Virtual conferences appear to be the new reality. Although this format offers a number of advantages such as better accessibility for learners and the possibility to have speakers from all over the world without the need to travel, the main difficulty lies in creating “real” connections and networking opportunities. This is paramount for a conference such as the Harvard Macy Institute Program for Educators in the Health Professions, which offers a number of small group activities where interaction and connection amongst scholars is essential to have fruitful discussions. In this blog we offer our tips for co-facilitating in virtual environments.

We had the chance to co-facilitate a small group together during the 2020 Part 1 virtual Program for Educators in the Health Professions course. Here are a few tips we learned during our experience.

Tip 1: Prepare before the conference

As with any co-facilitation, it is important to connect with each other before the start of the conference. We had a virtual meeting one week before the course to get to know each other and develop a co-facilitation action plan for our work together as small group leaders. For example, we discussed our preferred facilitation strategies, outlined roles, and identified aspects of our teaching on which we would like feedback from each other. It is also important to get to know your scholars in advance by reading their biosketches and project descriptions.

Tip 2: Prepare each session

Prepare well before each session by reading the articles or the scholars’ project descriptions. Come prepared with a few reflective questions in case the discussion requires support. Co-facilitators might also review the conference syllabus, identifying connections between large group didactic content and small group discussions in advance; these can be shared with scholars to deepen their learning.

Tip 3: Get to know your learners in the first session

Start the first session with a very short introduction from each scholar and an ice-breaker question (other interests, passions, hobbies). Introductions should not focus solely on titles to avoid creating hierarchies, but people should get to know a little about the professional and personal background of members of the group to increase the sense of community.

Tip 4: Start each session with a check-in

Although the amount of work that needs to be done in each session can be important, it is essential to do a short check-in to connect with your learners and to make certain that everyone is mentally present to participate in the discussion. Remind learners at the start of each session that there is a safety contract: approach each session with humble inquiry, curiosity, and mutual respect for each other. This has been especially important during the coronavirus pandemic. Human relationships and compassion make a difference in the learning environment.

Tip 5: End the session with takeaways

To solidify the acquisition of concepts, it can be useful to take a few minutes at the end of each session to do a round table on takeaways. This also gives you feedback on how the session went. If everyone has difficulties in coming up with takeaways, this should be addressed and discussed with scholars. Facilitators can also role model reflective practice by sharing their own takeaways. This may enhance psychological safety of the virtual environment and encourage learners to share their takeaways 

Tip 6: Focus the discussion on previous experiences and how to apply knowledge

There are often very interesting theoretical concepts presented in the journal clubs. However, it is important to ask learners how these concepts relate to their professional and personal life and how they will be able to apply them in their work and/or in their scholar project. This can align learning with the Kolb cycle, moving from activating prior knowledge to acquiring new knowledge to applying it in their reality.

Tip 7: Be open to feedback

Although regular feedback is always important, it is particularly essential when adapting to a new virtual environment. At the end of each session, we asked scholars to give us feedback on the experience, acknowledging that this was a new learning environment for everyone. We also always stayed on for a few minutes at the end of the sessions to discuss how the session went as co-facilitators and to discuss strategies to continue improving the experience for scholars. It is important to be vulnerable and open to formative feedback to make sure the scholars have the best experience possible.

Tip 8: Share the leadership

We found that alternating the primary leader each session worked well. This allows scholars to experience different teaching styles and makes easier the separation of responsibilities (one person leads the discussion and the other person focuses on time management and non-verbal cues from learners). Also, letting the newer faculty lead the first session can send a strong message that there is no hierarchy.

Tip 9: Manage time effectively

There are sometimes multiple concepts to cover in one session. It is thus essential to be strict on time management to make sure the different articles are discussed or that scholars all have enough time to present. This allows fairness for everyone and can improve learning by ensuring that there is time for a mental break between sessions.

Tip 10: Be open to discussing different topics

You should be strict on time management, but not necessarily on topics to cover. Although it is good to have a few probing questions in case discussion stalls, avoid asking too many questions or stopping a useful discussion just to cover all the topics on your list, which might be different from the list of the scholars. If the discussion is productive and relevant for scholars, avoid stopping it. These rich discussions between scholars are the foundation of meaningful connections.

Tip 11: Listen more, speak less

This is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do. It is natural to want to contribute to the discussion by providing your perspective on different topics. Although it can definitely enrich the discussion, it is primordial to avoid taking too much space and to derail a useful conversation for scholars. You should also try to avoid filling a silence with your intervention, as silence can help more introvert scholars have a space to intervene. Counting to five in your head before speaking is a good strategy. As Gail Rice always says, “…the person doing the talking is the person doing the learning. 

Tip 12: Take advantage of the virtual environment benefits

One of the best advantages of working virtually is the possibility of sending private messages to your co-facilitator. This help facilitators provide in-the-moment feedback to each other, share important observations, and discuss strategies to enrich the discussion. You can also use the chat to share links to interesting articles, but you should make sure to avoid having more conversations in the chat than verbally among scholars. You can take advantage of the ability to close the microphone and video of a scholar for a true step-back consultation during project groups. Finally, you can use the whiteboard to summarize ideas and concepts.

Although it definitely requires a few adjustments, we have found co-facilitating in a virtual space can be successful and can lead to “meaningful” connections and productive discussions. We hope that our tips will be helpful the next time you co-facilitate a small group of learners.


Did you know that the Harvard Macy Institute Community Blog has had more than 260 posts? Previous blog posts have explored topics including promoting collaboration and teamwork, growth mindset and medical education, and developing leaders through an international collaboration.


Author BIO's

Nicolas Thibodeau-Jarry, MD, MMSc (MedEd) (Educators ’16, Leaders ‘16) is a non-invasive cardiologist at the Montreal Heart Institute (MHI). Nicolas currently holds a position as Clinical Assistant Professor at Université de Montréal and Academic Director of the centre de formation et d’excellence en santé cardiovasculaire of the MHI. Nicolas’ area of professional interest is simulation research that uses the concept of Mastery Learning to teach technical skills. He can be followed on Twitter.


Derek L. Monette, MD, MHPE (Educators ‘19) is an emergency physician and Associate Medical Director for Advanced Practice Providers at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and Assistant in Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Derek’s areas of professional interest include simulation and interprofessional teams. He can be followed on Twitter.


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