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What are online discussions?
Why do online discussions?
How can you create effective online discussions?
How can you manage online discussions?
How can you evaluate online discussions?
What are some examples of online discussions?
What are some considerations for online discussions?

What are online discussions?

Online discussions are a great tool to extend classroom conversations and learning by getting students to engage with class material online. Online discussions are often arranged by discussion boards, forums, and threads.

      • A discussion board is the tool that hosts the space for online discussions.
      • Discussion boards can hold multiple forums, which can be organized by topic.
      • Discussion threads are conversations within discussion forums and begin with a leading question or prompt. Users can respond to the original prompt and can reply to other responses.

Course management systems, such as Blackboard, and other web-based tools, such as Piazza, host online discussions.

Online discussions can take other forms such as discussions based on a piece of work, or feedback dialogue on a student’s writing.  For example, when creating a wiki collaboratively, students may discuss the process online, or when posting on a blog, students can discuss the blog post in the comments section.

Why do online discussions?

      • Flexible, not limited by time or space.
      • In-class discussions can continue online and vice versa.
      • Students can prepare for class activities by engaging in online discussions that are designed to have students get familiar with new topics. For example, students can discuss their responses to a pre-class reading.
      • Online discussions can simultaneously reach different types of learners. Online discussions can enable introverted thinkers time to process a response and extraverted thinkers time to reflect on their thoughts before posting.
      • Students can use online discussions to give and receive feedback on their work.
      • Postings are saved and conversations can be reviewed for assessment and reflection purposes.
      • Online discussions can be a space where students answer each other’s frequently asked questions about the course, helping to alleviate the instructor workload by dealing with questions that otherwise might be emailed to her or him.


How can you create effective online discussions?

In order for online discussions to result in productive learning experiences:

      • Consider the learning outcomes for using online discussions in your course. What do you want students to be able to do, know, or value as a result of participating in an online discussion?
      • Connect online discussions with your overall course learning outcomes and course activities. Ensure that your online discussion is integrated into your overall course design. For example, perhaps an online discussion serves as a space for students to respond to course readings before having to apply concepts from the readings in class activities. Or perhaps in-class discussions always run over and need to be completed online for closure. Online discussions can also be used to facilitate collaborative assignments such as designing a wiki, or reflection exercises that encourage students to become more aware of their learning or attitude shifts over a semester.
      • Design effective questions or discussion prompts. Use Bloom’s taxonomy to inform your question or prompt design. For example, do you want students to apply a concept? Critique an event? Evaluate a piece of text? Collaborate with peers to create a final product? Effective questions prompt students to engage in a discussion in meaningful ways.
      • Create and stagger mini deadlines. Hold students responsible for posting responses by a certain deadline. A few days later require students to respond to at least two or three other students. A day or two after that, have students respond to their peer’s comments, and so on. Doing this guarantees that all students receive some sort of feedback on or engagement with their contributions. It also helps to facilitate an ongoing discussion.
      • Communicate assignment expectations. Communicate how many times (or how often) you expect students to log on and to post; experienced faculty recommend twice a week. State how their online participation (both attendance and quality of participation) will affect their course grades. Some faculty assign bonus points for high-quality contributions; others weigh online participation as 10 percent or less of the course grade.
      • Use a rubric if you will grade online discussions. Create and share a rubric that guides students in their online discussion contributions. Include both quantitative and qualitative elements so students are clear on how much participation is expected and what a quality contribution looks like. Consider having students review the rubric before engaging in the discussion and ask them for feedback. If appropriate, incorporate any suggested changes and use this rubric for evaluation.
      • Break students into groups. Experienced faculty recommend that groups contain four to twelve students, and no more than twenty students. In large courses, you can list a set of discussion topics and let students choose which discussion to join.
      • Assign roles. Instructors can also divide the class into three groups with three different roles—one to pose questions, one to respond to questions, and one to summarize and comment—and have students rotate groups/roles throughout the term. Similarly, roles can be given to students within the same discussion group. Each member can have roles, such as the facilitator, the devil’s advocate, the synthesizer and the summarizer. These roles can also rotate.


How can you manage online discussions?

At the beginning:

      • Set the tone. How formal or informal do you expect students’ posts to be? Describe and give examples of the style you expect them to follow. You may wish to establish ground rules for acceptable language and behavior and to require all participants to identify themselves by name. Students who are new to discussion boards may appreciate seeing examples of thoughtful and courteous posts.

Throughout the discussion:

      • Allow students to do the talking. In order to encourage student interaction, and discourage directing posts to the instructor, stay in the background as much as possible. Only interject when necessary.
      • Ask probing questions. Effective questions are the key to both starting and maintaining discussion. Prompt discussion by asking for clarification or evidence to support a claim, pose a problem or scenario, or play devil’s advocate. Facilitators can also direct students and encourage them to respond to other posts that are either similar with their own posts, or dramatically different.
      • Address any incivilities as soon as they happen. An online learning environment can be tarnished quickly by unaddressed hostility. Refer to ground rules that may have established at the beginning.  Think ahead about how you will address incivilities and communicate to students how you would do so (for example, students may be asked to remove a comment if it is unacceptable). If necessary, address inappropriate behavior offline in a private setting.
      • Watch out for orphaned comments and silent students. Sometimes students’ comments or questions get little or no response from other students. The authors of these orphaned comments may become discouraged and drop out of the discussion. If you see this dynamic, encourage students to respond to the orphaned comments. When quieter students participate, give them a supportive response.

At the end of the discussion:

      • Ensure closure through synthesis and summary. To avoid letting a threaded discussion lose its way or simply fade out, periodically pose questions that require synthesis and summary of the thread. You could also assign this task and other moderating roles to individual students.


How can you evaluate online discussions?

      • Assess online contributions. Whether or not online participation counts toward course grades, give students some comments about the quality of their contributions. Most online discussion software allows you to preserve and archive contributions and then review these when evaluating the quantity and quality of participation. Using a grading rubric can help to ensure that evaluation is consistent. Students can also do self and peer assessments on their own and their classmate’s contributions.
      • Assess your online discussion. Check in with students to see how they experienced the online discussion. You can do this by asking students to respond anonymously to a couple of questions such as: What about participating in this online discussion worked well for you? What are one or two things that if done differently may have made the online discussions more effective?


What are some examples of online discussions?

      • An FAQ board that students can use to ask and answer questions about your course.
      • Discussions around particular topics or current events related to course concepts.
      • Discussions around collaborative work such as an ongoing problem-based learning activity, or a wiki.
      • Feedback dialogue on a student writing assignment draft.
      • Reading responses to pre-class reading assignments.
      • Reflections on course readings and lectures in relation to personal experiences.
      • And many more…


What are some considerations for online discussions?

      • Online discussions need structure, such as guidelines for participation and deadlines.
      • A productive online learning environment will foster participation and may encourage risk-taking, resulting in more substantial contributions.
      • If not integrated into other course activities, students may find online discussions irrelevant.
      • Effective questions require higher order thinking skills, such as analyzing, comparing, predicting, and applying concepts.
      • Students may need support with technology, as well as effective online communication.



CTI T4 Online Discussions: Extending Learning and Saving Time pdf file (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)
Cornell Academic Technologies Blackboard help site on Discussion Boards on Blackboard


Davis, B.G (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rovai, A. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively. The Internet and Higher Education, 10, 77-78.


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