Online discussions are great. They help students develop community with their fellow learners, they let them explore a topic deeper than they could have by themselves, and they give the instructor a chance to guide students down a path. But discussions need to be done right.
The first and most important rule of designing discussions is that you should avoid questions with convergent answers. In other words, you don’t want to ask a question with only one answer. This will lead to some students giving the right answer, some giving the wrong one, and zero discussion will emerge. Instead, discussion prompts should be many answers, ideally as many correct answers are there are students, or even more. Many discussions ask students about their personal experiences, bringing in insight from their personal or work lives.
Carnegie Melon’s Eberly Center has an excellent collection of information on designing good discussions, including this list of the types of discussion questions:
- Exploratory questions: probe facts and basic knowledge
- Challenge questions: interrogate assumptions, conclusions or interpretations
- Relational questions: ask for comparisons of themes, ideas, or issues
- Diagnostic questions: probe motives or causes
- Action questions: call for a conclusion or action
- Cause-and-effect questions: ask for causal relationships between ideas, actions, or events
- Extension questions: expand the discussion
- Hypothetical questions: pose a change in the facts or issues
- Priority questions: seek to identify the most important issue(s)
- Summary questions: elicit synthesis
You may notice that many of these types look similar to a discussion prompt that might be given in a face-to-face course, and you would be right. In fact, the Eberly Center webpage referenced above is about face-to-face discussions, not online. Many of the divergent questions asked in a face-to-face course would also work in an online environment. The difference is in a face-to-face course you can ask follow up questions or pivot on the fly, whereas asynchronous discussions take careful planning.
The second rule of thumb is that every discussion should be designed to include the three types of interactions in online courses: learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner.
There are many ways to accomplish these two rules. Below is a list of the most common types of discussions we have in our courses.
- Icebreaker: typically called “Introduction Discussion” in our courses, these discussions are a low-stakes chance for students to get to know their community and practice using the discussion tool.
- Post and response: everyone posts a response to the discussion prompt, students have to respond to someone else.
- Post a certain number of times: students do not have to start a thread, but they need to post a certain number of times overall.
- Debate: students are assigned to one of two teams discussing one issue; should bring in research to support their position.
- Consensus: small groups come up with a consensus to an issue and post to an all-class discussion.
- Discuss then summarize: students discuss in small groups and then summarize the discussion. Some courses have one summary per group that is then posted to an all class discussion, or every student completes a summary and submits that individually.
- Deliverables and peer review: students post a deliverable and receive a peer review from other students.
- Ask Experts: an expert is given access to the course. Students pose questions to the expert in a Q&A format.
- Role play: Students have to look at an issue from the viewpoint of another person and respond to the discussion prompts as that person.
- Jigsaw: students compile a list of resources on a a given topic, become the expert on that topic, and then share what they’ve learned with the rest of the class through discussion or presentation of an artifact.
- Problem solving: students have to work together to solve a problem.
- Case study or scenario: students read a case study and then answer the discussion prompt.
- Projects: students work together to complete a project, often a course-long project.
- Literature circles/book club: small groups look at a reading in depth. Students take turns generating discussion prompts and leading the discussion each week.
Edutopia has a great resource available called Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation. Despite the name, this document also covers designing discussions, including possible pitfalls that may happen with online discussions.