There is a lot of variation in how the instructor participates in discussions—especially small group discussions. Here we will discuss some of our most common types of discussions and what you can do to help students make the most of them.
Each of our courses has at least two discussions: the Introductions discussion, and Ask the Class discussion. Ask the Class gives students a place to ask a general question about the class, such as clarification on an assignment or tech issue. Often other students will help to answer these questions, but it’s important to monitor that area to make sure those students are being responded to correctly and promptly. Some past student feedback has indicated that questions took too long to be addressed, so also make your response time known to students from the beginning. The Introductions and Ask the Class discussions are two that the instructor must participate in.
Many of our courses include other discussions that are based on the content. How you interact with students here is a matter of teaching philosophy, but it’s important to remember that students want to feel that you are invested in their learning and that you have a strong instructor presence in the course. The way an instructor exerts their presence in the discussions can make or break a class. It’s a balance between being overbearing and squashing the conversation, and disappearing so students are left to their own devices.
Understanding the Instructor’s Role in Facilitating Online Discussions is an older article, but the information is still quite relevant, and it’s worth a read. In the article, the author, an online instructor, discusses a shift in her thinking. She initially approached online discussions the same as she would face-to-face discussions, until she realized that online students craved her input. She briefly lists her priorities for discussions, including encouraging students and correcting misconceptions.
You may be wondering how often should you, the instructor, participate in an online discussion. Naturally the answer is: it depends! We have a few different types of discussions (all class assignments, small group assignments, and small groups project areas), and you would interact differently in each discussion.
- Small groups discussion for working on a project: These project areas are usually non-graded and don’t need instructor interaction (unless there’s a problem), but keep an eye out to make sure students are on track and following netiquette guidelines.
- All class discussion: This is when all the students have one large discussion. Often they are asked to post an original thread and then respond a certain number of times to other students.
- Small group discussion: Students are broken into groups and are asked to answer some discussion questions. As with the large group, they are often asked to post something original and then respond to other students.
With these last two graded discussions, you should monitor the discussion posts (at least once per day) during the assignment and ensure everyone is staying on track and using netiquette, but please don’t stop there. Remember, students do not know whether you are reading the discussions and whether they are on the right track unless you post comments; they want to know what you think, they want your insight on their discussions, and they want you to guide their conversations.
Feedback from our students indicates that, more than anything, they want instructors to engage with them in the discussions. Suggestions include strategies such as:
- Share industry knowledge or experience
- Share personal or academic knowledge or experience
- Clarify the connection between course content, such as theoretical concepts or models, and real-world applications
- Expand the discussion by asking additional questions or sharing articles or resources
- Provide feedback (are they on the right track?)
A good guideline is to post enough to let them know they are on the right track and whenever you see an opportunity to deepen understanding on the topic. This is especially important at the beginning of the course when students are still getting a feel for what you are looking for.
Once the discussion period closes, you might be tempted to let it drift off, but students want to hear your final word on what they spent the last week discussing. Use a discussion wrap to close it out and deepen your students’ understanding of the topic.