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Community of Practice for Mid-Size Lecture/Discussion-Based Courses

Recommended General Practices

Create a set of community guidelines that outlines students’, instructors’, and TAs’ responsibilities in terms of attendance, participation in activities and discussion, respect for others, and other values you hold. You may choose to do this collaboratively with students during the first week of class. Hold students and yourself to these standards throughout the semester.

Use Canvas to organize all course-related materials in one place. Students may become confused and/or disengaged if they need to track the course across multiple platforms and tools.  

Limit the number of technology tools you use. Keep students’ cognitive efforts focused on course content rather than learning new tech. When possible, integrate all new  tools within the Canvas course site, so that it remains a one-stop launching pad for the course.

Use the Canvas calendar to help students manage their time and organize their work across multiple classes. Adding test dates, assignment due dates, and special events to the Canvas course calendar can reduce students’ stress levels and help them succeed.

For online courses, keep in frequent touch with students. Face-to-face classes have built-in checkpoints, but students in online classes (even synchronous ones) can easily feel alone in the course or get distracted. Review discussion board posts routinely, respond to student comments, send emails, or use the Canvas Announcements feature to touch base periodically. In addition to the communication options offered by Canvas, every course has a Google group. Find it at HokieSpa > Faculty Access > View Class Section Google Groups.

For asynchronous courses, consider the pacing and structure of assignments. Allowing students to work at their own pace can be good for those with busy schedules, but providing regular due dates can prevent students from falling behind and increase interaction (in discussion board posts, for instance). This is particularly important for younger students and those who have never taken an online course. Due dates can be flexible but still frequent enough to provide structure.

To help students in asynchronous online courses stay organized, consider using the “Requirements” and “Prerequisites” features inside Modules in Canvas; these require students to complete earlier assignments before moving on to later ones.


  • Flower Darby and James M. Lang, Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes (Jossey-Bass, 2019)
  • Wired Ivy podcast, hosted by Community of Practice member Daniel Marcucci and Kieran Healy
  • Course workload estimator

To build a robust course community, consider sharing some version of your personal story. Students feel more engaged with a course if the instructor seems like a real person, with family, pets, experiences, likes and dislikes, etc. A short video introducing yourself can help students feel comfortable and engaged with you and the course. Instructors can also invite students to do the same. But issues of privacy and boundary-drawing can be fraught for all parties, and particularly for underrepresented groups. Be thoughtful about  how much of your personality and circumstances you are willing to share with your students.

Call attention to students’ ownership of their learning early and often. Remind students that learning is a social phenomenon even in online courses, so engaging with the instructor and each other is valuable and necessary.

For large courses, create small groups so students can get to know a few peers. These groups could persist across platforms, meeting in Zoom breakout rooms, answering discussion board posts, sharing a Google doc for note-taking, or completing collaborative projects.

Note: Research has shown that any type of student can suffer from identity threat and stereotype threat in situations where they perceive themselves to be in the minority (e.g., BIPOC students in most classes, female students in male-dominated fields (and vice versa), white students in largely minority African-American studies courses, etc.). Even without direct provocation, students experience their “minority-ness” in the situation as creating additional, burdensome cognitive load. This can affect all students, but the conditions for this are most common for students who belong to racial minorities. Identity and stereotype threat can dramatically affect engagement and performance. A way to combat this when creating sub-groups in class (e.g., discussion groups) is to keep minority students together. This can afford a type of “critical mass” within these sub-groups that can help students to overcome stereotype threat. Claude Steele’s book Whistling Vivaldi describes these threats and strategies to counteract them. The VT Office for Inclusion and Diversity also offers resources to understand and address stereotype threat.  

For class meetings in Zoom, use breakout rooms for small group discussion. Consider how you want to assign students to breakout rooms: groups might be randomly assigned during each new class period (to break up cliques) or persist across class sessions (to foster trust and encourage deeper conversations).  

Structure student activities in breakout rooms. A list of questions to answer, a case study to analyze, or a timed problem to solve can keep small, loosely monitored groups on task. Include instructions for reporting back to the class at the end of the activity. Think through how instructions will be provided to students before going into breakout rooms. Once in breakout rooms, instructions can go out to all groups via the broadcast message, but instructors cannot message individual breakout rooms.  

A shared Google document can be an effective tool for collecting and organizing breakout groups’ reports, or notes for any other types of discussion in synchronous online meetings. This document can contain  prompts or function as a collective note-taking space for students. (Put a link to the Google doc in the Zoom chat so students can easily find it.)

Helpful practices to encourage student learning in discussion board posts:

  • give clear guidance for student responses (e.g., how many posts they should write, how long a post should be, and whether they are required to respond to other students’ posts)
  • encourage thoughtful posts by flagging good responses as models for other students to follow
  • assign students specific tasks, such as crafting a question for other students to answer, responding to 2 classmates’ posts, or summarizing a thread at the end of a unit

The university has provided guidance regarding attendance policies for in-person and hybrid courses. When developing attendance policies for synchronous online courses, consider what those policies are meant to accomplish, particularly during a semester when students may be sick or caring for sick family members. If you take attendance, here are some suggested methods:

  • Access Zoom’s report of participants who logged into a session (>Reports-->Usage)
  • Create a Zoom poll
  • Use poll, survey, or quiz functions in Canvas


Instructors moving standard in-person courses to hybrid or fully online settings may need to make significant adjustments to their assessment strategies, especially in courses where assessments (i.e. quizzes, exams, etc.) are traditionally standardized, in-person, proctored events.   

Some technological strategies can assist with proctored, online assessments; however, these strategies can raise serious challenges and ethical considerations, including advanced planning and extra time for faculty, increased stress for students, technical concerns, accessibility, and serious student privacy and data security concerns. For these reasons, SCHEV, CETL, and TLOS all recommend alternatives to remote proctoring, including lower stakes quizzes, open book exams group projects, and other examples, including ones specific to technical and quantitative fields (e.g., STEM). In addition to avoiding the pitfalls of remote proctoring, these strategies can reduce students’ anxieties, increase their confidence, improve retention, and generally help those who are new to online coursework.

To establish expectations and set a tone in the course, instructors should discuss  academic integrity and cheating with their students early in the semester. Consider as a group: Why is academic integrity important? What does cheating look like? Why do you think some students cheat?

Be explicit about what constitutes cheating in your course rather than assuming students already know.

Think about creative ways to assess learning that are difficult for students to “game.” Examples include:  

  • Asking students to describe the next number of steps in a mathematical proof
  • Asking students to outline scenarios to address a hypothetical problem using tools and strategies they’ve learned in the course
  • Asking students in quantitative courses to define steps to solve a word problem
  • Consider alternate means of submission, such as video or audio recordings

For courses that need to remotely proctor exams, here are tips for using Respondus Lockdown Browser or Respondus Monitor:

  • Visit the Respondus website for useful resources including syllabus statements and detailed instructions
  • Give yourself ample time to learn the software before the test day arrives 
  • Give students a “practice run” with the software so they aren’t learning it during the test
  • Remember that the Respondus software only controls the device on which a student is taking the test and cannot prevent students from looking up answers on a different device such as a phone or tablet
  • Consider what you will do if the Respondus software fails or won’t run on a student’s device

Online testing strategies that don’t involve Respondus Lockdown or Monitor:

  • Make the first question on a quiz or test an assent to the Honor Code
  • Hold the test during regular synchronous class time and require students to keep their cameras on so you can monitor them
  • Offer a time-limited online test that all students must take simultaneously, then set Canvas to 1) randomize questions, 2) lock each question after the student answers it, and 3) hide the completed exam from students. (Encourage students to meet with you individually if they wish to discuss their grades.)


As you prepare your course, view your Canvas site and course materials on various devices (laptop, phone) and in multiple browsers (Firefox, Chrome, Safari) to test how they will work for  your students.

Early in the semester, survey your students about how they will be accessing your course and from where (e.g., dorm, apartment, home), what technology limitations they may have, and if they have any concerns about the course. Solicit frequent feedback about how the course is going and about students’ access to course materials. This will inform you early if you need to make adjustments to improve student access and, ultimately, their learning.

Consider recording synchronous class meetings to post later for the benefit of students who cannot attend (particularly if students in the course are diagnosed with Covid-19).

If you have them, teaching assistants (TAs) can help with tech issues and chat moderation during live class sessions. Alternatively, consider having students in the class rotate through this role.

Be aware of the affordances and limitations of the technology you are using. For instance, Zoom’s private messaging feature can be an excellent resource for students who are uncomfortable asking questions in front of the whole class, since they can message the instructor privately if they need help or clarification. However, students can also message each other privately, which can become a source of distraction or even harassment. Research the technology and platforms you employ and discuss with your students how to use these technologies safely and respectfully.  

Instructors are legally permitted to require students to turn on their webcams during synchronous class sessions. This can help instructors and students feel more a part of a community. It would be good to discuss the issue, in advance, with your students. Those with low bandwidth, old laptops, or phone-based access may have trouble fulfilling this requirement. In any case, make your expectations clear to students from the outset and explain how they can inform you of any issues that will impact their ability to meet those expectations.

Be sensitive to international students’ concerns regarding time zones, bandwidth, and video and audio delays. If you are meeting in Zoom, be sure to distribute the entire Zoom invitation, which includes international phone numbers and links, rather than just the direct link to your classroom.

In synchronous classes, consider creating a plan for each day, with links to activities, etc., so students with limited connectivity can follow along.

Keep recorded lectures short (e.g.,  less than 10 minutes) by “chunking” information into separate videos. This will improve your students’ comprehension and make videos more accessible for those with low bandwidth.


Beyond the concerns and suggestions outlined above, hybrid courses may pose additional challenges and opportunities for course management and student engagement. Consider these ideas:  

  • Integrating in-person AND synchronous learning is problematic and likely to underserve both groups. Look for ways to use the online and in-person parts of the class for different purposes. 
  • Make content delivery resilient to mid-semester disruptions by having much/most of the content online.
  • Consider treating in-class time as discussion or “practice” time to review lessons and/or “bonus” time to build classroom community. 
  • Assign field trips around campus for groups not in class (using peer mentors).
  • Create “Zoom office hours” for synchronous on-line interaction. Group office hours may engender greater engagement than individual meetings.
  • Use regular summary videos to “bring together” online and in-person material. 

Covid-specific concerns

Keep in mind that during this period, quality teaching will take longer than usual. Efforts to embrace this can yield high student engagement, exciting innovations, and mutual wellbeing.


If you have questions about the community of practice or would like more information about participating, please email

Discussion-Based Group

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