Enhance Remote Discussion with Silent In-Class Reading Time

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If one goal of your class meetings is to promote thoughtful, lively discussion among students, then it can be useful to think about ways to help students prepare for discussion.

This teaching tip considers the potential benefits of providing students with quiet time in class to prepare for discussion. The focus is on applying synchronous remote class meetings, but the approach may be adapted for face-to-face classes as well.

Before-Class Discussion Prep

It is not uncommon for faculty to require students to prepare on their own before discussion takes place in class. The before-class preparation approach enables students to read and prepare at their own pace, but students must be ready to jump right into discussion during class.

Class discussion can stall when students feel anxious or unprepared to participate, leading to what Ben Armstrong (2020) describes as faculty’s tendency to resort to “information dissemination” to fill time. Armstrong proposes an alternative approach to preparing students for discussion: providing “silent” time for in-class reading and review.

In-Class Discussion Prep

Inspired by a corporate meeting strategy known as “silent meetings,” Armstrong adapted the strategy for his own remote class discussions. He asked students to read and respond to prompt questions 1 or 2 days before the discussion. Then, at the beginning of class, he gave students silent time to review the reading and responses before breakout discussion.

Key to Armstrong’s approach was asking students to share their responses with each other in a digital collaborative document. The document serves as a discussion prompt, a participation alternative for those reluctant to speak up, and a meeting record that can be re-visited at a later time.

Armstrong anecdotally notes that, after he began implementing some in-class “silent meeting” time beforehand, he observed better and more inclusive student discussions.

My case for silent meetings is that they can help educators examine the questions we find important while giving students more time to deliberate before they discuss. And they can help students who might otherwise feel excluded from conversations contribute new ideas in tandem with their classmates.

– Armstrong, B. (Nov 20, 2020). To Spark Discussion in a Zoom Class, Try a ‘Silent Meeting.”

While the “silent meeting” approach gives less time in class for actual discussion, it provides structured time for preparation, facilitating what Armstrong describes as greater “in-meeting creation” among students.

What do you think about “silent meetings”?

Below are some questions you may wish to consider as you read Armstrong’s article, To spark discussion in a Zoom class, try a ‘silent meeting’ (Chronicle of Higher Education).

  1. What are the potential benefits of a silent meeting in your remote synchronous class?​
  2. Do you agree with the author’s characterizations of how discussions often go in Zoom? ​
  3. Would it be better to have students read in advance or read during the silent meeting?​
  4. What concerns (diversity, accessibility, anonymity, etc.) do you have, and how might you plan to address them? 

The “silent meeting” approach may need to be adapted, depending on how you responded to the questions above. Click the accordion links (+) below for more information on running silent meetings during remote classes.

Steps for a Silent Meeting with Pre-Set Groups

Here are some general steps for running a silent meeting in class by setting discussion groups in advance, as described in Armstrong’s article.

  1. Create student groups (no less than 3 or more than 8)
  2. Provide the assigned reading(s) for the week
  3. Provide each group with its own collaborative document with prompt questions 1 or 2 days before the class meeting, encouraging group members to write responses before class
  4. Provide students with “silent time” during class to review the reading and prompt responses by other students on their group’s document
  5. Following silent time, encourage groups in breakout meeting rooms to discuss as well as add more comments to the shared document
  6. Debrief the discussions and documents as a large class
  7. Post the shared document(s) in eConestoga following the class meeting

Steps for a Silent Meeting with No Pre-Set Groups

If you choose not to put students in discussion groups in advance, then reading, prompt writing, and group discussion may all take place during the synchronous remote class meeting.

  1. Before class, provide the reading and prompt discussion questions
  2. During class, give everyone “silent” time to review the assigned reading
  3. Share a collaborative document that on which breakout group sections are clearly labeled
  4. Divide the class into breakout groups, and instruct students to write silently prompt responses only in their group’s section of the document for a certain amount of time (you may wish to ask them to add their names to their document section)
  5. When silent writing time ends, asks students to discuss in their breakout groups what is written in their group’s section
  6. Debrief the discussions as a large class
  7. Post the shared document in eConestoga following the class meeting

Tools for Silent Meetings

  • OneDrive overview: Click the link to watch a 2:03 video that describes Microsoft OneDrive and how to create collaborative docs and share links
  • Read-o-meter: Click the link then cut and paste the text of a digital article to estimate its reading time
  • PickerWheel.com: Click the link to access a fun web tool for selecting groups to present after a breakout
  • Zoom breakout groups: Visit the IT site for resources on using breakout rooms for small group discussion

Tips for Running Silent Meetings

  • Run through the steps of the “silent meeting” structure in advance for students
  • Make expectations clear about silent reading and response time
  • Provide reading response prompts that are interesting and provocative
  • If students are reading or viewing a whole article in class, give them sufficient silent time
  • Repeat the silent meeting process multiple times with students to build their familiarity with the process
  • Put students in the same groups if they don’t know each other to build rapport
  • Keep time for students (use a timer)
  • Give positive feedback, and ask students for their feedback on the “silent meeting” approach

Elan Paulson

Elan Paulson, PhD, has been an educator in Ontario's higher education system since 2004. Before joining Conestoga as a Teaching and Learning Consultant, Elan was on the executive team at eCampusOntario. She previously served as Program Director and as an instructor in professional education programs at Western University's Faculty of Education. With a Master's in Educational Technology, Elan specializes in technology-enabled and collaborative learning to support diverse learners. She has also conducted research on faculty participation in communities of practice for professional learning and self-care.

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