Online tutorial discussion

Practical Online Tutorial Strategies

To strengthen engagement in online tutorials, it is useful to deliberately design and structure discussions.  Many of the principles of face-to-face discussion directly apply online. Jane Vella, 2008, reminds us of the value of discussions.

The teacher who is ready to follow, is ready to challenge learners not by pouring her knowledge into them but by celebrating their inquiry and sharing with them the resources she used to design the course, is using dialog education

This guide is for straight forward online tutorial discussions (not discussion boards or other tech). Only use elements that are appropriate for your online course/subject. Topics covered in this post:

  1. Designing Online Discussions
  2. Setup for Online Discussions
  3. Online Session Plan
  4. Starting Online Discussions – Icebreaker activity ideas
  5. Wrangling Online tech issues
  6. Running Online Tutorial Discussions Resources
  7. Appendix Questions for Discussion Facilitation

1. Designing Online Discussions

The principles of online discussion & activities remain the same (Vella 2008, p32):

  • Who: Individuals or groups? how many?
  • Why? The situation calling for the learning event
  • When? The start time and duration.
  • Where: The location (eg breakout room, main room
  • What? Content
  • What for? Learning purpose and outcome
  • How? Learning tasks and materials


2. Setup for Online Discussions

In terms of hardware, a headset with microphone is a must – do not use speakers due to audio-feedback. With a Video camera, don’t point directly into light / brightly lit window (ideally camera is just below eye level)

In terms of software, practice timing and tech wrangling. Learning how to efficiently operate the online meeting tools is a must. It shapes the facilitation opportunities.

Discussion Guidelines (PDF)
This resource offers samples of inclusive discussion guidelines. Setting up expectations for discussion with your students at the beginning of the term can be useful in creating an environment conducive to inclusivity, lively discussion, and classroom community building.

3. Online Session Plan

Session readiness pre-check

  1. Close unnecessary applications
  2. Ready your resources: lesson plan agenda, presentations, files, browser tabs
  3. Check your audio and video functions
  4. Share your screen
  5. Check recording is going.

Session Introduction

  • Welcome to X Session and today’s topic Z.
  • Expected outcomes of the session
  • Everyone please mute microphones
  • This session will be recorded.
  • Meeting Etiquette : this is a professional learning space – and professional behaviours are expected.
  • How questions will be managed

Outline Session Agenda

  • Session Ice breaker
  • Session Activities
  • Session Wrap up using Reflection
  • Next session timing and actions for students.

Session Icebreaker

  • A 5 minute fun, no-risk easy activity to kick-start engagement and participation.  See the Starting Online Discussions – Icebreaker activities section for suggestions.
  • Session Activities


Each activity are best described in terms of:

  • Time | Student Tasks | Duration | Resources
  • Description : purpose and process
  • Facilitator notes :
    • Actions required
    • Suggested questions
    • Suggested solutions
    • Suggested extensions
    • Common issues

Session Wrap-up

Close the session with:

  1. What we did & the outcome
  2. How to use the session in study and/or discipline
  3. Ask if there are any further questions or concerns.
  4. Next week statement – topic, assessment and tutorial prep.

Session Follow up

  • Act on any required action points
  • Reflect on online session:
    • how you felt.
    • who talked most and why?
    • what to repeat, not repeat, change;

4. Starting Online Discussions – Icebreaker activity ideas

  1. Create a Meme!  Share an image (eg Grumpy Cat or a topic related image)
  2. Where am I? Share a whiteboard (eg Miro) with image of map of World / Australia / Melbourne.
    • Where do you live?
    • Favourite destination?
  3. WordCloud. Build a word cloud using, 
    • eg: First job
    • unsung hero
    • last famous person you googled
    • What food would you introduce peaceful aliens to?
    • Favourite childhood lolly
  4. Chat Stream: in the chat window, ask people to put
    • Funniest movie quote ever
    • GIF. Ask students to add a gif to chat that reflects a good or funny thing that happened today.
    • Ideal first job upon graduating
  5. Pictionary: Whiteboard of 3 Images placed on screen representative of famous movie, book actor.  They are covered by a solid colour block.  Facilitator removes the cover one by one while people are guessing in the chat.
  6. Scavenger Hunt: Fund something yellow
  7. Unsung hero:  Word cloud poll
  8. Fast Poll: run a results
    • run a fun pop-culture quiz, eg: Bluegrass| Bollywood | Britpop | EDM |  Polka | Silence

5. Wrangling Online tech issues

Tech problems happen to everyone.  Keep the energy in the room by avoiding the flusters and apologies:

  1. Laugh & blame Mulligan!  Blame a pesky fictional character “Mulligan is always trying to trip me up in online.”
  2. Have a fallback activity/plan when tech goes properly wrong:
    • We’ll be back on track shortly (give yourself a breather to figure it out)
    • Let’s talk about the assessments.
    • we’ll come back to this later
    • we’ll reschedule
    • I’m just transferring to another device – be right with you.

6. Running Online Tutorial Discussions Resources


  • Research suggests that teacher presence is a critical factor in supporting effective text-based online discussion (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 1999), but there is also evidence to suggest that there is a delicate balance between ‘being there’ and being there too much.  Suggestion: reflect on who’s speaking the most?

General Tips

  • Structure your discussion : introduce that structure and announce each section as you get to them “sign-posting.
  • A basic topic structure (Vella 2008, p63):
    1. Inductive work: anchor topic in existing experience / knowledge –>
    2. Input: introduce new information –>
    3. Implementation: apply new knowledge –>
    4. Integration: learning take away
  • Stay on topic, focused on the learning outcome (Vella 2008, p 107)
  • Praise the student for speaking up – encourage others that it is safe to question and discuss. (Vella 2008, p 58)
  • Ensure you have clearly defined roles when using breakout rooms, ; for example facilitator, scribe, reporter (Vella 2008, p101)
  • Provide support options if discussing sensitive topics.
  • Less is more – Focus on quality not just quantity: keep the week’s CLO in mind.
  • Consider making use of small groups. Whether you are organizing a synchronous discussion (e.g., video conference in Zoom) or an asynchronous one (e.g., threaded discussion posts in Pepper), it’s important to think about group size. In the case of video conferencing, having students working in smaller “breakout groups”


University of Michigan: :

  • Applying Dialogic Techniques
    This resource guide provides an overview of dialogic techniques to integrate with one’s instructional strategies and course content.
  • Useful Questions for Dialogue Facilitation
    These 14 types of questions model the kinds of questions a discussion facilitator might ask students in order to prompt deeper engagement with challenging topics (replicated below).
  • Inventory of Inclusive Teaching Strategies
    This resource guide is an inventory of 54 concrete strategies for building an inclusive class
  • Discussion Guidelines
    This resource offers samples of inclusive discussion guidelines. Setting up expectations for discussion with your students at the beginning of the term can be useful in creating an environment conducive to inclusivity, lively discussion, and classroom community building.
  • Hot Moments
    This resource guide provides strategies for responding to “hot moments”: the sudden eruption of tension and conflict in classroom discussion.
  • Jigsaw Collaborative Discussion Method
    This page introduces the Jigsaw method and describes how to use this method in classroom activities.
  • Setting the Tone for Inclusive Classrooms
    This resource details five general practices for building inclusivity in the classroom.

7. References

  • Vella, Jane, and Joanna Ashworth. On Teaching and Learning: Putting the Principles and Practices of Dialogue Education into Action. Somerset: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2008. Print.

8. Appendix Questions for Discussion Facilitation

Source: Useful Questions for Dialogue Facilitation – Inclusive Teaching. (n.d.). Retrieved 16 June 2021, from

Exploratory Questions – Probe Basic KnowledgeWhat do you think about _____?
How does _____ make you feel?
What bothers/concerns/confuses you the most about _____? 
What are some ways we might respond to _____?
Open-ended Questions – Don’t require a detailed or specific kind of a responseWhat is your understanding of _____? 
What do you want to know about _____?
What is the first thing you think about in relation to _____?
What are some questions you have about _____?
State one image/scene/event/moment from your experience that relates to _____?
Challenge Questions – Examine assumptions, conclusions, and interpretationsWhat can we infer/conclude from _____?
Does _____ remind you of anything?
What principle do you see operating here _____?
What does this help you explain?
How does this relate to other experiences or things you already know?
Relational Questions – Ask for comparisons of themes, ideas, or issuesDo you see a pattern here?
How do you account for _____?
What was significant about _____?
What connections do you see _____?
What does _____ suggest to you?
Is there a connection between what you have just said and what _____ was saying earlier?
Cause and Effect Questions – Ask for causal relationships between ideas, actions, or eventsHow do you think _____ relates or causes _____?
What are some consequences of _____?
Where does _____ lead?
What are some pros and cons of _____?
What is likely to be the effect of _____?
Extension Questions – Expand the discussionWhat do the rest of you think?
How do others feel?
What did you find noteworthy about this comment?
How can we move forward?
Can you give me some specific examples of _____?
How would you put that another way?
Hypothetical Questions – Pose a change in the facts of issuesWhat if _____ were from a different _____, how would that change things?
Would it make a difference if we were in a _____ society/culture?
How might this dialogue be different if _____?
What might happen if we were to _____?
How might your life be different if _____?
Diagnostic Questions – Probe motives or causesWhat brings you to say that?
What do you mean?
What led you to that conclusion?
Priority Questions – Seek to identify the most important issueFrom all that we have talked about, what is the most important concept you see?
Considering the different ideas in the room, what do you see as the most critical issue?
What do you find yourself resonating with the most?
If you had to pick just one topic to continue talking about, what would it be?
Process Questions – Elicits satisfaction/ buy-in/interest levelsIs this where we should be going?
How are people feeling about the direction of this dialogue?
What perspectives are missing from this dialogue?
Everyone has been _____ for a while, why?
How would you summarize this dialogue so far?
How might splitting into groups/pairs affect our discussion?
Analytical Questions – Seek to apply concepts or principles to new or different situationsWhat are the main arguments for _____? 
What are the assumptions underlying _____? 
What questions arise for you as you think about _____? 
What implications does _____have?  
Does this idea challenge or support what we have been talking about? 
How does this idea/contribution add to what has already been said?
Summary Questions – Elicit syntheses, what themes or lessons have emerged?Where are we? If you had to pick two themes from this dialogue, what would they be?
What did you learn?
 What benefits did we gain today?
What remains unresolved?
How can we better process this? 
Based on our dialogue, what will you be thinking about after you leave? 
Let me see if I understand what we have talked about so far… What have I missed? 
Ok, this is what I have heard so far… Does anyone have anything to correct or add?
Action Questions – Call for a conclusion or actionHow can we use that information?
What does this new information say about our own actions/lives?
 How can you adapt this information to make it applicable to you?
How will you do things differently as a result of this meeting?
What are our next steps?
What kind of support do we need as we move forward?
How does this dialogue fit into our bigger plans?
Evaluative Questions – Gauge emotions, anxiety levels, what is going well or notIs there anything else you would like to talk about?
How are you feeling about this now?
What was a high point for you? A low point? 
Where were you engaged/ Disengaged?
What excited you?
Disappointed you?
CitationsAdapted for use by The Program on Intergroup Relations, University of Michigan; 2010

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