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Online Discussions: Tips for Instructors

Student using a laptop

Online discussions are much like face-to-face discussions: they require preparation and active management in order to facilitate student learning. This tip sheet outlines the benefits of online discussions, then provides tips for both planning and facilitating such discussions.

Why use online discussions?

While online discussions can be an important component of online courses, they are also a helpful tool for facilitating peer-to-peer learning in face-to-face courses.

In particular, asynchronous discussion — or online discussion where students can participate at different times — has a number of benefits. 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.

Some students find in-class discussions challenging. Students with social anxiety might find it difficult to voice their opinions in front of a large group, especially if there are strong personalities who dominate the discussion. Students who are not confident in their language skills might need time to form their thoughts. Also, in large classes, it can be difficult to hear when multiple groups are talking at once. Asynchronous discussions 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.

Setting up online discussions for success

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. 

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 structure and describe your expectations

Providing structure for students to follow leads to better learning (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005). Students need clear parameters for discussion posts (i.e., specify length, frequency, timeliness, due dates, and specific guidelines to follow). 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.

Provide opportunity for everyone to be heard 

In large classes, divide students into small groups of 6-8.

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 

In groups where participation is very low, re-assign group members to other groups. 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.

Grading online discussions

Assess the quality of students' posts, not just frequency. If you've asked students to draw on course concepts, then look for evidence of that when grading their posts. Assessing quality means that you need to read every student's post, which may not be feasible in very large classes. In large classes, consider engaging students in self-assessment by asking them to submit a "Participation Portfolio" in which they provide excerpts of their "best" contributions for grading.


References

deNoyelles, A., Zydney, J.M., & Chen, B. (2014). Strategies for creating a community of inquiry through online asynchronous discussions. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(1), 153-165.

Garrison D.R. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. American Journal of Distance Education, 19(3), 133-148.

Zhou, H. 2015. A systematic review of empirical studies on participants’ interactions in internet-mediated discussion boards as a course component in formal high education settings. Online Learning Journal, 19(3). 

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