Online discussions are one of the most commonly used tools in online teaching. They allow for asynchronous discussion to occur over a period of time. Online discussions typically take place using a Learning Management System's discussion forum tool. However, online discussions can take several other forms as well.
Allows time for in-depth
reflection and research
|It can be difficult to get all students to participate at the same level
Helps students develop critical thinking and writing skills as they compose their thoughts before participating in the discussion
|Reading posts from students can be very time-consuming
Facilitates a community of learning
by allowing students to view and
respond to the work of others
|The online environment can make it easier for students to get off topic or be distracted
Allows outside experts to
participate in the course
|It can be more difficult to manage conflict in an online discussion
Provides students with a venue
to communicate, converse, and
debate with one another
|Students may not take the online discussion as seriously as they might in an actual in-class discussion
Design Effective Discussions
Designing effective discussions can be a challenge. Here are a few tips and resources to help you design an effective online discussion:
- Writing Great Questions
One key in designing an effective and robust online discussion is writing effective online discussion questions.
The type of discussion question you create will depend upon the ultimate goal of the discussion and your course learning objectives. Discussions can be created that aim to create a community in your course, framed around different levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, or can even be problem based.
- Make it Relevant
Online discussions should be integrated with other course content so students take them seriously and they are not seen as simply an 'add on' activity.
- Communicate Discussion Expectations
Discussions work best when students know what is expected of them. Consider the following:
- How many original posts and replies you expect your students to make?
- Be specific about what counts as a post/reply. For example, does "me too" and "I agree" count as a reply?
- What are the deadlines for posting?
- How is the discussion graded?
- Stagger Posting Deadlines
Online discussions need structure in order to work as intended. One way to structure a discussion is to stagger the posting deadlines. You can have one deadline for students to post an original response to the discussion prompt and then have another deadline a few days later for their responses. This guarantees the students are engaging with one another, rather than simply posting all at one time.
- Create Discussion Groups
If you have a large class or if you require several posts from students, the discussion becomes overwhelming for your students and for you. One way to mitigate this is to create smaller discussion groups. Discussion groups can be assigned the same question or you can post several questions and have students sign up for a discussion group. Alternately, you can set up discussion groups at the beginning of the quarter and students have one group to work with throughout the quarter.
Manage Online Discussions
- Don't Always Reply
It is unrealistic to reply to each student in every discussion. Instead, read the discussions and pull out the highlights and write a summary of the discussion after the discussion closes.
- Establish Clear Netiquette Guidelines
Netiquette guidelines are simply an acceptable way of communicating and participating in your course and the course discussions. Be sure to monitor the discussions regularly to ensure your guidelines are being adhered to and tat any incivility is handled immediately and privately if needed.
- Check for Equal Participation
Scan the discussion to make sure all students' comments or questions have a response. You may need to encourage students to respond to these orphaned comments.
- Watch for Silent Students
Some students are intimidated by the online environment and struggle to communicate online. Encourage these students to participate privately.
Evaluating the Online Discussion
Use a Rubric
A rubric helps to frame how you are grading your students and helps you be more consistent in your grading. Rubrics can also be used for peer or self-evaluation of discussions. Rubric categories could include elements such as:
- Contributing new ideas or new information to the discussion
- Elaborating on another's idea by giving further explanation or examples
- Connects ideas from the discussion to previous course content, prior knowledge, or to other discussion points
- Asks relevant questions
Discussion Rubric Examples
Online Discussions Participation Rubric - Dr. Kelvin Thompson, Adjunct Instructor in UCF's School of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership in the College of Education
Online Discussion Board Rubric - Dr. Denise Lowe, Instructional Designer at UCF's Center for Distributed Learning
Engaging students in an online discussion can take several forms. The most common is the general discussion question that is grounded in the course content, textbook, or reading. However, there are other ways to also engage students. The following are a few ideas for using online discussion in your course:
- Engage the students in a debate
- Assign students to small discussion groups and have them role-play
- Invite an outside expert to a discussion and have a Q&A with the expert
- Students can collaboratively work on a case or other common problem to come up with a solution
- Have students analyze a text, audio clip, or video
For more ideas and in-depth explanations, take a look at Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation from Edutopia. Faculty Focus also has a nice short article on alternate discussion board prompts.
- Edutopia: Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation
This resource is a guide for faculty that outlines best practices, strategies, and management tips.
- MERLOT: CREST + Model: Writing Effective Online Discussion Questions
Check out this article in MERLOT's (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) Journal for Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT). We recommend focusing on the section entitled S and T: Style and Type of Question and checking out the appendix of the article for sample discussion questions.
- Penn State Learning Design Community Hub: Introduction to Crafting Questions for On-Line Discussions
Looking for different ways to frame a discussion question? This site explores crafting online questions using different levels of Blooms' Taxonomy; Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation.
- Carnegie Melon: Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation
This page focuses on a few factors that can be overlooked when thinking about classroom discussions; the cognitive, social/emotional and physical factors.
- The Teaching Effectiveness Program (TEP) at the University of Oregon has published an excellent introduction to facilitating discussions online. This resource highlights, among other things, important considerations about time management for faculty and students, as well as how to model appropriate and well-formed discussion board posts.