Contributors:Aifang Gordon

Online discussion is a mainstay of online courses, and for good reason. Compared to face-to-face communication, online discussion has many benefits for adult learners, especially in flexibility of time and location. Importantly, its benefits extend to students in face-to-face and hybrid courses. These benefits include:

  • You and your students can enter, leave, and re-enter the conversation as time allows.
  • Students have time to reflect on what they want to convey before they post.
  • The conversation has a durable record, which you and your students can review throughout the course.

However, poor participation in online discussions has been identified as the biggest and most frustrating challenge for faculty who teach online (Hew & Cheung, 2012). Poor participation includes:

  • Posting few or no messages
  • Posting questions or messages unrelated to the topic or not appropriate for a full class discussion
  • Demonstrating superficial or surface-level critical thinking or understanding

Ask Good Questions

The questions posed have a large impact on how students participate. Questions that have only one or a few answers, or that can be answered with little more than memorized facts, will limit student contributions and peer interactions as well as hinder higher level thinking. For example, consider the following discussion prompt:

After reading textbook chapter 5, please describe challenges that social workers face due to social climate, economic changes, and political environment.

Once a few students have responded to the question, it’s likely that all potential answers will have been given. The rest of the students will have little to add without being repetitive. Also, fact-recall questions don’t help students identify their own knowledge gaps, explore multiple perspectives, or negotiate content meaning.

Use Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions — with many possible answers, or no single correct answer — can offer more extensive discussion opportunities.

Examples of Open-Ended Questions to Ask

  • How do you perceive that plan as adequate to the problem?
  • Why do you think so?
  • Where might that plan derail?
  • What other plans are possible?

Questions that invite students to share their own point of view from their personal and/or work life also generate multiple perspectives. For example:

Reflect on an article, present examples that illustrate the point of the article, and explain why these examples were relevant by sharing your own opinions.

By sharing personal experiences and ideas, students can create a community where they can learn from one another, expanding their ideas through the experiences of others (Curry & Cook, 2014). The best questions allow learners to integrate their knowledge and comprehension of concepts and apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate them in real-world scenarios that reflect Bloom’s Taxonomy of critical thinking.

Use MANIC Questions

Curry and Cook outline an approach to discussion questions to promote deeper student interaction — not only with course content, but also with each other. Implementing MANIC strategy is straightforward. For each reading (or combination of readings, depending what the instructor chooses), students answer:

  • What was the Most important thing in the reading?
  • What was something you Agree with in the reading?
  • What was something you do Not agree with in the reading?
  • What was something you found Interesting in the reading?
  • What was something you found Confusing in the reading?

Students should quote directly from the text and give a detailed explanation. For each week’s assigned readings or videos, students are required to complete two tasks:

  • Their own MANIC responses (and they must answer all five questions to get credit)
  • At least five meaningful responses to their classmates (You can change the number of required responses at your discretion.)

Students post their MANIC responses and reply to others as a way to keep a conversation going, which allows them to interact with each other and course texts. Curry and Cook recommend these tips for implementing MANIC:


  • Provide an example.
  • Explain expectations.
  • Participate heavily.

Do Not

  • Assume students understand the strategy.

Share Your Expectations

Another factor contributing to poor participation is unclear expectations. Without clear expectations, learners may not feel the need to participate. They may have difficulty understanding where to submit, how much they are expected to contribute, or what their messages should look like.

Examples of Expectations to Set to Encourage Student Participation

  • How much online discussion participation counts toward the final grade
  • What constitutes appropriate netiquette
  • How you will interact with students in discussions
  • Where to submit posts
  • When initial discussion posts are due
  • Number of interactions within other learners’ posts
  • When interactions in discussion are due
  • Expectations for quality of discussion posts

Finally, to increase interactions among learners, many instructors ask students not only to post comments to the discussion questions but also to respond to one or two other students. If you employ this method, make sure you assign different due dates for initial posts and peer-to-peer interactions. This will help prevent learners posting on the last day of discussion, giving them no time to interact with each other.

Curry, J. & Cook, J. (2014). Facilitating online discussions at a MANIC pace: A new strategy for an old problem. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(3), 1–12.

Hew, K. & Cheung, W. (2012). Student Participation in Online Discussions. Springer.