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Engaging students in discussion and active learning

In this video, Diana Laurillard introduces ways in which teachers have used digital methods for formative assessment.

An effective way of supporting students learning through discussion is to embed it in collaborative learning.

You can give them a practical learning task they must do together, where they have to discuss the topic in order to create a joint product.

The video introduces different kinds of digital tools that students can use to make their own digital products, and then how to embed them in a collaborative learning task. The learning design on computational thinking in Downloads shows how a collection of tools is used to engage students in active study without the teacher.

Engaging all students in discussion activities is challenging. This is the most difficult of the active learning types because all the others involve the student in doing something practical.

There will always be some students (e.g. students who are shy, those with English as a 2nd or 3rd language, teenage boys, etc.) who may be reluctant to join in class discussions. But as many teachers have discovered, in online discussion groups, where they are able to take their time to think and respond in writing, and not ‘perform’, those same students can become amazingly vocal. With careful teacher encouragement, this can be a way to scaffold their progression to do the same thing in class.

In this step we look at the part of the teaching-learning process that helps students work towards being able to learn through discussion. In Step 2.10 TLAs 1, 2, and 4 offered examples of this.

As the Conversational Framework shows, discussion has a two-fold value to the individual: you have to generate ideas and listen to ideas, ask questions and reply to questions, challenge points made and respond to challenges. All these cycles of interaction require students to engage in rapid succession in different ways of thinking about the topic.

Large classes are a special challenge. Any class of more than 15 is too big for the teacher to be able to ensure that every student has a chance to learn how to learn through discussion, both at class and small-group level.

It is probably actually easier to do that online:

Run a series of online classes, to scaffold their increasing confidence in being able to contribute to a discussion:

  • Begin the process by allowing students to be anonymous in their contributions to Chats.

  • Move later to asking for names, and for everyone to post a comment.

  • Encourage those who tend to be silent with a ‘private’ comment to them.

  • Set up asynchronous small group discussion forums for them to discuss in writing a key issue and decide on what to bring to the main group.

  • Monitor the discussions and offer encouragement and advice to groups and individuals.

  • Move on to synchronous breakout rooms for small groups to discuss in person an interesting question, where they can speak without ‘performing’.

  • Drop into the breakout rooms as you would walk round a class.

  • The final stage is to encourage every student to say something in a class discussion.

Run a special session on learning how to use discussion:

  • Use one of the TLAs from Step 2.10, but start it by discussing with them why discussion helps their learning.

  • After the TLA use Mentimeter or Padlet for them to post their answers to the questions, in three columns: What made your discussion useful? What didn’t work so well? Do you have one tip for what makes a good discussion?

  • Then discuss the points made to raise their awareness of what they can learn from discussion.

Run small group sessions, where students working together in small discussion groups is less daunting than the whole class:

  • The Maths Education Group at UCL-IOE offer guidance for self-study group work in a synchronous session, which includes individual activities along with timed group collaborations and breaks.

  • The Moodle version of the guidance to students is in the Download ‘Guidance for self-study and group work’. The learning design embedded in the session, ‘Teaching of Maths (Worksheets)’, is also available in Downloads, and is on the Learning Designer site.

  • As in most cases, the subject content of the pedagogy being described is minimal here – most references to maths are in the digital resources used.

We asked one of our colleagues, Dr David Baker, who is new to online learning, for his reflections on what he learned from teaching online for the first time. He has some useful reflections on its value, and wise advice on ‘setting the ground-rules’ for discussion in his ‘Case study: Engaging and motivating students’, in Downloads.


Adapt or create a design that at each stage motivates the student to go on to the next activity.

You may be able to use this in your final peer reviewed design activity next week.


What is your experience of motivating students and keeping them engaged? Can you transfer your approaches to digital and online methods?

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Blended and Online Learning Design

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