Student discussions have long been both thorn and rose of online courses. When online learning was first introduced to academia, skeptical face-to-face instructors believed that the courses must lack any discussion, likening them to a television broadcast. But online educators immediately recognized that the format allowed for more and deeper discussion than face-to-face courses. Online, students have unlimited think-time to craft responses, there is no time limit on discussions, and discussions often bring students who are afraid of public speaking out of their shells. Finally, students can speak to each other as well as to the instructor.
Despite these benefits, many online faculty have found that students provide shallow, formulaic responses or repeat one another’s comments in different words. Faculty have also found that just like in face-to-face courses, participation is uneven, with a handful of students dominating discussion. Many students consider online discussions an exercise in filling air time with perfunctory comments meant to satisfy the grading rubric.
So what happened to the promise of online discussions? I believe they still have great potential to meet the benefits stated above, but faculty need more training in how to set them up to cultivate robust and creative discussion. Below I explore some of the causes of online discussion problems and provide a solution for each.
Almost without exception, I see faculty new to online teaching mistaking discussion questions with essay questions. Faculty are used to writing essay questions but not discussion questions, and so they end up writing discussion questions that are just shorter versions of essay questions. The result is questions that require students to interpret and critique a particular article or author’s position or explain a concept.
A dead giveaway to this confusion is expecting students to provide citations in their postings. We don’t expect the people we are having lunch with to cite the sources of all of their comments. If you to make a factual claim that does not sound right to me, I might ask for your source, but I don’t require two sources from all of your comments.
Faculty who give students mini-essay questions for discussion invite formulaic responses and repetition. There are only so many ways to explain the same concept. Instead of asking students to sketch out another person’s arguments or critique them with outside sources, faculty should ask questions that students can answer using only their prior knowledge and own reasoning. Plus, they should invite controversy and admit a variety of competing positions.
Consider the following two online discussion questions on the same topic:
The first is the kind of mini-essay question that cause students to groan. The first person to respond will use up all reasonable answers, leaving everyone else to come up with new ways to agree.
The second, by contrast, is a question that anyone can answer with their prior knowledge and reasoning. Plus, it is an inherently interesting question that motivates participation. As the discussion grows, the instructor can point out the underlying principles students are using to resolve the case, which creates the teaching moment. Shifting mini-essay questions to scenario-based discussion questions radically changes the quality of discussion.
Most online courses set use a single discussion forum for the entire class. But real-life discussion more often happens in small groups, and people are generally more comfortable speaking in small groups than in large ones. Ask a live class of 30 students a question, and you might get a response from those two or three students who always speak up. But put them into groups of four, and you get everyone speaking. For this reason, instead of putting all students into the same discussion forum, set up multiple discussion forums with small groups in each to see whether doing so generates more participation and genuine sharing of ideas than stock responses just meant to satisfy the grading system. You might also try using different discussion questions for each forum to see which generate the most engagement, then pick the best for future courses.
Faculty often quash discussion by the method they use to grade it. They typically incentivize participation with grades based on individual contributions, such as requiring one original contribution and at least one reply for each discussion question, and usually grade participation by quantity. But as Alexis Wiggins (2020) notes, this approach can reward bad behavior, such as monopolizing discussion or contributing only superficially to it. At the very least, the approach encourages quantity over quality.
Wiggins suggests instead using a group grade for discussions. Now, the general student objection to group grades is that the better contributors will suffer from being averaged with the worse ones. But here Wiggins offers an important twist: the group grade should be based on the quality of collaboration. When we grade students individually in discussions, we are really creating competition between them, rather than collaboration. But if we are attempting to teach discussion skills for life, then the point should be to encourage a good group, rather than individual, outcome. After all, the real point of group discussions in organizations is to reach the best possible decision. The discussion of O-ring problems before the Challenger launch was a failure not because of how many people contributed but because of the decision at the end. Moreover, fostering a sense of collaboration between group members helps sustain the enthusiasm and comradery of groups, which is also critical to individuals functioning together in organizations.
Thus, Wiggins asserts that students should be taught to not only contribute themselves but also encourage others to weigh in. Wiggins facilitates this collaboration with a grading rubric that includes criteria such as whether everyone has participated in a substantive way and whether the discussion has genuinely progressed toward new understandings. That creates an incentive for ensuring that others contribute. A student might see that a classmate has not contributed and so specifically ask for their thoughts, just as a good leader would do in a live meeting. Students are also encouraged to pick up and further develop others’ ideas as well as provide summarizing comments that represent the new understandings developed in the discussion. These rules not only improve discussion within the class but also help students improve their discussion skills for the real world.
Discussion is still an important part of online courses but had gotten a bad rap due to poor setup. Try these methods in your course to enliven online discussions.
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