A student looking at a laptop

Fostering an effective discussion can be challenging in a face-to-face situation and even more so in an online environment. Here are some planning and facilitation strategies to help you to successfully implement online discussions into your own course.

Online discussions can take place in two modes: asynchronous and synchronous.

Asynchronous discussions are where the participants exchange ideas at different times over an extended period ranging from a few days to a few weeks – for example, in a discussion forum in a learning management system such as LEARN.

Synchronous discussions are where the participants exchange ideas at the same time – for example, via chat tools found in apps such as WebEx and Microsoft Teams.

The main advantages of asynchronous online discussions are that students can participate whenever it best suits their schedule and have time to deliberate and develop their thoughts before they post them. Instructors usually find that students feel better prepared for class when they have been able to engage with the course content in advance via an asynchronous online discussion. These discussions also allow instructors to get a preview of how well students are understanding the content.

The main advantage of synchronous online discussion is that it facilitates a faster and perhaps more natural “back and forth” conversation, though probably one in which the contributions are not as fully developed. Synchronous online discussions can also be challenging to moderate, especially if a large number of participants is involved: it becomes difficult to tell who is responding to whom.

This document will primarily focus on asynchronous online discussions.

  • Consider how the discussion activity will fit into your course. If you are thinking about integrating an online discussion component into your course, you need to consider the following:
    • How it might affect course content
    • How it might impact your teaching methods
    • How it fits with your teaching philosophy
    • How it might affect the assessment methods.
  • Manage the size of discussion groups. If you course has 25 students, then you might be able to have all students participate in a single online discussion group. If your course has 200 students, you’ll likely want to create eight separate discussion groups containing 25 students each – or perhaps twenty groups of ten. Your CTE Faculty Liaison can assist in setting up these groups.
  • Plan to assign grades. Assigning grades to online discussions is the biggest predictor of their success. If no grade is assigned, students are less likely to participate. It’s recommended that participation in online discussions counts for 10% to 20% of the course grade; research shows that no additional benefits result when the grade is increased above 20% (deNoyelles, Zydney, & Chen, 2014). It’s important to give students clear assessment criteria about their participation in online discussions. Provide a rubric with categories such as individual thinking (i.e. explaining your ideas), interactive thinking (i.e. responding to others), and group dynamics (e.g. balanced and consistent participation, conflict management, and so on). Consider using self-assessment strategies such as a participation portfolio, where students submit to you their three best posts for grading, along with their commentary on what makes them their best posts.
  • Provide examples. Prior to starting an online discussion group, give students examples of what you consider to be an “A” post, a “B” post, a “C” post, and so on. Explain why each example merits that grade. You can create example posts yourself or you can use actual student posts from a previous course if you get their permission and share them anonymously.
  • Provide structure. Providing structure for students leads to better learning (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005). Signal start and end dates for discussions, and use the online discussion groups consistently throughout the term. Consider using discussion strategies such as starter-wrapper: a student is assigned the role of “starter” and reads ahead to get the discussion started; another student is the “wrapper” and summarizes the discussion. Alternatively, several students can be assigned the roles of starter and wrapper simultaneously.
  • Clarify expectations. Students need clear parameters for discussion posts (i.e., length, frequency, timeliness, due dates). If you want students to have discussed a topic that you’ll be later taking up in class, clearly indicate the deadline by which they must have contributed their posts. You should also clarify expectations around language (e.g. level of formality, use of slang and emoticons, and overall behaviour --  in other words, to communicate in a professional manner.
  • Help students understand team dynamics. Prior to starting an online discussion group, consider facilitating an activity to help students understand the dynamics of their team and what their own role in the group will be. If you have TAs assisting with the online discussion, ensure that they model the kinds of interactions you’re aiming for.
  • Pose good questions. A good discussion starts with a good discussion question. Avoid questions that read like exam questions. Provide students with a debate prompt. Ask students to express an opinion and back up their position by applying course concepts. Start with an easy discussion topic, then make the questions increasingly challenging and cumulative. Focus on higher-order thinking levels like application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. For further ideas, see Stanford University's Designing Effective Discussion Questions.
  • Provide opportunity for everyone to be heard. Encourage reluctant participants and gently rein in dominant participants to make sure everyone has a chance to contribute. Foster a warm environment where students feel they are part of a group. Encourage them to use each other’s first names and allow social chitchat.
  • Use your “instructor presence” to motivate and encourage students. One of the most important elements for instructors who use online discussions is instructor presence. You establish instructor presence by posting the discussion questions, directing the groups in the discussions, providing feedback on how the discussion is going, acknowledging especially insightful posts  in other words, by being “present.” Strategies include:
    • asking thought-provoking questions
    • giving and asking for examples;
    • encouraging students to make connections between posts
    • creating “weaving” posts to link other good ideas together to advance the discussion (“V and X make a good point… What do others think?”)

The instructor’s presence helps to keep students focused on the task at hand and helps refine discussions so that they progress past basic information sharing to knowledge construction and, ideally, application and integration of the knowledge. Students who are able to make connections to previous knowledge and experience see the relevance of the material and experience increased motivation. When instructors explicitly recognize and reward this level of learning, they can also encourage further knowledge growth.

  • Encourage student ownership of the discussion. Just as in a traditional classroom discussion, students need to be reminded to talk to each other directly, not through you as the instructor. Your own participation should be consistent and prompt but modest. Your presence online should not dominate the discussion; rather, it should foster discussion between students. Let students know that your role as facilitator might become less involved as the term progresses as the students develop their own momentum. If students direct their responses to you, redirect those questions and comments to the group. Rather than providing answers, stimulate further debate by offering ideas and suggesting resources. The goal is for students to feel a sense of ownership over the discussion.
  • Provide direct instruction to the students. Direct instruction and feedback to the online discussion groups is sometimes necessary to keep students on track. Doing so can help address misconceptions and ensure that the discussion doesn’t meander into topics that are extraneous to the course. A summarizing final comment can be a helpful way to conclude a discussion. Overall, the instructor’s comments and questions to the groups can be invaluable and can serve as a model for how the discussion should unfold.
  • Technical assistance. If you or your students encounter technical issues with the online discussion groups, contact your CTE Liaison or LEARN Help



teaching tipThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Collaborative Online Learning: Fostering Effective Discussions. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.