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.
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