Online discussions are a key element to student engagement in online 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.
Discussions should be meaningful/appropriate and encourage more than yes/no type responses. Using case studies or real world scenarios helps students apply course concepts beyond the classroom. Use topics/prompts that truly generate discussion. Watch the video below for ideas and suggestions.
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.
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.
- Record meeting for those unable to attend.
Define participation for synchronous 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 and/or collaboration (academic integrity).
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.
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 assignments (Dutill, 2020), 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.