English by Crystal

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Building community through group discussions

While they can sometimes be stressful for learners, small group discussions can be really useful in the language classroom. Even if it happens to be online.

This post describes a small group discussion activity I used with first-year university students in an introductory reading and writing course way back in 2020. A more formal descriptive paper about this activity was first published in the 2020 Special Section: Teaching during a pandemic in the Literacies and Language Education: Research and Practice journal.

A bit of background

In 2020, I was teaching at a university in Japan, and we moved our courses online due to the COVID pandemic. A major aspect of the university’s language programs was the relationship between language courses and the Self-Access Learning Center (SALC). In the SALC, learners could get guided support to reflect on their learning progress and goals.

During our in-person course meetings, I implemented group discussions to foster feelings of competence in students’ language abilities as well as their ability to reflect on their learning. Another goal of the discussion activity was to support students in building a connection between the language courses and the SALC resources.

During the online version of my course, I asked students to participate in the same small group discussions. The discussions followed a similar format and had a similar purpose to the in-person discussions in previous semesters, but their primary purpose was to foster competence in student language abilities as well as their ability to navigate situations they might encounter while taking courses online instead of in person.

Self-Determination Theory

The discussion activity was originally designed based on Self-Determination Theory (SDT), specifically, a sub-theory called the Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) which states that only when basic needs are satisfied can individuals achieve their highest potential concerning development and well-being (Deci & Ryan, 1987; Ryan & Deci, 2017). Three integral parts of BPNT are: competence, the sense an individual has of being capable of doing something; relatedness, the feeling of being connected to others within a community; and autonomy, acting in a manner that is fully-informed, self-endorsed, and congruent with internal values and interests (Ryan & Brown, 2003).

Online vs. In-Person Discussions

In the in-person course, we found evidence that suggested this type of discussion activity could help students foster peer communities which promoted self-awareness and feelings of competence in speaking and reflective abilities (Yarwood et al., 2019).

Since students would be unable to make connections with their peers in a face-to-face classroom in 2020, creating opportunities for them to do so in synchronous meetings seemed especially important for building an autonomy-supportive classroom environment. We wanted students to feel confident and comfortable enough to share their learning with peers.

While initially designed to bridge the gap between classroom interaction and English use in the SALC at the university, the following discussion-based activity was integrated into the online reading and writing course in the hopes of fostering a supportive and self-aware community of learners among students.

The group discussions were moved online in 2020, but they still created a supportive space for students to connect.

The activity

Before the start of the term, discussion prompts related to situations and issues students may encounter in an online language class environment were developed. Some prompts asked students to consider aspects of their language learning while others asked them to reflect on the challenges and issues that arise with learning online. The prompts included a situation or general question followed by additional questions to encourage discussion and deeper engagement with the topics. The following are two example prompts students were asked to discuss.

Do you fear making mistakes in English? Why or why not?
When other people make mistakes, how do you feel/react?
Who do you fear making mistakes in front of the most? Why?
What can you say to yourself to reduce the fear? (E.g. I’m still learning. It is normal to make mistakes.)

You want to book a 15-minute meeting with an ELI teacher. How can you prepare?
What’s the scariest thing about speaking to a new person? How can you make it less scary?
What topics do you feel comfortable talking about? Why?
What do you want to achieve during the conversation?

At the beginning of the semester, students engaged in an activity to explore useful phrases and language for English interactions in the classroom. They compiled a discussion language resource that they could reference throughout the term as needed. I also provided additional language to supplement student resources. Finally, students participated in a practice discussion to get used to this type of interaction in breakout rooms in Zoom.

Next, students were asked to participate in small group discussions at the beginning or end of each synchronous online class meeting. The small groups remained the same for three to four weeks at a time in order to encourage greater connectedness among students. Students participated in the discussions during 15 class periods over about eight weeks during the semester.

In addition to the discussions, students were asked to reflect on their experiences using a Google Form immediately following the discussions. The purpose of this was to encourage further engagement with the topic and give students a space to express ideas they may not have been able to express during the activity.

Individual reflections allowed students to continue to consider the topics and their interactions during group discussions.


Anecdotal evidence suggests that the time set aside for these discussions allowed students to interact and engage with each other in meaningful ways. Students remarked that the discussions were one of the most useful parts of the course. Through the discussion activity, students could get to know each other, learn about resources available to them, and perhaps validate their understanding of how to deal with various situations that may arise during the semester.

Possible variations of this activity might include: asking students to develop discussion questions related to various prompts to better align with topics covered in your course, asking students to record short reflection videos instead of doing the written reflections in the form, or incorporating extended engagement with the topics through individual research or exploration of facilities such as the Academic Support Center and other available resources at the university.

It might also be worth noting that the group discussion activity was developed pre-pandemic and used during the Spring 2020 semester. More relevant research related to building community in online courses has likely been published since then, and it would be worth exploring more deeply if you’re considering using something like this with your students.


The group discussions described here offer students an opportunity to build relationships with their peers. They also help students reflect on how they and their peers deal with challenges related to learning English online. By creating a space for students to interact in this way, we hoped that students felt supported and in turn took steps to grow in their abilities to reflect and become more autonomous learners.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1987). The support of autonomy and the control of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1024–1037.

Ryan, R., & Brown, K, W. (2003). Why we don’t need self-esteem: On fundamental needs, contingent love and mindfulness. Psychological Inquiry, 14(1), 27–82.

Ryan, E. L., & Deci, R. M. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development and wellness. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Yarwood, A., Rose-Wainstock, C., & Lees, M. (2019). Fostering English-use in a SALC through a discussion-based classroom intervention. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 10(4), 256–378. https://sisaljournal.org/archives/dec19/yarwood_et_al/

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