Top Takeaways:

  • Online discussion can offer advantages over in-person discussions.
  • Well-designed questions can support student engagement and participation.
  • Clear expectations will help your students participate effectively in online discussions.

Timeline:

Design a single discussion prompt in about an hour. Plan for a term’s worth of online discussion during course design ahead of the term.

Why use Online Discussion?

Online discussion is often considered 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 terms of flexibility in time and location. Importantly, online discussion benefits also extend to students in face-to-face or hybrid courses as well.

  • Online discussions can be more convenient for you and your students, as you can both enter and leave the conversation at times that are convenient to you.
  • Students have time to reflect on what they want to convey before they post their ideas.
  • There is a durable record of the conversation, 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 online includes:

  • students posting no or few messages;
  • students posting questions or messages that are unrelated to the topic or not appropriate for a full class discussion; and
  • students demonstrating superficial or surface-level critical thinking or understanding.

Ask Good Questions

There are many factors that contribute towards students’ poor participation online. The types of questions posed have a large impact on how students participate online discussion forums. Asking questions that only allow students to post a single or few answers, or fact-based answers 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 worker faces due to the 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 provided. The rest of the students who want to complete the discussion board will have little to add without becoming repetitive. Additionally, fact-based questions like the one above don’t provide students the opportunity to identify their own knowledge gaps, explore multiple perspectives, or negotiate content meaning.

Open-Ended Discussion Questions

Open-ended questions that have a number of ways they can be answered, or questions that have no single correct answer can offer additional discussion opportunities. For example: How do you see that plan as adequate to the problem? What makes 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 which illustrate the point of the article, and explain why these examples were relevant by sharing your own personal opinions.

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

Sample Discussion Forum Prompts Aligned to Bloom’s Taxonomy

MANIC Discussion Questions

In their 2014 article, Facilitating online discussions at a MANIC pace: A new strategy for an old problem, Curry and Cook outline an approach to discussion questions that can be used to promote deeper student interaction, not only with course content, but also with each other. The process of implementing MANIC strategy is straightforward. For each reading (or combination of readings depending on what the instructor chooses), students will answer the following questions:

  • 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?

In their answers, students should quote directly from the text and provide a detailed explanation of their responses. For each week’s assigned readings or videos, students are required to complete the following two tasks:

  1. Their own MANIC responses (and they MUST answer all five questions to get credit), and
  2. 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 gives them the opportunity to interact with each other and course texts. Curry and Cook recommend the following tips for implementing MANIC into online discussion.

  • Don’t: Assume students understand the strategy.
  • Do: Provide an example.
  • Do: Explain expectations.
  • Do: Participate heavily.

Share your Expectations

Another factor contributing to poor online discussion participation is unclear expectations. Expectations create guidelines for learners to engage in your course. Without clear expectations, learners may not see the need to participate the online discussions. They may have difficulty understanding where to submit, how much they are expected to contribute, or what their messages should look like.

There are several sorts of expectations to set to support student participation in online discussions. These include expectations about:

  • How much online discussion participation counts toward the final grade
  • What constitutes appropriate netiquette
  • How you will interact with students in discussions
  • Where posts should be submitted
  • 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

A rubric is a useful tool to help make many of these expectations explicit and transparent. See, for example, the University of Wisconsin-Stout’s discussion rubric. Notice that it informs students what is expected of them regarding student participation in the learning community, netiquette in dialogue with peers, quality of writing and proofreading, and how their understanding of readings and outside references will be evaluated.

In addition to providing a rubric, providing examples can help clarify expectations. For example, some instructors inform students that messages like “agree” or “great” do not quality as a sufficient contribution to the topic. Depending on course learning objectives and teaching strategies, the criteria for quality of discussion posts may include demonstration of an understanding of the topic discussion through critical thinking, higher-order thinking and uniqueness of contribution.

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 this is a method you will employ, ensure you provide different due dates for initial posts to discussion and peer-to-peer interactions. This will help you avoid a situation where learners to post the discussions and interactions on the last day of the discussion, giving learners no time to interact with each other.

Learn More Elsewhere