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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning


One of the most important teaching skills for undergraduate supervisions is the ability to guide students in discussion, or in shared problem solving – and to do so in a way that includes all students in contributing to and learning from supervision. As the collegiate University prepares to hold supervisions virtually, questions on how to foster inclusive interaction online are bound to arise. What in fact does ‘inclusive supervision’ look like in an online platform?


Four tips for facilitating inclusive discussion in a virtual setting

Face-to-face supervisions generally benefit from setting clear goals for discussion, thinking about what type of questions to use and when, and listening and responding to students thoughtfully. In online education, interactions can be slow, stilted or fragmented, as the non-verbal cues of in-person interaction are absent or altered. In this new setting, it is therefore particularly helpful to work on creating structure for discussions and problem solving. Using focused questioning and responding can lead to more equitable levels of contribution and increased levels of student-to-student interaction. Students – and supervisors – are likely to feel more confident. This is also likely to help future supervisions run more smoothly.

If you supervise disabled students, including those with neurodiverse profiles, read the additional guidance on Supervisions with disabled students.


Using different types of questions to deepen learning

Giving students general cues to 'discuss' a topic does not often result in inclusive conversations. Rather focused questions that help students deepen or further probe their understanding tend to elicit more and better participation among all students. Pointed, specific questioning is even more valuable in online supervisions where conversations tend not to flow as naturally as in face-to-face settings.

Listed below are questions Brookfield and Preskill cite as tools for structuring discussions and increasing student-to-student interaction. Even in virtual environments, silence is useful, as people need time to think before speaking.

  • Questions that ask for more evidence
    • What data is that claim based on? 
    • What does the author say that supports your argument? 
  • Questions that ask for clarification
    • Can you put that another way? 
    • Could you give a different illustration of your point?
  • Open questions to provoke the students’ thinking and problem-solving abilities
    • What do you think X means when they say Y?
    • What would be another way to solve this problem?
  • Linking or extension questions
    • How does your comment fit in with student X’s earlier comment?
    • How does your observation relate to what we discussed last week?
  • Hypothetical questions
    • If Shakespeare had intended Iago to be a more sympathetic figure, how might he have changed the narrative of Othello?
  • Cause-and-effect questions
    • How might X affect this debate?
    • How might halving the sample size affect the result?
  • Summary & synthesis questions
    • What are the most important ideas that emerged from this discussion? 
    • What do we need to talk about next time to understand this issue better? 

Source: Brookfield, S D and Preskill, S. 2005. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms (2nd edn). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Being clear about the purpose of your comments

When guiding discussions and responding to students, it can be helpful to note the type of comment you're making: "I have an affirmation" or "I have something to add that elaborates on what you've said". This signposting of meaning can be especially useful in communicating with students in online learning settings as it clarifies your view of the student's contribution.

  • Affirmations – "I really like that", "I wouldn't have thought of that", "That’s insightful", etc.
  • Elaborations – "Your comment makes me think of...", "We might also consider..." "Your approach to this problem makes me think of..." etc.
  • Divergences – "I see your point, but...", "A different perspective on that is...", "A different way to approach that is...", etc.
Setting goals for discussion

Knowing the purpose of a discussion gives focus to interactions. Students have direction, clarity, and an understanding of the motivation for a conversation. To facilitate better discussion for virtual learning, supervisors might consider sending out their aims or plans for the supervision ahead of time to allow students to prepare for, contribute to, or anticipate the learning objectives. This does not mean that supervisory groups cannot deviate from plans, but having a structure to deviate from will facilitate more effective interactions.

Discussions might aim to:

  • Review lecture materials and check for understanding
  • Clarify a question or a concept
  • Closely analyse a passage, reading or a problem
  • Elicit a range of opinions or responses
  • Solve a problem
  • Compare and contrast answers or approaches to a question
Guiding discussions in virtual learning environments

Online interactions rarely flow at a pace that in-person exchanges do. Technology alters the non-verbal cues that typically govern face-to-face conversations. Supervisors therefore may find it helpful to guide exchanges by directing students to speak in a certain order or to respond to each other according to a sequence:

"Student X, please explain how you solved the first problem, then student Y respond on whether you used the same method or a different strategy. Both of you can identify any parts you found particularly challenging."

Launching a discussion in this manner may initially seem overly orchestrated, but this sort of structure will likely produce effective discussions online and eventually lead to more student-directed participation in a virtual environment.

A supervisor's follow up comments might sound like this:

"I'm now going to pose a different question to each of you. I'd like you to take a minute to reflect on your responses, and then I'll call on you in the following order: student A, student B, then student C. If you would like to make a comment on another person's response, indicate by raising your hand."

There's also the possibility to set up collaborative task in the chat box, such as having students edit a problem or a piece of writing together or to reflect on the topic: 

"What remains unresolved or contentious about this topic? Use the chat box the write your thoughts and respond to each other's comments."

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