Discussions are a key part in many online courses. If we want students to demonstrate high levels of thinking in discussions, we need to ask questions that are designed to invoke higher levels of thinking. The learning objective, the format of the discussion, and the question we’re asking should all guide them to that level. In addition, instructor participation is critical. Students often won’t achieve higher levels of thinking in discussions without instructor participation and guidance.
Below are steps that should be considered in designing and delivering discussions to help student reach these higher levels of learning.
Match the Knowledge Level to the Activity
Bloom’s taxonomy can help us identify the level of knowledge that we want students to demonstrate. For example, lower-level skills (e.g., memorizing factual knowledge) may need to be developed before higher-level skills are introduced (e.g., analysis of relationships).
Just as different levels require different instructional delivery methods, they also require different assessment methods. The lowest level skills on the taxonomy (e.g., recall, identification) tend to create low level discussions. If you want to know whether a student read a chapter or can recall a concept, a less interactive assessment such as a quiz, a series of formative assessments, and/or an individual summary might be more effective than a discussion. However, tapping higher skills such as evaluation and analysis can create rich, vibrant discussions that allow students to learn from each other.
We also want to make sure we use an appropriate level of difficulty. Activities that are too easy for students will seem meaningless and like busywork, which will lead to low participation and engagement.
Ask Good Questions
Discussion prompts that have one or two “right” answers (e.g., essays disguised as discussion prompts) don’t typically result in a meaningful discussion.
“A discussion is not an essay assignment; it is an online version of what would happen in a coffee house. Don’t ask for research to answer a discussion question online, that makes it into an essay assignment. Ask for your students’ thoughts just as if it were an informal discussion” (Orlando, 2016).
More appropriate questions are those that are divergent–those with as many “right” answers are there are students in the course (or more). Even better are questions that require students to interact with each other to meet the objectives.
Give Students Some Choice
Having choice increases student interest and motivation. Give students a choice between a few different prompts, allowing them to pick the question that interests them most. Perhaps some students would prefer to analyze the text, while others are more interested in real world applications of the material. Then allow students to choose which questions to respond to. The diversity of topics will help them dig deeper into the material.
Use Small Groups
Whole class discussions create cognitive overload. As the group size increases, students feel less of a need to contribute (Lee and Martin, 2017). They may pop into the discussion, do their requirements, and get out. With small groups, they may be more likely to linger and participate beyond the requirements. Groups of 4 to 6 students tend to work well for most assignments.
The instructor plays a key role in establishing community in an online course. When students feel they are part of a community, their self-efficacy increases. With increased self-efficacy comes increased participation, academic integrity, student learning, and retention. Even with a well-developed discussion prompt, students generally can’t reach higher levels of thinking without instructor coaching and facilitation. Finding the sweet spot for participation in discussions is part of the art of teaching online.
- Amichai-Hamburger, Yair, Tali Gazit, Judit Bar-Ilan, Oren Perez, Noa Aharony, Jenny Bronstein, and Talia Sarah Dyne. Psychological Factors Behind the Lack of Participation in Online Discussions. Computers in Human Behavior. 2014.
- Arbaugh, J.B. Does Academic Discipline Moderate CoI-course Outcomes Relationships in Online MBA Courses? Internet and Higher Education. 2012.
- CoI Model. https://coi.athabascau.ca/coi-model/
- Craig, Madeline and Linda Kraemer. Rejuvenating Online Discussions. Online Classroom. January 2018.
- Darby, Flower. Harness the Power of Emotion to Help Your Students Learn. Faculty Focus. January 2018. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/harness-power-emotions-help-students-learn/
- Edutopia. Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation: Resource Guide. TeacherStream. 2009. https://www.edutopia.org/pdfs/stw/edutopia-onlinelearning-mastering-online-discussion-board-facilitation.pdf
- Ertmer, Peggy, Ayesha Sadaf, and David Ertmer. Designing Effective Question Prompts to Facilitate Critical Thinking in Online Discussions. Design Principles & Practices: An International Journal. 2011.
- Five Tips for Handling Grading in Large Online Classes. October 2015. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/5-tips-for-handling-grading-in-large-online-classes/61131
- Gao, Fei, Tianyi Zhang, and Teresa Franklin. Designing asynchronous online discussion environments: recent progress and possible future directions. British Journal of Educational Technology. 2013.
- Kelly, Rob. Tips for Humanizing Your Online Course. Online Classroom. August 2012.
- Social Presence. https://www.uwidocs.org/2016/08/17/social-presence/
- Lee, Joohi and Lesisa Martin. Investigating Students’ Perceptions of Motivating Factors of Online Class Discussions. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. 2017.
- Liu, Chien-Jen and Shu Ching Yang. Using the Community of Inquiry Model to Investigate Students’ Knowledge Construction in Asynchronous Online Discussions. Journal of Educational Computing Research. 2014.
- Liu, Chien-Jen and Shu Ching Yang. Applying the Practical Inquiry Model to Investigate the Quality of Students’ Online Discourse in an Information Ethics Course Based on Bloom’s Teaching Goal and Bird’s 3C Model. Computers & Education. 2012.
- McCourt, Andrea, Jillian Yarbrough and Marcus Tanner. Best Practices for Designing and Assessing Online Discussion Questions. Webinar. https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/webinar/best-practices-designing-assessing-online-discussion-questions-2/
- Moore, Julie. Using Online Protocols for Discussions. Online Classroom. May 2016.
- Orcutt, Janice and Laurie P. Dringus. “Beyond Being There: Practices that Establish Presence, Engage Students and Influence Intellectual Curiosity in a Structured Online Learning Environment.” Online Learning. 2017.
- Orlando, John. The Top Four Course Design Mistakes. Distance Education Report. 2016.
- Craig, Madeline, and Linda Kraemer. Rejuvenating Online Discussions. Online Classroom. January 2018.
- Orlando, John. Voice Feedback for Better Learning. Online Classroom. July 2017.
- Orlando, John. Three Common Mistakes to Avoid When Teaching Online. Online Classroom. March 2016.
- Orlando, John. What Research Tells Us About Online Discussion. Online Classroom. February 2016.
- Orlando, John. Tweeting as an Alternative to Discussion Forums. Online Classroom. April 2016.
- Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy. Iowa State University. http://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/effective-teaching-practices/revised-blooms-taxonomy
- Schwarz, Laura and Nancyruth Leibold. Empowering Learners through Online Discussion Self-Grading. Online Classroom. November 2017.
- Schindler, Laura and Gary Burkholder, Jr. Instructional Design and Facilitation Approaches that Promote Critical Thinking in Asynchronous Online Discussions: A Review of the Literature.
- Walden University ScholarWorks. Center for Research Quality Publications. 2014.
- Social Presence and Interaction in the Online Classroom. BYU Center for Teaching and Learning. http://ctl.byu.edu/tip/social-presence-and-interaction-online-classroom
- Udermann, Brian. Seven Ways to Facilitate Effective Online Discussions. Webinar. https://www.magnapubs.com/online-seminars/seven-ways-to-facilitate-effective-online-discussions-14547-1.html
- Udermann, Brian. Three Ideas for Enhancing Your Online Discussions. Online Classroom. November 2017.
- Udermann, Brian. Three Simple Ways to Energize Online Discussions. Faculty Focus. 2017. https://www.facultyfocus.com/resources/online-learning/course-design-online-learning/three-simple-ways-energize-online-discussions/
- Venit, Katie. Designing Discussions. December 2016. https://www.uwidocs.org/2016/12/22/designing-discussions/
Latest posts by Julia Lehman Caldwell (see all)
- Discussion Best Practices - May 31, 2018
- Tech Tip: Creating Videos with Kaltura CaptureSpace for the UW System D2L - April 4, 2018
- Talk to Your Students About the Academic Code of Conduct - March 14, 2018