One of the most common complaints faculty have about online discussions is that they are not like “real” discussions. Some of the most impactful learning happens in online discussion boards, but the online environment can introduce complexities that instructors need to manage to make those discussions effective. Here are some things to consider that can improve your online discussions.

Consider the Purpose

Just like in the classroom, it is important to clearly communicate to your online students the purpose of the discussion. Discussions should lead students to meet a course goal or objective. Carefully consider whether your discussions actually do that. What are your students going to gain from the discussion and is that purpose clear to them? Possible goals for a discussion might include:
  • Deepen comprehension
  • Think critically
  • Analyze logic and debate opposing arguments
  • Explain or interpret concepts
  • Improve writing skills
  • Create community through social learning
Being transparent about your purpose will help focus students in their learning. Knowing your purpose will also guide you in determining the types of questions you ask and how you evaluate that learning.

Consider the Prompts

The discussion prompt can make or break a discussion and many books have been written on how to write effective prompts. Two important tips to remember are to avoid questions that will only elicit a simple “yes or no” or “right or wrong” answer, and to avoid prompts where every student will share basically the same answer. These types of prompts are better as assignments or quiz questions, not discussions. Once one student has answered these types of questions, there is not a lot for others to add or contribute to the conversation, other than to say “good comment” or “I agree.”

Good discussion prompts can foster different types of thinking, depending on your purpose. The best questions are open-ended and encourage meaningful conversations. Don’t be afraid to ask controversial questions. Some of the best discussions happen when students are challenged and required to consider multiple perspectives, converge on opposing ideas, or explore divergent solutions to problems. This chart will help you determine how to write discussion prompts with a specific type of thinking in mind.

Convergent Thinking
Divergent Thinking
Evaluative Thinking
Interpretive Thinking
Usually begin with:

  • Why...
  • How…
  • In what ways...
Usually begin with:

  • Imagine...
  • Suppose...
  • If...then
  • How might...
  • What are some possible...
Usually begin with:

  • Justify…
  • Defend…
  • What do you think about…
  • What is your opinion...
Usually begin with:

  • What is meant by…
  • Explain…
  • Define...

Adapted from: Generating and Facilitating Engaging and Effective Online Discussions
by the University of Oregon Teaching Effectiveness Program 
CC - BY NC SA  (see link at the bottom of this article)

Consider Student Interaction and Grading Criteria

Does “Post once, comment twice” sound familiar? Does a “real” discussion work this way? Your expectations for student interaction and the corresponding grading criteria directly influence the types of responses you get from your students, which also impact the feel and mood of the discussion. “Post once, comment twice” might be ok for a reflective, evaluative, or interpretive type discussion, but if you want to foster “real” discussion you may need to adjust your expectations and grading criteria.

One example of adjusting criteria might be that you to not require an initial post from each student, but instead only require the student to “substantially contribute to moving the discussion in one direction or another.” The goal behind this might be to make the discussion feel more natural (like a classroom) for students. But this approach comes with problems, too. There is some subjectivity to phrase “substantially contribute” that students might not understand. You need to include specific and clear grading criteria that students will be able to follow. This can be a challenge depending on the outcome you want, but worth the effort to get students to participate in a more meaningful way.

Regardless of the type of thinking you want to foster, your expectations should be clearly stated in the instructions, the discussion prompt, and in any associated rubric. Your expectations should also be clearly stated from the beginning of the course. Course expectations should also include an etiquette statement (also known as “netiquette”). Netiquette should ensure that your discussions stay positive and civil. Netiquette rules apply to discussions and all other online communications in the course (email, chat rooms, conferences, etc.).

Consider Your Delivery

To improve online discussions, reflect on your role as a teacher. Research suggests that teachers should be “present” in online discussions, functioning as active moderators who challenge students to think deeply and who guide students to support their ideas with relevant materials. There is a fine balance here because exerting too much control on the conversation can stifle student participation. “The focus should be on the students’ own thinking processes and collaborative learning” (Harasim et al, 1995).

To improve discussions, take time to model appropriate dialogue, encouragement, citing sources, and etiquette. As the discussion concludes, you can summarize it for students (on the discussion board or in an announcement) to remind them of the purpose and goals of the discussion.

Helpful Resources

Here is a sample of the many resources available online related to improving discussions.

eLearning Consultation

If you would like help improving the discussions in your course, please contact eLearning (x5125 option 3) to set up a consultation with an instructional designer.

REV EZ 08/23/21