Nearly all online faculty use discussion in their courses, often simply because everyone else does or their institution’s course development model assumes they do. But like any course content or activity, we need to ask about its purpose. There is no law that all online courses must have discussion. Often the best-intentioned online discussions fall flat, with students making superficial comments or repeating what others say in different words. Meanwhile, students wonder about the purpose of the discussions in their classes, often concluding that it is to “tell the instructor what they want to hear” by making their perfunctory original posting and two replies using formulaic responses.
This does not mean that we need to jettison discussion from online classes. Due to the open-ended think-time afforded to students to craft their comments, online classes do present a tremendous opportunity for deeper discussion than face-to-face courses permit. But taking advantage of this feature requires faculty to think about the purpose of their discussions. A simple starting point for this thought is to simply ask,
Why am I making this a discussion rather than an individual assignment?
That is, what am I looking for beyond what I would get with an individual assignment? Importantly, the purpose of discussion cannot be simply to measure each student’s understanding of an issue. It is a common error for faculty to ask the class a question to gauge class-wide understanding. If I ask a class 20 students a question and one answers, I learn only what that one person knows, not what anyone else knows. Measuring individual student understanding is the purpose of individual assignments, such as papers or quizzes. Discussion is not right for that purpose.
The most common reasons given for discussion in academia relate to helping students develop group communication skills, generating a marketplace of ideas, cultivating critical thinking skills, and so on. But whatever your purpose, reaching that goal needs to be central to how you plan your discussion, and here is where a disconnect between purpose and structure often shows up. When online discussions fail, the most common reason is that the prompt is designed not to elicit discussion but rather to measure individual understanding. That is, the faculty member has used an assignment prompt as a discussion prompt.
For instance, if an instructor in an art theory class asks,
Describe a theory of art found in our reading and provide a critique of it,
students will take turns answering the prompt by repeating something from the course content but have no real possibility of discussing it. Once all the theories of art have been used up, everyone is simply repeating what others have said. Faculty often default to an assignment prompt for discussion because that is what they are used to creating.
To generate real discussion, the prompt needs to (a) generate student interest and (b) allow for a variety of reasonable positions. Note the importance of the first point. An assignment need not breed student interest to effectively measure content knowledge. But a discussion does require motivating students in some way so that they go beyond “giving the instructor what they want.” Without interest, students will meet the minimum discussion requirements without real discussion.
Here faculty sometimes make the mistake of using themselves rather than their students as the standard for an interesting discussion topic. They ask what interests them. This often leads faculty to asking overly theoretical questions—the kinds they like debating in their articles or at conferences.
These faculty are usually disappointed with the results because students are not at their professors’ level. They are not equipped to debate concepts in the same way that professors do; they don’t understand the concepts well enough to do so. This is a prime example of the expert’s blind spot, the common inability of an expert to understand the problems of novices because they do not see the world from the standpoint of novices. The expert has experience and knowledge that the novice lacks and does not realize that they are drawing on this knowledge when they themselves tackle issues.
In light of this, one highly effective way of generating discussion is by having students discuss a practical application of the theoretical topics covered in class. An example concerning theories of art might be as follows:
Can driftwood be art? Why or why not?
Students might respond:
Student A: “No, because art is an object designed to transfer a message or emotion from the artist to the receiver. Without an artist, there can be no art.”
Note how the student applies a theory of art to the issue.
Student B: “What if I mount a piece of driftwood on a pedestal and put a photo of a polluted harbor above it to illustrate the destruction done to waterways? Can’t that be art?”
Here a student finds a counter-example to the theory.
Student A: “But in that case it is the composition of the elements by the artist that makes it art, not the driftwood by itself.”
Now we have come to a deeper understanding of the theory.
Student C: “But if you believe in God, then God created everything and so the driftwood has an artist.”
Here we have discovered an implication of the theory: that nature can be art if one believes in a divine creator.
Notice how this prompt led students to understand the theories and their implication at a deeper level than they could do in an individual assignment. Plus, it allowed students to see the theories’ significance: that they lead to different conclusions about the world. Without significance, it is hard for students to retain the information they are given. Giving students a practical application to debate can illuminate that significance. These are two possible purposes of online discussion that faculty often do not consider.
Discussions can have many purposes beyond those that I mention here, but no matter the purpose, creating a discussion that achieves that purpose requires asking why it is a discussion rather than an individual assignment. This question will help clarify what the faculty member intends from the discussion and thus what is needed to achieve that goal. The question reminds faculty that different activities serve different purposes, which helps them better design each activity to meet that purpose.
There is a real art to designing discussion prompts, and it takes trial and error to develop effective ones. Finding a discussion prompt that both generates deliberation and advances understanding of the course content transforms discussions that feel like squeezing blood from a stone into genuine meetings of minds.