Making Virtual Class Discussions Engaging Using the TQE Method, Breakout Rooms, and Self-Assessment

Example of one group’s work in our virtual TQE discussion.

A couple of years ago, I came across blogger/educator, Marisa Thompson’s idea for class discussions: “TQE,” which stands for “Thoughts, questions, epiphanies.” TQE is an amazing way to put class discussions in the hands of our students: in groups they share their own thoughts and questions and choose the ones that will lead their conversation. In doing so, they become much more engaged. After the first TQE I hosted in my language arts class, when the students reflected, they all agreed: “This is the best discussion we’ve ever had. There were no awkward silences.” When I asked them why, one student said, “I guess because the questions were ours and we really cared.” 

I continued to use TQE, in the classroom, but I didn’t see how I could use it when we went virtual.

When I began teaching remotely last March, my 11th grade language arts class was struggling to have meaningful conversations about their reading. Three or four students would take over the discussion, while others shut down completely. Muting students and having them unmute to speak really does not lead to a dynamic discussion. Since talking about our reading is the heart of my class, I needed to find a solution quickly.

Fortunately, I came across this tweet by Meghan Jones :

It was a colour-coded TQE document which allowed the students to have a discussion by attaching comments. I contacted her and she kindly sent me the template she had created (my Twitter PLN rocks!). Students colour-coded their names and then used that colour to write their ideas under columns labeled: thoughts, questions, and epiphanies. Once they were finished, they commented on each other’s posts and replied to each other in a silent discussion.

I loved this idea so I borrowed the template and then decided to take it one step further, giving students an opportunity to speak as well. 

Day 1:

  • I broke the students into groups of four or five in Zoom breakout rooms and gave them a shared document to work on. On the first day, they filled in the TQE columns. We looked at them together and discussed how to strengthen their reflections by focusing on the author’s intent. 

Day 2:

  • Students were instructed to read through the full list of the TQEs and decide which ones would be most interesting for a discussion. Then they could write comments on those posts but they could also discuss them orally. I told them, they didn’t need to write everything down, but should keep track of their responses and any evidence that they used to support their claims.
  • Students moved to their breakout rooms for their discussions.
  • I went from breakout room to breakout room to observe the conversations. In order to document their work, I used my phone to take videos of them. I’d video each group for about four minutes before moving on to the next one. Each group was filmed three times. At the end of the day I shared each groups’ videos with them so that they could look back on their discussion and assess their own contributions.

The discussions were awesome! Being in small groups allowed everyone to have a voice. This was the closest we’dd come to having a discussion that resembled what we had done in class. Watching the kids in action, I was so impressed with the depth of their conversations and how seriously they took their work. But how could I assess them? Some students didn’t seem to speak much when I was in the room, but maybe they did when I wasn’t there. I decided they should be in charge of their own assessment.


Step 1:

  • I handed out a list of criteria for the TQE virtual discussion self-assessment adapted from the Spiderweb self-assessment created by Omaura, the head of our  language arts department.
  • A few students did a great job, but on criteria such as “Your participation has been meaningful and substantive. Give examples of relevant and insightful contributions to the discussion,” many of them simply wrote, “I think I deserve a 5 because I contributed a lot to the discussion.”

Step 2:

  • I told them that since I had not been able to watch the entire discussion, they needed to go through their documentation (both written comments and videos) and find proof to support the comments they made. If they said they had made insightful contributions, they needed to prove it with evidence. If they did so, I would give them the grade they asked for. If not… I would lower it. This was just the push they needed to do a better job.

The second round of self-assessment was so much more reflective and honest. Students learned a lot about themselves, writing things like:

  • “I did not use evidence whatsoever. I need to take better notes when I’m reading so that I can find the quotes I want.”
  • “Many times I got carried away and forgot to build on others’ comments and focused on my opinion instead.”
  • “I try to be respectful to others, but sometimes that means if I disagree, I don’t say anything at all. I need to find respectful ways to express myself even if I don’t agree.”
  • “Sometimes I may not have been able to get my point across smoothly enough for the rest of my classmates to understand.”

Benefits of having students self-assess:

  • Even in a classroom discussion, I can’t be sure to catch everyone’s contributions. Having students present evidence, makes my vision more complete.
  • In looking for evidence to support their claims, students learned a lot about themselves. They discovered ways that they could improve next time.
  • I learned a lot about the students’ metacognitive awareness – a skill they need if they’re to become life-long learners.
  • Because students presented me with evidence, I only had to agree or disagree with their assessment. Not only did I feel that the assessment was fairer, but my grading time was cut down to almost nothing. As usual, the ones doing the work were doing the learning!

When I surveyed the class at the end of the year, this activity came up as everyone’s favourite. It takes a village to raise a child and in this case my village was made up of my PLN at school and on Twitter. Thank you Marisa, Meghan, and Omaura for your support and sharing!


  1. So helpful! Thank you!

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