire and practice skills and receive feedback?
  • As much as possible, give students low-stakes opportunities to practice the work you want to see from them, along with frequent, formative feedback. This will be especially true for any new work that the online shift is asking them to do (e.g., contributing to discussion forums, recording think-alouds, etc.). Especially if it is important that they do these things in a particular way, give clear criteria, feedback, and opportunities to practice.


Page Categories