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Category: Participation and Discussion

Students laughing while engaged in small group discussion—illustrating active learning
Students engaged in small group discussion in a lecture hall

One of the hallmarks of online learning is that students can engage in deeper discussion than they can in most face-to-face courses due to the additional think-time for crafting posts and responding to others. But many online instructors report disappointment in class discussions because students post perfunctory and repetitive responses meant more to satisfy the course requirements than to move the discussion forward. While there are various reasons for poor online discussions, here I look at how the rules instructors give to students often undermine discussion and possible alternative to those rules.

Traditional discussion rules

Most faculty structure online discussions using the familiar rules—namely, one original posting of no fewer than X words and two or more replies of at least Y words each. These rules were formulated in the early days of online education and given to faculty members as a way to prevent students from making superficial posts. But as faculty still report disappointing results, it is time to question their efficacy.

The problem is that these rules are often adopted from traditional individual essay assignment rules, but discussion does not serve the same purpose as individual assignments. The purpose of individual assignments is to measure each student’s understanding of a topic, while the purpose of discussion is to get students to apply their own thinking to a topic. These different purposes require different structures.

For instance, must every student make a posting to the original prompt? If every student is required to make a response to the original prompt independent of other responses, then there is likely to be a lot of repetition in responses. Ask 20 people the same question, and you are going to get a lot of similar answers. Some learning management systems, such as Canvas, even have a setting that allows instructors to prevent students from seeing any other postings until they make their own posting. But what then is going to prevent students from repeating one another, as they would on individual essay assignments? Plus, in what sense is it a discussion when people are not able to see what others say before commenting? Requiring original postings without any context of other postings is no different from requiring individual essay assignments from each student, which is not a discussion.

Moreover, must every student contribute to every discussion, even if they don’t have anything new to add? Surely someone can learn just by listening to what others have to say. Requiring someone to post comments when they really don’t have anything novel to contribute only encourages repetition of points in different words.

Grading rules can also undermine discussion, especially when adopted from assignment rules. We require students to cite a certain number of sources on research papers and so faculty assume that the same should be required of discussion postings, but again, discussion postings have a different purpose from research papers. I don’t require you to give me two citations to back up your viewpoint when we discuss a topic in a café. Is it really a discussion when people are only reporting what others have to say, not what they themselves think?

Similarly, faculty need to ask themselves how important writing is in a discussion. Faculty can forbid students from using the sort of shorthand abbreviations they have come accustomed to using in text messages on the grounds that they need to practice professional communication, but is it important to knock students for the simple grammar and spelling errors we all make when typing? When we misspeak in a group, we just correct ourselves and move on, with the others listening through our error. If the sharing of ideas is primary in real discussion, with little attention given to grammar issues, to what extent does grammar need to be a part of online discussion grading?

Plus, grading itself can undermine discussion quality. As Daniel Pink (2009) notes, external rewards, such as grades, diminish performance on complex tasks by narrowing thought. If you participate in informal discussion groups with fellow faculty on topics in your field, imagine how your participation would differ if you were being graded on every comment. Instead of lending your thoughts, you would more likely be concerned with not saying something wrong. Similarly, when students are being graded, they give the instructor what they think the instructor wants to hear in order to achieve the desired grade, not necessarily what the students themselves think.

With this in mind, must discussions be graded at all? There is no law that everything a student does for class must be graded. Perhaps participation in discussion can be required for class, with a penalty for nonparticipation, but not graded. Maybe students can be required to participate in at least half of discussions or post a total of X number of messages across a class, without needing to partake in all discussions. Students would be able to choose those discussions where they have original ideas to contribute, rather than being forced to squeeze blood from a stone by coming up with something where they do not have any new ideas.

It is easy to forget that café discussions involve people voluntarily lending their thoughts to a topic of interest to them. They speak because they have something to say, not because they are forced to speak (and speak for at least X number of words). The rules of online discussion are meant as sticks to force students to participate, but the stick approach undermines the very goal of discussion as a free exchange of ideas.

Alternatives to traditional discussion

Online faculty can experiment with tweaking their discussion rules and grading method to see whether it improves outcomes. They might try a count-up method for grading whereby students are free to post in any length or format they like, including video, and get credit for each substantive post they make. Faculty might even drop grades entirely from discussions in a sample class to see how it affects the nature of discussion.

Another possibility is that instead of grading the discussion, students are required to use the results of the discussion in their other work. The instructor may ask students to take a position in an essay assignment and tell them to respond to the opposing positions that arose in the class discussion. This ensures that students are aware of the general positions of the discussion, not just their own contributions, and can meaningfully apply them to their work.

Alexis Wiggins (2020) suggests that faculty should shift from grading individual student contributions to grading the group discussion as a whole. She uses a rubric to evaluate the discussion on criteria such as how many people have participated, whether the participation was balanced or a few people monopolized it, and whether the discussion moves forward. Then everyone in the class receives the same grade.

This shift causes students to start caring about the discussion as a whole rather than their individual contributions. The approach makes sense for instructors who want students to build their discussion management skills. A good leader does not monopolize discussion but acts as a moderator, making sure that everyone is heard, even directly asking people for their viewpoints if they have been quiet. Even if a class does not focus on leadership skills, it would make for an interesting change of pace for one or more discussions and give students a fresh perspective on the goal of discussion. After all, organizational discussions in the post-collegiate world are about getting to a decision, not just talking about a topic, and so refocusing discussion on the group discussion process itself can help students prepare for that.

The main point is that there are many alternatives to the traditional discussion format in online courses and many variations that faculty can experiment with to see if they yield better results.


Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Canongate Books.

Wiggins, A. (2020, April). A better way to assess discussions. Educational Leadership, 77(7), 34–38. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr20/vol77/num07/A-Better-Way-to-Assess-Discussions.aspx