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Making spider web discussions work in synchronous online classes

Student engagement in online classes seems to be a never-ending quest for teachers. That’s because building a classroom culture is harder to do in an online environment if you’ve never done that before. Consequently, it shows when it comes to classroom discussions.

Read more: How to facilitate meaningful discussions in hybrid or virtual classrooms

Ideally, everyone would be happy to participate and listen to what their peers have to say. They still learn from each other in any learning environment and despite the physical distance between them.

I’m sad to burst this bubble since teachers usually face three major issues regarding online collaboration. First, group projects don’t always reflect everyone’s contribution (each group has at least an overachiever and a slacker).

Second, some students tend to take over conversations while others are quiet, even in online settings.

Third, if there’s an imbalance, conversations turn out to be inequitable. In this case, teachers turn to delivering the information and assigning group projects as homework, so we loop back to the first problem! Plus, students still need to develop their critical thinking and communication skills, regardless of where they are.

Having these issues in mind, let’s focus on the solutions! Today it’s all about discovering one way to make classes more engaging while ensuring that students also have the opportunity to engage in social learning: spider web discussions.

What are spider web discussions?

Spider web discussions were created by English teacher and school leader Alexis Wiggins as a tried and tested method to help students become learning leaders. It is based on the Harkness method, in which students engage in open discussions of ideas, usually seated around an oval table.

However, it also introduces new elements such as mapping student discussions and team grades. Therefore, the teacher is a facilitator who encourages students to collaborate and think critically. Some of the benefits of this method include improved participation, social skills, and greater student autonomy. Alexis Wiggins also shared this helpful S.P.I.D.E.R acronym as a guide for teachers, which you can read more about in her book:

  • Synergetic—it’s team-oriented, balanced, and group graded (the whole class gets a single grade for each discussion).
  • Practiced—it’s ongoing, rehearsed, and debriefed. It’s not a one-time activity but a process, much like writing.
  • Independent—the teacher interferes as little as possible; students run the discussion and self-assess.
  • Developed—the discussion gets deep, builds on itself, goes “somewhere.”
  • Exploration—this is the main goal; more than discussion, it is a discussion-based exploration (of a text, an Essential Question, or a topic)
  • Rubric—this is the cornerstone of the whole process: to have a clear, concise rubric against which students can easily self-assess.

I highly recommend reading it whenever you get the chance!

Can spider web discussions work online?

The short answer is yes. As classes moved online, many teachers continued using this method, although they had to make some adjustments. There are two ways in which this could work. It all depends on your type of class:

  • Synchronous discussions

Synchronous discussions take place in live classes through the web conferencing tool of your choice. You can either have the whole class participate or split them into groups (breakout rooms) if you have a larger class.

  • Asynchronous discussions

Asynchronous discussions are great for self-paced and even blended classes. Plus, teachers have many tools at their disposal to facilitate them, such as discussion assignments that allow all students to participate and see their answers in the same place. However, they can also be a solution for instructor-led classes if, for some reason, you can’t organize live discussions.

Making spider web discussions work in synchronous online classes

We’ll start by discussing synchronous spider web discussions as asynchronous deserves its own blog post.

Start by explaining to students how it works and maybe even do an initial demonstration. While it won’t be the same as a face-to-face setting, it can help look at this video that shows how students prepare for this type of activity.

Here is how you can organize a spider web discussion in your online class:

  1. Choose a timeframe

    Good timing is essential since you don’t want to interrupt the discussion just as it gets interesting. Some adjustments will be needed considering that a regular class usually takes about fifty minutes to an hour and that there has to be some time for debriefing at the end.

    So, the recommended time varies depending on grade levels. High school students can engage in conversations for about half an hour, maybe even more if they are seniors. In contrast, elementary student discussions can take around twenty minutes. The number goes down for younger kids — ten to fifteen minutes.

  2. Give an interesting prompt

    Even the most unengaged students sometimes can’t resist a catchy question that sparks their imagination. For example, questions starting with “What do you think about..”, “What makes X so great?” or “Why is Y so controversial?” are more likely to get exciting answers than “Discuss the topic of the day.”

    You can also introduce the topic in a fun way, through a multimedia presentation or a short video. I just love this one about The Great Gatsby symbolism. In this case, “How do the symbols help foreshadow the novel’s tragedies?” or “What would the novel look like if Fitzgerald never used any symbols?” are great conversation starters.

    However, this works for any subject, not just for English classes. If you ask students to discuss “Why do we need a measuring system?” in Math class, they’ll be just as engaged. To get things going, make sure that students understand the initial prompt and have the question shown on screen at all times.

  3. Create the right environment

    A spider web discussion isn’t like any other classroom discussion. Teachers have to create the proper context — but it’s so worth it in the end. Here are some ground rules that you can use to facilitate great conversations:

    • No teacher interference. The teacher virtually disappears into the background. Your role is to map the conversation and take notes so you can give individualized feedback to students.
    • Muting microphone. In general, I wouldn’t recommend muting microphones. However, background noise is distracting and makes it hard for students to concentrate. They can unmute whenever they want to speak.
    • Raising hands. In face-to-face classroom discussions, students are sitting in a circle. There’s no need to raise hands. However, if things get too chaotic in the online session, they can signal whenever they want to go next. For example, the raise your hand emoji helps students pay attention to these signals, and they get to decide who goes next.
    • Gallery view. Most web conferencing tools have a gallery mode so students can all see each other and see the person speaking at any given moment.
    • Cameras open. All students should open their webcams at all times.

    You can find some other things that work, for example, splitting classes into two different rooms and assigning students to monitor these discussions for you.

    Read more: 7 Activities to improve online class participation rates

  4. Draw discussion maps and take notes

    Again, the teacher doesn’t interfere during the discussion — yes, even when there are awkward silences. That’s because you trust that in time students will learn how to collaborate without you having to “rescue” the conversation each time. You can interfere whenever technical problems arise or if the conversation gets too heated.

    Instead, teachers take notes for feedback regarding the interesting points students make. They observe whenever students bring up different sources, refer to the lesson material, interrupt another student or ask a good question.

    The spider web name comes from the spider map that teachers draw to document the flow of the conversation.

    Spider web example

    Source: NSTA

    To make things easier, teachers use codes under each student’s name that mean different things. For example, I stands for Interruptions, and F stands for each Fact that students bring to the conversation. I suggest making your own codes, as you can see in the example above.

    Here are a few ideas to help you create your spider web:

    • By hand. Use a simple piece of paper or a whiteboard (if you have one) and have your codes ready. As students speak, draw the map and add the code next to the student’s name.
    • Online tools. Apps such as Parlay Ideas and Equity Maps help you draw the conversation and even have some interesting statistics to show at the end. Here is an example of how teachers use Equity Maps in class.
    • Online whiteboards. If you don’t want to use a discussion mapping tool, any online whiteboard app will do. You can easily share it with the class after they’ve finished the discussion.

    No matter which method you choose, remember that you’ll share the spider web map with the class. It’s an essential part of the debriefing process.

  5. Hold a debriefing session each time

    According to Alexis Wiggins, debriefing is the most important part as students have the opportunity to reflect and learn from the discussion. Debriefing should take at least ten minutes and include specific questions that students can answer based on a rubric. For example, students need to have a clear idea of what they can improve next time, what went well, what they liked the most about this conversation, etc.

    Additionally, show them the spider web map as it is a powerful way to visualize the conversation and their own contribution to the flow of ideas. As they’re speaking, they may not even realize they’re frequently interrupting others or, on the contrary, that they’re the reason why shy students feel comfortable engaging in the conversation.

    However, I think that you should be flexible in your approach. If you can’t find the time for a good debriefing session at the end, ask students to do this in a shared document immediately after the discussion. This is a good idea for older students who can already give very detailed answers in writing.

  6. Create a custom rubric

    As I mentioned above, rubrics are used to assess the discussion. You’re essentially creating a self-assessment tool to use during the debrief. Here is an excellent rubric example created by Alexis Wiggins.

    However, since each class is different, you should create your own spider web discussion rubric to elicit simple yes/no answers. For example, “The discussion focuses on the main topic and doesn’t deviate too much from it” is an item that all rubrics should include, in my opinion. If you have other learning goals in mind, such as the ability to reference the original textbook and quote their sources, include that in your discussion rubric.

    Read more: What is the role of rubrics in performance-based education?

  7. Help students see group progress

    Since it’s a group effort, they are encouraged to collaborate and focus on quality, not performance. Students get to pick a grade at the end of each session, meaning that they’re evaluating themselves, so everyone gets the same grade.

    Also, I suggest assigning it as a non-graded activity in your school LMS. For example, it can show up as an offline assignment named “Discussion 1: The Great Gatsby Symbolism” and the final grade that they agree upon will be the same for everyone. Then, you can simply add the team grade that they chose to the class grade book.

  8. Keep records of spider web discussions

    Each discussion is meaningful, even if they’re just at the beginning and haven’t found their “mojo” yet. You can track progress through the group grade that they choose. Additionally, try to keep track of each discussion via screenshots and by saving the discussion maps.

    If you’re using an LMS, these records will be even more important since you can embed them in lessons to show students just how far they’ve come. They can inspire other teachers to try incorporating spider web discussions in classes.

    In the end, you can also expect to see students become more comfortable with this activity and even keep these records themselves, whether they’re drawing the maps, choosing codes, or taking screenshots.


Spider web discussions can be adapted to work in online environments to increase active participation in class, especially in online sessions where teachers need new ideas to encourage students to engage fully.

It has many benefits, including fostering better relationships among students. By openly discussing ideas, they also get to find out more about themselves and others. The classroom culture changes for the better, becoming more inclusive.

Stay tuned for next time when we’ll discuss integrating spider web discussions in asynchronous classes.