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How to get your students to talk online

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How to get your students to talk online

Building rich class discussions is HARD!  And in a virtual environment, getting students to click that “unmute” button can feel nearly impossible!  

If you feel like you’re just talking to yourself in Zoom and spending far too much energy coaxing one-word responses from your students–here’s what to do:


Speaking online can be a new and frightening experience for our students, so it’s important to make the experience positive and low-risk to start.  

Consider starting with fun or silly discussion questions.  Students often have strong opinions about these–and they want to share them!  Allow students to choose how they will share their response: in a private chat, in the public chat, in breakout rooms, or by unmuting and sharing with the class.  

Below are a few great resources for high-interest discussion topics: 

”Rank Them” slides by Esther Brunat

Mood scales compiled by Tara Wood on Pinterest 

100 Would you Rather Questions for Kids


Consider providing sentence stems to all students.  Some won’t need them, but they can help other students confidently share their ideas with the class.  

For small group discussions, specific roles provide each student with a clear task on which to focus, again increasing confidence and competence.  


As students gain experience and confidence sharing online, consider increasing the challenge through either the content or the format.  For example, you could give students a more challenging discussion question (connected to your class content), but continue to provide options for how they want to share responses (by writing in the chat to the teacher, to the whole class, or by speaking).

Or, keep the content low-stakes and instead challenge every student to unmute and share in a breakout room–even if it’s only a few words!

Slightly more challenging but still high-interest resources include Would you Rather Math from John Stevens and this random emoji generator for creative writing prompts


Students’ belief and trust in their teacher have a significant impact on success.  Reach out to your most reluctant students–try to engage them in brief, positive conversations and send them encouraging messages.  This can increase students’ level of trust and confidence in their teacher and make them more likely to engage in less-interesting or difficult tasks.  


No one wants to be told what to do all of the time.  Providing your students with developmentally appropriate choices increases their level of engagement. This might include options for how students contribute to a discussion, the content of the discussion, or with whom they speak.  

You can also provide autonomy through student-generated class expectations.  Ask students to identify the characteristics of a successful online learning environment.  What would an engaged online learner DO? They may come up with responses like, “everyone should contribute through speaking or sharing in the chat.”


As students improve and you increase the level of challenge, continue to offer more (developmentally appropriate) autonomy too.  Eventually, you might have your students writing and leading a discussion completely on their own!


We share over 20 practical strategies to improve student engagement in our Fostering Engagement course for teachers!  Learn more at 

Like these ideas? To learn classroom engagement strategies that make the most immediate impact, we recommend checking out our program, "Fostering Student Engagement."

Learn More >

Amy Jimenez

Author Since: May 8, 2018

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