Online Discussions

by MU Instructional Designers
June 29, 2023
6-8 min read

Online discussions are a key element to student engagement in online and hybrid courses. But many of these discussions are ineffective because they never move past the superficial answer-this-prompt-then-comment-on-peer approach.

Make discussions meaningful.

Make discussions meaningful.

Leverage Real World Application

Discussions that connect course concepts with the rest of students’ lives are inherently more engaging. One way would be to use case studies and/or scenarios so that students see the concepts in action. You might also consider using current news articles or videos to spark discussion. 

Consider Types of Interaction

To help ensure that discussions are meaningful (more than yes/no type responses), consider designing a type of discussion that is structured for interaction:

    • Students debate an issue.
    • Students critique each other’s work.
    • Students coauthor something (a position paper, presentation slides, report, etc.).
    • Students ask each other questions about the content.
    • Students tell stories (their own or hypothetical) that apply course concepts.
    • Students generate additional illustrations/examples for course concepts.

Scaffold Student Replies

An important element in making online discussions more meaningful is to scaffold student replies. There is a dreaded “I agree” / “Great point!” style of response that doesn’t build any back-and-forth interactions, and although many online instructors specifically ask students to make more meaningful replies than those, they don’t always show students how to do that. One approach would be to provide some discussion stems like the ones below provided by Jessica Cannata in her 2023 Cult of Pedagogy article on authentic group discussions:1

    • I agree:
      • I feel the same way as Henrik because . . .
      • Lea’s statement about X is true. Another example that confirms this is . . .
      • X is very interesting. This also relates to Y because . . .
    • I disagree:
      • I question your statement about X because . . .
      • My thinking differs from Ian’s in that . . .
      • I have a different interpretation. Here’s how I read it . . .
    • I agree & disagree:
      • I concur with Jaden about X, but for different reasons . . .
      • I see where you’re coming from, but I think you’re leaving out an important fact about X . . .
      • I can see that about X, but I don’t agree with Y . . .
      • Now that I have seen Nolan’s view, I’m rethinking my idea that . . .
    • Exploring possibilities:
      • What if . . .
      • Is it possible that . . .
      • I wonder . . .

Another scaffolding approach would be to provide some different types of replies, not just the “I agree” style. Consider the example blurb below:

Your response should extend the conversation by doing at least one of the following:

      • Ask a meaningful question of the original post’s author that prompts a further development or perhaps a reconsideration of their ideas.
      • Introduce a new resource or example that can provide further context, a reinforcing example, or a contrasting consideration.
      • Highlight an interesting connection between two different peer’s posts, discussing what can be discovered from the combination of both perspectives.

Provide a variety of options.

Provide a variety of options.

In support of UDL strategies, it’s important to provide options for students when possible. Here are some ideas for where in the assignment you can provide variety as well as opportunities for student choice.

Use a mix of graded and ungraded discussions.

An ungraded general questions/comments discussion can cut down on repeat emails and give students an opportunity to answer each other’s questions and discuss course concepts. Graded discussions provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of learning objectives.

Invite varied response types.

Students have different strengths and preferences when it comes to expressing their ideas. Providing the option for students to respond via audio, video, or text increases student engagement.

Leverage both synchronous and asynchronous options.

Synchronous discussions provide real-time feedback while developing ideas. Asynchronous discussions allow students to analyze or synthesize before posting.

Include both small and large group discussion opportunities.

Use small group discussions as an opportunity to create community and build a sense of trust. Larger group discussions can reveal the range among learners. In synchronous discussions, this would be a mix of the full Zoom class vs. breakout rooms. In asynchronous environments, you can use group discussions as well as class-wide ones.

Set clear expectations.

Set clear expectations.

Provide detailed directions for how students should be participating in your discussion. Using a sample or model can help students visualize your expectations. If you’re using a technology tool for your discussion (e.g. VoiceThread, Flipgrid), it’s important to provide students with instructions on how to use it and create a low-stakes activity for practice.

Define participation for synchronous discussions.

    • Inform students of your expectations regarding their participation.
    • Encourage students to have video on whenever possible.
    • Set expectations regarding appropriate virtual backgrounds.
    • For sound quality, encourage students to mute mic when not talking.
    • Consider recording the meeting for those unable to attend.

Define participation for asynchronous discussions.

    • Establish netiquette guidelines for productive and positive discussions (these can be co-authored by students in a class activity).
    • Outline expectations for frequency of posts.
    • Describe the level of detail you expect in student posts and replies.
    • Clearly articulate when audio/video posts/replies are permitted.
    • Set expectations regarding outside sources, artificial intelligence tools, and/or collaboration (academic integrity).

Provide options for feedback.

Provide options for feedback.

Like any assignment, formative and summative feedback on student work is important for learning. Feedback in discussions can be live during the discussion and/or private afterward. This feedback can reference student’s understanding of course content and/or student’s ability to express their ideas and respond to others constructively. For more formal graded discussions, a rubric can help provide feedback details to students (add a rubric to a discussion).

Design discussions that scaffold ethical behavior.

Design discussions that scaffold ethical behavior.

One benefit of online discussions is that, by nature, they promote more academic integrity than some more traditional writing assignments2, but there are still strategies for promoting authenticity in student posts. As discussed earlier on this page, this starts with setting your expectations regarding the use of outside sources, citation, etc. For asynchronous discussions in Canvas, you may consider enabling the setting that requires students to make an initial post before being able to see others’ posts. For synchronous discussions in Zoom, this can involve having students participate actively, even if only in polls or the chat. (Check out our annotated bibliography on academic integrity.)

Another component of ethical behavior at play in online discussions is information validation/literacy. Similar to writing assignments, student discussion posts and replies often reference outside sources and research. For that to be a productive discussion rather than an outlet for mis- or dis-information like so many online forums today, it’s important to be intentional about information validation. Assignment parameters should establish expectations for ensuring the credibility of sources before repeating their information. While facilitating discussions, you can prod students to be more critical of what they read/watch and then share online. Reaching out to the Library for support is also a great strategy.

To learn more about the research on online discussions, check out our annotated bibliography.


  1. Jessica Cannata, “Authentic Group Discussions with the Real Talk Strategy,” Cult of Pedagogy (February 5th, 2023).
  2. Judith Dutill, “You Can’t Cheat in a Discussion Board.” Online Learning Toolkit.” (2020).