Facilitating Effective Online Discussions

Here we provide recommendations on how to facilitate effective online discussions, drawing from various articles and sources (included at the end for you to view as further reading). As with any assignment, you should start by thinking about what you want students to learn about and then what kind of assignment can help them learn it. In other words, don’t start with the genre of a discussion board; remind yourself of your learning outcomes and design an activity that works toward them. 

First, some important questions to keep in mind as you start thinking about discussions:

  • Why are you assigning online discussion? What are your learning goals? Is it high stakes or low stakes? Formal or informal? Is this meant to promote meaningful communication and dialogue amongst students, or is it a place for students to demonstrate knowledge?
  • Should it be synchronous or asynchronous, given the answers to the above questions? Remember that asynchronous assignments have more flexibility built into them.
  • Does it have to be done as a full class or might it be better in small groups? Who has to look at it / interact with it?

Next, here are some recommendations for creating effective discussion activities for both undergraduate and graduate students. 

  1. Have Clear Expectations. Explain to the students in the assignment prompt how many discussions/posts they are expected to make (how many per week?) as well as how long you expect them to be (one paragraph? no more than three?) and how they will be graded (completion? engagement with text? replying to peers?). Also clarify your own role: will you be participating? To what extent? 

sample: Educause discussion guidelines doc 

  1. Space Out Posts and Replies. It can be helpful to specify when you’d like students to post their own discussion and then contribute to their classmates’ (if you require this): for example, post by noon on Monday so everyone can read and respond before class starts on Wednesday (or whatever works for your class). Specifying and sticking to a schedule is helpful for students. 
  2. Allow Time for Students to Adjust. Start your first discussion assignment as low-stakes to allow students to try out technology and learn more about the process. Remember that they may participate in discussion in their other classes, too, and need some time to adjust to the way that you are running them. Their prior experiences are important and effect what they bring into your course. Feedback on the first few discussions are thus important, as you can help coach and steer students toward the kind of discussion you are looking for. 
  3. Be Open to Different Platforms. As we asked above: does the discussion have to take place as a discussion board on Canvas? Can students start their own blog for the semester (sharing it with you and the class) and make weekly posts about the readings/content? Can they Tweet out thoughts and mark it with a class hashtag, like #ENG111AC? If your goal is to get students writing about the readings and interacting with each other’s ideas, you can do so in numerous ways—and can even ask them what they would prefer and what would be meaningful for them. 
  4. Offer Flexible Response Options. In the posts themselves (regardless of platform), do students have to respond with only written prose? Could they record themselves talking and upload a video/audio recording, design and share a concept map, upload YouTube videos relevant to course content, try to draw out and illustrate their ideas? Consider adding in your prompt/directions the different types of responses students can submit, as well as any restrictions (i.e., only x amount of non-written prose). 
  5. Consider Providing Discussion Options. You could also host a few different options for students’ discussions, such as posting on their blog (or another asynchronous medium) or offering “live” discussions where students can join a WebEx and discuss their ideas. They could choose which way to complete the discussion assignment. 
  6. Create Open-ended Questions You Care About. Asking open-ended questions to which you do not have an answer yourself can be a good way to spur insightful discussion, as students value the opportunity to think and be challenged. Studies show that students are most disillusioned with writing assignments when they feel too easy or like “busywork,” so keeping discussion questions thought-provoking and meaningful can help carry their motivation to participate. 
  7. Utilize Discussion Leaders. Consider assigning one or two students to lead discussion each week, be it reading through everyone’s responses and posing further questions, responding to some common threads across posts, etc. With this option, keep in mind point one, though: be clear about what you expect. Students can sometimes plan more discussion activities or questions than time allotted, so be clear that you expect them to lead conversation for only 15 minutes, or that you only would like them to ask 2 questions to the whole class. And then hold them to that. 
  8. Don’t Overdo it. While engaging, discussions can be a lot of work for both the students and yourself. Consider leaving the last couple weeks of the semester discussion-free, so that students can focus on final projects or leave feedback for one another instead. Less can be more, if you balance the amount of discussions with what you ultimately want students to achieve.

Resources/Further Reading