In an online learning environment, the discussion board is the heart and soul of the course. The posts, queries, responses, and exchanges aren’t just about learning the course content—they also help to humanize the course. The trouble is, of course, that it’s not always easy to get students to participate in the kind of deep learning instructors envision when they design their online courses. Students tend to simply agree with each other to fulfill their required number of posts, and the discussion remains at a superficial level.
In Design and Facilitate Online Discussions That Enhance Student Learning and Engagement
, Meixum Sinky Zheng, PhD, an assistant professor and instructional designer at the University of the Pacific, shared strategies to creating better online discussions. This article is based on the ideas she discussed in that 2016 program.
Designing online discussions
“The first step toward successful online discussion is the design of the online discussion activity itself,” Zheng says. “You should avoid questions that simply ask students to state and share facts from the readings or from the videos. Instead, I usually use questions that students can interpret from different perspectives . . . case studies or scenario-based questions work well.”
It also helps to mix things up a bit. If every assignment asks students to read some text or watch a video and then share their response or comment on a fellow student’s post, it quickly becomes boring for everyone. Zheng suggests three alternative discussion board assignments:
- 3-2-1: In this activity, you ask a student to share in a discussion board the three most important things they have learned, two ideas for potential application or implementation, and one question they still have about the topic.
- Jigsaw: In this activity, you divide the students into small groups. Each group is responsible for researching and discussing a different aspect of the same issue. It’s a simple approach to encourage collaborative learning, as students are able to see how their “piece of the puzzle” fits in with the larger context.
- Six hats: Divide students into small groups and assign each group a specific role in the discussion. The group roles are designated with hats. Blue hats must manage the discussion and make sure the group achieves its stated goals. White hats focus on the facts and information. Red hats express feelings and emotions. Green hats are tasked with thinking creatively. Yellow hats focus on identifying the positive aspects of a potential solution, while purple hats play the devil’s advocate and highlight why something might not work.
Zheng also suggests moving beyond your learning management system (LMS) to add some variety to course assignments. She uses both VoiceThread
Facilitating online discussions
- VoiceThread is a web-based tool for interactive, multimedia discussions. Unlike PowerPoint slides or the class discussion board, VoiceThread allows students to make comments using text, audio, or video. Plus, students like it because it works on their phones, Zheng says.
- Vialogues (which derives from "video dialogues") is a free video-sharing and collaboration tool that allows students to post time-stamped questions or comments on videos. It was developed by EdLab of Teachers College, Columbia University.
When facilitating online discussions, Zheng likes to use the BDA model, which focuses on what online instructors should be doing before, during, and after the discussion.
- Give clear instructions.
- Communicate expectations and reinforce throughout the course.
- Provide exemplary and poor discussion examples.
- Focus on online community building (Wenger, 1998).
Here are some sample comments for communicating your discussion expectations to students:
- Please post early to allow peers enough time to read and provide feedback. Late posts will limit your peers’ ability to respond to your posts and hold up the entire class.
- Since we don’t meet face to face, it is very important that you engage in interactive online discussions with each other.
- Make sure to provide constructive feedback to at least TWO peers in each forum. You can share your (teaching) experience, ask a question, or suggest a solution to their identified issue.
- Empty responses such as “Great” and “I agree” are NOT acceptable because they don’t contribute to peers’ learning.
- It is highly valuable to reply to peers’ questions/comments to keep the conversation going.
“I also like to provide discussion post examples to students—examples of both good and poor discussion posts,” says Zheng. “The good examples show students what I expect from them. The poor examples show students what they should avoid doing. Students always appreciate examples, especially when they are not familiar with online discussions.”
- Make yourself visible, but don’t dominate the discussion (Pawan, Paulus,Yalcin, & Chang, 2003).
- Encourage students to provide constructive comments to their peers.
- Help students overcome the cultural politeness challenge (Zheng & Spires, 2011).
- Encourage students to share their experiences, ask questions, challenge each other, and suggest a solution topeers’ identified issues.
- Encourage students to respond to peers’ comments.
- Recognize strong discussion behaviors.
Maintaining a strong instructor presence without dominating the discussion can be a tough balancing act. Zheng remains visible in online discussions by checking in a few times a week to ask questions that extend students’ thinking, confirm ideas discussed, answer questions posed, or refer them to other resources. She also provides encouragement, noting that one easy-to-overlook aspect of facilitating discussion is remembering to acknowledge desired behaviors. If you see students doing what you asked—posting early, responding to peers with helpful and constructive information—that’s something to highlight in your course announcements. It’s motivating for the students you praise for doing a good job and can encourage others to step it up.
Here are some examples of compliments you might post in course announcements:
- Hi, all. It is only Tuesday and I am glad that some of you (Cindy, John, Leslie, Daniel) have posted your discussion. Thank you for starting the conversation! Keep up the great job!
- Hi, all. I’m glad that many of you are engaged in interactive discussions with each other in this week’s forum. I especially like that you’ve asked your peers questions and challenged them to think. This is highly encouraged. Thank you for your contributions.
As the discussion comes to a close, it’s important for instructors to summarize the discussion, building on the ideas students shared and highlighting key points, as well as clarifying any misinformation and answering any remaining questions.
When assessing students’ online discussions, Zheng uses four categories to evaluate performance: completeness, quality, peer interaction, and timeliness.
- Completeness (1 point): All questions answered
- Quality (1 point): Provide details;make reference to the readings/viewings; reflect critically on prior teaching experience; cite research literature to support statements; discuss ideas of application
- Peer interaction (1 point): Provide constructive feedback to peers; provide feedback to at least two peers
- Timeliness (1 point): Post before the due date
In the same way faculty encourage students to provide meaningful feedback to each other, instructors should provide specific, personalized feedback to students on how they can improve their discussion posts. Below are examples of individualized feedback Zheng shares with students privately.
Examples of positive reinforcement of specific behaviors
Examples of feedback to improve specific behaviors
- Post early. Thanks for posting early. This is always encouraged in the course.
- Critical reflection. I like that you cite literature to support your statements. You also did an excellent job reflecting on your teaching experience.
- Share resources/experiences. Thanks for sharing your teaching experience in your original post. This is always highly valuable.
- Provide constructive feedback to peers. Graceful interaction with peers this week. I liked that you asked your peer a question in your reply to her. By doing so, you have helped extend your peer’s thinking. Fantastic!
- Respond to peers’ comments. I liked that you checked your peers’ comments on your original post and replied to them. Thanks for keeping the conversation going.
- Late submission. One point deducted for late submission. Please make sure you post as early as possible to allow your peers time to read and provide feedback.
- Didn’t provide details. I would have liked to read more details about how exactly you will implement this. More details would have been helpful here.
- Didn’t reply to peers’ posts. I didn't see your replies to your peers’ posts. Please make sure you read peers’ posts and reply to at least two of them.
- Empty responses. Please do respectfully challenge your peers in your replies to them. You can ask them a question, share a teaching experience, or suggest a solution to their identified issues.
- Didn’t reply to peers’ comments. Did you see the question asked by X in the reply to your post? Please check peers’ comments for you and reply to them. That way, we will be able to keep the conversation going.
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