To Spark Discussion in a Zoom Class, Try a ‘Silent Meeting’

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Photo By Chris Montgomery, Unsplash

By Ben Armstrong

Early this year, after the pandemic had moved my classroom online, a student asked if we could try “silent meetings” in a course I was teaching. At first I assumed that, like many of us, he was just fed up with halting conversations on Zoom. But he was actually proposing an idea popular with tech companies, and it turned out to be a surprisingly effective tool when adapted to the college classroom.

What’s a “silent meeting”?

Companies like Twitter, Amazon, and Square have all used this technique. Instead of having people read a report or other document in advance and then meet to discuss it, you devote part of the meeting itself to participants silently reading the report together, and then talking about it with an agenda and a set of discussion questions. Every participant is invited to comment in the shared document and add their own ideas. According to the “Silent Meeting Manifesto,” based on the experiences of a Twitter employee, the strategy “enables in-meeting creation instead of just information dissemination.”

When I adapted this approach to my classroom this year, I found that it not only stimulated class discussion on Zoom, it prompted even more participation and ideas than our in-person discussions.

Like many college classrooms around the world, our seminar of 20 students at Brown University transitioned to online learning mid-semester last spring, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. And as many educators and students have documented, the transition to remote learning was fraught with a variety of challenges, including unequal access and Zoom burnout.

I felt comparatively lucky to be teaching a seminar on technology and public policy with material that could work remotely. I recorded my lectures and, for the discussion part of class, broke the 20 students into four discussion groups of five each. Maybe, I thought, virtual learning would be an opportunity for more personalized exchanges that matched students’ interests.

But the first several Zoom sessions did not support that theory. Discussions felt awkward as the nonverbal cues and back-and-forth energy that feed in-person discussions disappeared with distance. Conversations faltered quickly, and it seemed more difficult for everyone to stay focused. So I asked the students what they thought would work better.

The idea to try silent meetings came from a computer-science student who had interned at a technology company the previous summer. It sounded promising, so I created a set of discussion questions in a shared document. Each group of five students received its own discussion document. At first, I shared the document with each group shortly before its discussion session, but only some of the class really engaged in the discussion. One student who wrote excellent papers but rarely contributed in discussion asked if he could have more time to read the document and prepare his responses. So I started sending around the discussion questions to each group a day or two before class, and invited students to comment on the document.

That worked much better. Ultimately the “silent” part of each group’s meeting took place in the day or two before the discussion. But I did give each group a few minutes at the beginning of the Zoom session to review the document. I found four benefits of this approach:

  • Students who had been reluctant to speak up during in-person discussions or by Zoom had more time and space to contribute to the shared document. They still had a few minutes of silent reading to review the document at the beginning of class, but it seemed that more advanced notice really helped. The students dove in, writing comments on various parts of each question, reacting to the major themes of that week’s material, as well as to the ideas that their classmates posed. Eventually, the student who had asked to read the questions ahead of time became one of the most active contributors to his group’s shared-discussion document.
  • By the time we started the “loud” part of class — i.e., our oral discussion over Zoom — many of the students had already participated (by posting comments) and came to class with something to say. One group of five students, before their class discussion, filled the shared document with more than 20 responses. The verbal exchanges that followed were more focused, following up on a specific debate that they’d had — or a topic that was raised — in the shared discussion document.
  • The most encouraging outcome for me was that students seemed more likely to engage with one another in discussing the course material, both in the silent-meeting documents and over Zoom. Whereas in-person discussions were often dyadic — I asked a question and a student responded to me — the silent-meeting documents included long threads of two or three students raising their own questions and offering conversational responses like “Agreed!” and “What about X?” One of my role models when it comes to teaching emphasizes how the goal of seminars is to facilitate thoughtful discussions among the students. The silent-meeting format allowed this to happen naturally without me prompting it.
  • The students’ notes in the silent-meeting documents offer a transcript we could return to for guidance and inspiration as we prepared for exams, developed paper ideas, and guided future discussions. Threads in the margins of the main discussion often invited further exploration, as students noted areas of the course material that they found interesting and wanted to explore further. This record from the silent meetings was at once a set of discussion notes for students and a built-in survey for me as I sought to understand what excited students about the course.

I can understand why some educators might be reluctant to use silent meetings. They require students to spend more time buried in their screens and less time eye to eye. They also draw from a corporate culture in Silicon Valley that clashes with the culture at many universities. I left Silicon Valley for graduate school in part because I appreciated how — while tech companies “move fast and break things” — university seminars take their time and examine them.

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.

Ben Armstrong is a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was previously a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University.

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