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How Can I Facilitate Online Discussions?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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When a peer is making a presentation in front of the class, most students would wait until the presentation has ended before standing and leaving the room. Similarly, when you don’t know when members of an asynchronous online discussion are coming and going, participants are left to wonder whether anyone cares enough to read what was posted, especially if it never gets a response.


The posting below gives some good pointers on how to facilitate online discussions.  It is from Chapter 3 – How Do I Facilitate Instruction and Interaction?, in the book Visual Design for Online Learning, by Torria Davis. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Track Your Resistance



Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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How Can I Facilitate Online Discussions?


Providing opportunities for asynchronous and synchronous communication between learners in the course is an important part of creating a sense of presence and building a learning community in an online course. Learning to work with others across time and distance is a new skill for many taking online courses. Although learners may use social media to communicate with family and friends who are not in close proximity, they are not always cognizant of how to do this for academic purposes. Therefore the skill of interacting and collaborating with peers online must be taught and purposefully planned by the instructor.

The concepts of “interaction” and “collaboration” are occasionally used synonymously by instructors and trainers. However, they are distinct and separate pedagogical strategies. Interaction includes opportunities to share and discuss content. Collaboration is the sharing and discussing of content for the purpose of producing a shared product such as a presentation or project (Horton, 2012). Because interaction and collaboration involve sharing and discussing content, consider having students upload pictures of themselves that appear whenever they post a comment. This helps to personalize the online interaction and collaboration experience, particularly when working in small groups. In addition, clearly defining the parameters for interaction and collaboration is foundational for a positive experience, and for valid assessment information that influences instruction. Interaction and collaboration are essential elements in developing and sustaining a learning community.

As instructors, we want to foster dynamic conversations around course content. We want our students to reflect deeply on meaningful questions and contribute responses that encourage their peers to do the same. Sometimes learners have a difficult time providing thoughtful responses and commenting critically to their peers. Responses that begin with, “I think…” and comments to peers that simply say, “I agree” tend to make us feel as though online discussions can never be as robust as face-to-face classroom discussions. The desire to foster dynamic conversations prompted me to take the Online Learning Consortium’s one-week online workshop, “Successful Online Outcomes: Improved Discussions.” I learned that shallow student responses were in part due to the discussion forum not being set up to follow the common courtesies of face-to-face conversations. For example, a classroom discussion in which everyone is talking at once is no more productive than a discussion forum where everyone creates their own thread on the same topic. In both instances, the discussion lacks focus, and the individual participants are not able to display the common courtesy of listening attentively. Another example would be the rude behavior of walking out on a speaker. When a peer is making a presentation in front of the class, most students would wait until the presentation has ended before standing and leaving the room. Similarly, when you don’t know when members of an asynchronous online discussion are coming and going, participants are left to wonder whether anyone cares enough to read what was posted, especially if it never gets a response. The following sections emphasize the system settings that can be applied to create the visual design of a discussion forum that simulates the flow of a face-to-face conversation.

Allow Students to Self-Enroll in a Small Discussion Group

If you’ve ever taken a massive open online course (MOOC), you know that there can be hundreds or even thousands of individuals in the course. It’s impossible to read everyone’s self-introduction, let alone their contributions to discussion forums. By creating small group spaces online, reading discussion comments becomes more manageable. Discussion group size depends on the task at hand. Based on personal experiences as an instructor and online student, a collaborative project discussion of three to five active members is manageable. For brainstorming and generating ideas, groups of ten can be appropriate. Beyond ten active members in a group, it may be difficult for each member to consider what everyone has posted. If a student doesn’t voluntarily sign up for a group, no one else is affected, and the instructor can work with those students separately. What if a group member goes MIA after signing up for a group? That depends on the nature of the group task. For cooperative tasks, if the students divide responsibilities to complete separately, they will hurt the scores of active members. However, collaborative tasks will not negatively impact active group members because the contributions of a group member are dependent on the whole group, not just one member doing her part. The distinction between these assignment types will be discussed later.

Make Groups Available Based on Available Study Time

Most students have a less-than-positive experience with group assignments. Even though the ability to effectively work in teams is among the top three skills wanted by employers, most students approach the group assignment experience with anxiety. In a study of student attitudes toward group work conducted by Gottschall and Garcia-Bayonas (2008), 1,249 undergraduate education, business administration, and mathematics majors were surveyed on perceived benefits and challenges of working in groups. Students surveyed identified two positive and two negative aspects of working in groups. On the one hand, students acknowledge it’s important to learn to work with others and that more ideas can be generated by a group than an individual. On the other hand, students find it difficult to coordinate schedules, and they resent “freeloaders” earning the same high grade as those who participate and complete group tasks.

It’s difficult to have a thoughtful asynchronous discussion when one group member tends to post comments at the beginning of the week and another group member doesn’t even log into the course until the end of the week. One solution is to allow students to choose a group based on time periods. For example, create a couple of Monday through Wednesday groups and Friday through Sunday groups. Set one of the Monday through Wednesday groups for students who plan to access the course during the business day and the other after the business day. Over time, and with student feedback, you’ll figure out the popular times when students access the course and can create groups accordingly. This addresses the difficulty of coordinating schedules identified by students in the Gottschall and Garcia-Bayonas study. By allowing students to self-enroll in groups based on available study time, students are voluntarily subscribing to a group norm for discussion. This commitment to work with others whose study times for interaction are compatible encourages frequent engagement in the discussion forum during the group availability. This norm can be reinforced by the instructor’s late policy if necessary. Another strategy is to allow discussions to take place over two weeks. This allows all students one week to post a response and another week to review the responses and make comments. Lastly, if your LMS permits the instructor to allow students to subscribe to a forum, use the subscription feature to allow students to receive email notifications when members of their group post to the forum. This will facilitate timely responses to group members’ contributions to the discussion.

Teach Students How to Collaborate Online

At the time of this writing, online learning is still a relatively new format. Even for students who are comfortable learning online, collaborating with peers is a learned skill that needs to be taught – if for no other reason than to explain the specific collaboration tools in the context of your course and the assignment. Just as you would create a course tour to orient individual students to the online course environment, the same orientation is needed for the group space, identifying what tools are available in the group space and how they should be used in the context of the group project.

Consider Turning off Permissions to Create New Threads

Threads represent separate discussions. Allowing students to create new threads when you want them to respond to a specific question you’ve asked causes related comments to be missed or buried in an excessive number of disconnected threads. Turning off the creation of new threads using the discussion forum settings in the LMS forces students to enter the thread and simply reply to the original posts and the responses of peers. In this way, the conversation stays in the same thread.

Use a Discussion Rubric or Checklist to Evaluate Participation

Rubrics and checklists are great tools for communicating assignment expectations. Rubrics can be holistic, resulting in a single score based on the whole of a submission, or analytic, resulting in a score for each of several criteria. Rubrics have two benefits for instructors. First, they can be used as a quality assurance check for instructors to confirm that objectives, instruction, and resources are in alignment. The process of writing the descriptive language for each level of performance for a specific criteria helps instructors ensure that students are being assessed on lesson objectives for which instruction and resources were provided. While the writing of language for levels of performance for each criteria is initially time intensive, the student benefits from the clarity of the assignment expectations, and the instructor is focused on the elements that demonstrate achievement. Second, rubrics save time during assignment evaluation. If the rubric language is written well, the need for individual comments on assignments is minimized and students know what they need to do to revise the assignment or to improve on the next assignment. I’ve been asked whether I use rubrics for everything or just for major assignments. For the reasons I stated, I proudly wave the flag that says I use rubrics for absolutely everything, even if it’s five points for a self-introduction or extra credit assignment. Communicating assignment expectations is critically important. Discussion assignments are not created just for something to do. They are integrated into the course learning objectives. Although I use a rubric for everything, those rubrics are not always extensively analytic rubrics. For simple assignments they are more holistic and may be communicated to students through a checklist like the following one posted to the instructional page:

Sample Checklist Communicating Expectations for a Discussion Assignment

Your comments to two peers should include one of the following:

-       Share and/or compare a connection with a peer’s response.

-       Explore a difference of opinion related to a peer’s response.

-       Exchange resources and information related to a peer’s response.

-       Generate a solution to a problem related to a peer’s response.

Your comments to peers should have the following effect on the discussion:

-       Broaden the scope of the discussion.

-       Reference assigned readings or other resources.

-       Communicate respectfully with those who express dissenting views.

-       Promote sustained dialogue with peers.

-       Demonstrate ability to provide feedback to peers.


Gottschall, H., & Garcia-Bayonas, M. (2008). Student attitudes toward group work among undergraduates in business administration, education, and mathematics. Educational Research Quarterly, 1(32), 3-28.

Horton, W. (2012), E-Learning by design. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer, A Wiley Imprint.