Online discussion forums can produce livelier and deeper debate than is possible in face-to-face courses, but instructors are often challenged in reaching this goal. Two of the most frequently asked faculty questions concern (1) how to get students to participate in the discussion and (2) how to prevent the discussion from remaining at the superficial level. A few simple design strategies will help create effective discussions in your online courses.
Ask discussion questions that provoke higher-level thinking.
If you ask questions that require students to recall factual information, idea exchange is unlikely to occur, because there is nothing to be “discussed.” However, if you ask “why” and “how” questions, it is more likely that students will engage in higher-level idea exchanges.
Use a variety of discussion formats.
If you teach a large class, you might want to use small groups to help you manage the dynamics of the discussions. You can assign each group member a different role and rotate those roles throughout the course. You can also use student-led discussions, giving students the opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning. But in this case it is critical to model how to lead online discussions with sample postings, since leading discussions is new for most students.
Design a variety of discussion activities.
Don't restrict yourself to assigning readings or videos and asking students to answer a few questions based on the material. While reading or watching and responding is a great way to assess students' understanding, eventually students will get bored with the repetition. To keep them engaged, you can introduce a variety of discussion activities, such as the “six thinking hats” (http://www.debonogroup.com/six_thinking_hats.php
), debate, role-play, peer review, and so on.
Use the B-D-A framework.
The B-D-A (before-during-after) framework is a well-known model for reading comprehension instruction that can be applied to online discussion (Vacca, Vacca, & Mraz, 2016):
- Communicate high expectations early and reinforce those expectations throughout the course. If you expect students to actively contribute to discussions, make the expectations clear at the beginning of the course and remind students of them throughout the course. Additionally, remember that expectations are two-way. You should also make it clear to students what they can expect from you (e.g., how soon you will grade their discussions and how often you will log in to the learning management system to answer their questions).
- Provide examples of high- and low-quality discussion posts. The high-quality examples clarify what you are looking for in students' discussions. The low-quality examples let students know what is not acceptable.
- Start with online community building. Spend some time during the first week building a community of online learners. For example, you can have students introduce themselves or participate in icebreaker activities.
- Acknowledge good online discussion behavior. When students engage in exemplary discussion activities such as sharing resources, connecting assigned readings to outside concepts, citing research to support their statement, or making a constructive comment on a peer's discussion post, give them public compliments. Positive reinforcement not only encourages them to keep up the great work but also sets up a model for the class to follow.
- Encourage students to provide constructive feedback to peers. Explain to students that constructive feedback (e.g., asking peers questions or suggesting solutions to issues raised by peers) helps extend peers' thinking. Make it clear that empty responses such as “I agree” and “I like it” are not acceptable.
- Encourage students to reply to peers' comments. If students ask questions in their replies to peers' discussion posts but they never get answered, the conversations will stop. Eventually the students might be discouraged from asking questions. Let students know that replying to peers' comments is valuable. When they do reply, show them your appreciation for helping to keep the conversation going. Contact students who never reply to peers privately to remind them of the requirement.
- Participate in the discussions with students. In the online environment, students often feel isolated from the instructor. By participating in the online discussions—replying to students' discussion posts or asking them questions, for example—you will improve your teaching presence (Garrison et al., 2010). Sometimes it might be unrealistic for you to reply to all students' discussion posts, especially if you teach a large class. In this case, you can reply to a different subgroup of students in each forum. If you teach a blended course, you can review all discussions to pick the five most important questions or issues raised by students and address them in the classroom.
- Summarize and synthesize the discussion to bring all pieces together. Highlight interesting ideas to demonstrate what you want out of students.
Dr. Zheng will be presenting a Magna Online Seminar entitled Facilitate Online Discussions to Support Student Engagement and Knowledge Co-construction on September 13, 2016 at 1:00 p.m. (Central). For more information, please visit http://www.magnapubs.com/online-seminars/live
- Provide specific and personalized feedback to students. Feedback is critical for learning, but it needs to be specific and personalized to be effective. When grading students' discussions, always add comments on what they have done well and how they can improve next time.
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., and Archer, W. “Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education.” The Internet and Higher Education
2, nos. 2-3: 87–105.
Vacca, R. T., J. A. Vacca, and M. E. Mraz. Content Area Reading: Literacy and Learning Across the Curriculum
(12th ed.). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 2016.
Meixun Sinky Zheng is an assistant professor and instructional designer at the University of the Pacific.