A student looking at a laptopFostering an effective discussion can be a challenging activity for an instructor in a face-to-face situation and can be even more challenging in an online setting. Here are some planning and facilitation strategies to help you to successfully implement collaborative online discussions into your own course.

Asynchronous discussion allows students to participate at a time that works for them. Flexibility in timing also means that instructors can use online discussions to facilitate the exchange of ideas among students across sections of a course. Asynchronous discussions also give students time to consider their thoughts before expressing them to others, which is of particular benefit to students who may need time to understand or reflect before responding to a question. Many instructors find that the online exchange of ideas often results in a high quality of discussion.

Preparing to Implement Collaborative Online Discussions

  • Think about how the activity or activities will fit into your course. Whenever you are thinking about whether to introduce a new tool, activity or method into a course, it is essential that you consider both how and why you would use it. You should have a clear goal/objective for introducing the new tool and need to be able to articulate this to your students. This includes thinking about how the new tool will fit within the context of the course, how it will affect content, how it alters or adds to the teaching methods, how it will fit with your teaching philosophy and style, and perhaps most importantly from a student’s perspective, how it will affect the assessment methods. Remember that there should always be a good reason for using any new approach to teaching!
  • Spend as much time in advance as possible thinking through the new activity to balance interactivity and instructor workload. The more time you are able to spend before the course begins planning and creating the activities, the less time you will have to spend making important decisions about the course while it is in session. Online instruction can often mean more work for the instructor, but good course design and planning can help reduce the workload while the course is in session and can help make the quality of interaction between the instructor and the students more rewarding. This is also the time to consider what you could remove from your course. Online discussions should not be viewed as an "add-on"; rather, they should replace something else.
  • Plan how you will prepare for online discussions. Students cannot be expected to “know” how to discuss effectively either online or in­person. Nor can we expect them to “know” how to work effectively in a group setting, particularly in a virtual group. You will need to prepare students for the work they will be doing. This means not only teaching them the mechanics of using the discussion tool, but also how to have a discussion online. You will also need to prepare them for working in groups. Consider doing an activity to help students understand the dynamics of their team and what their own role in the group will be. You can also model online how to have an effective discussion.
  • Plan to assign grades. Assigning grades to online discussions is the biggest predictor of their success. If no grade is assigned, students are not likely to participate in. It is recommended that discussion count for 10%-20% of the course grade; no additional benefits are observed when the grade is increased above 20% (deNoyelles, Zydney, & Chen, 2014). Grading can consider frequency as well as quality. It is important to provide clear assessment criteria. Consider using self-assessment strategies such as a participation portfolio, where students submit their three best posts for grading. 

Facilitating an Effective Online Discussion: Instructor Presence

  • Provide structure. Providing structure for students to follow leads to better learning (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005). Consider using discussion strategies such as “Starter Wrapper” or “Save the last word for me”.  Explicitly specify your expectations for content and quality. Provide an example for students to follow.

  • Clarify expectations. Students need clear parameters for discussion posts (i.e., specify length, frequency, timeliness, due dates, and specific guidelines to follow). You should also clarify expectations around language (e.g. level of formality, use of slang and emoticons, and overall behaviour -- to be courteous and respectful of one another. 

  • Pose a good question. 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. For further ideas, see Stanford University's Designing Effective Discussion Questions.
  • Provide opportunity for everyone to be heard. In large classes, divide students into small groups of 6-8.
  • Use your presence to motivate and encourage students. Perhaps one of the most important aspects for the instructor who uses online discussions is teacher presence. This happens by posting the discussion questions, directing the groups in the discussions, and by providing feedback on how the discussion is going. Strategies include the following: ask questions (these are called “trigger questions”); give and ask for examples; identify students who are good at making connections between posts; create “weaving” posts to link other good ideas together to advance the discussion (“V and X make a good point,… What do others think?”). These regular posts will keep the conversation moving forward. However it is critical to give enough time to let the discussion develop without intervention, but to guide the discussion if it goes off course or is lagging. The instructor’s presence helps to keep students focused on the task at hand and can help to refine discussions so that the conversations 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. Aim for your participation and feedback to be prompt but modest. Your presence online should not dominate the discussion; rather, it should encourage discussion between students. 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.
  • Monitor the discussion. Instructor involvement and feedback are associated with higher level of student participation but it’s best to encourage students to respond to one another, otherwise they will look to you for the definitive response. In groups where participation is very low, contact students to see if they are havintg technical difficulties, or re-assign group members to other groups.
  • Provide direct instruction to the students. Direct instruction and feedback to the groups is sometimes necessary to keep them on track with the discussion. This can also help to diagnose misconceptions, which may impair a group's ability to learn effectively from the discussion. A summarizing final comment can be a helpful way to sum up and end 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.
  • Provide access to resources. The instructor can provide access to a wealth of resources which students can be referred to for further individual or group study. Hyperlinks to online resources can be especially helpful, as they are easy for students who are already online to access.
  • Provide technical assistance. The instructor may be asked to provide direct instruction about technical issues related to accessing the conferencing system, manipulation of the conferencing software, operation of other tools or resources and the technical aspects of dealing with any of the subject related tools and techniques. Have a plan in place to handle these requests. For technical assistance with the discussion feature of LEARN, 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.