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Blackboard Discussions
Teaching with Online Discussions

The Importance of Online Discussions

In many ways the discussion board is the heart of interactive learning. Here students can reflect on what they are learning, ask questions, learn from each other, and share their insights. More than any other place in the course, this is where the instructor can teach by interacting with students, asking probing questions, and providing feedback and encouragement. Unlike other online content, the discussion forums can quickly be modified and adapted to meet the needs of a particular class or to respond to significant events that impact students.

Discussions also level the playing field. They allow even the most introverted learner to participate, and they encourage the extroverted learner to reflect before responding.  At the very least, discussions provide a way for student-student and student-instructor interaction.   It is a place where the social dimensions of teaching and learning can be cultivated.

Research indicates that effective teaching with online discussions involves four areas of instructor activity:

  1. Establish the ground rules by stating expectations and providing directions.
  2. Construct discussion questions that promote reflection and critical thinking.
  3. Facilitate the discussion.
  4. Assess student learning in the discussion activity.

  Continue to the next page for information on setting the ground rules.


Establish the Ground Rules for Good Discussions

Before a discussion begins, you should communicate procedures and expectations for participation. Some expectations can be communicated in the description of each discussion assignment. Others should be shared through course policies and the course syllabus. You can also give examples of exemplary responses to help students know what you expect.

Important points that you should communicate to your students include:  

Check out more resources in the side bar!

Continue to the next page for considerations on creating a good discussion question.

Construct Good Discussion Questions

The opportunity for learning through discussions will only be as good as the discussion questions that are asked. Ask questions that cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no" or by a recitation of facts. Questions should allow diverse points of view, reflection and critical thinking. A good online discussion question will give students a chance to apply what they have learned to a particular problem.

Continue to the next page for suggestions on facilitating online discussions.


Facilitate the Discussion Forum

Even when you set the ground rules and construct a thought-provoking question, there is no guarantee that learning will take place. In addition, you cannot assume that students actually know how to conduct an online discussion. Most students probably approach learning as memorizing facts for a test rather discovering how to apply knowledge to analyze and solve problems. As the instructor, you will need to facilitate the discussion and guide students through the learning process. Facilitating a discussion, however, may be more of an art than a science. There will be times when you need to be very involved in the discussion while at other times you need to step back. You will need to participate in the discussions without dominating them or suppressing diverse ideas and opinions. The video tutorial presented later will provide some good ideas for facilitating discussions. Generally, there is agreement that to guide discussions effectively, instructors will need to:

Continue to the next page for considerations about assessing discussions.

Assessing the Discussion

You should establish the grading criteria and communicate them to the class before the discussion begins. Once the discussion has concluded, there are several steps you can take to provide assessment and closure to the learning activity.


Continue to the next page for demonstration of how to create, facilitate, and assess online discussions.

Putting it all together: Video Tutorial

How do you put all of this together to create an engaging, effective learning experience? The video below from DePaul University provides excellent practical and pedagogical suggestions for teaching with online discussions. (Depending upon your connection speed, the video may take a few seconds to appear).



Continue to the next page for additional ideas on using discussions.

Other Ways to Use Discussions

Although this module has emphasized discussions to promote critical thinking, online discussions can be used in a variety of ways that build community, promote interactivity, and support active learning. While you may not grade these (other than class participation), they make a significant contribution to the online learning experience.


 Continue to the next page for a summary and your assignment.  


The information presented in this brief unit is far from exhaustive. Entire courses are devoted to teaching with online discussions. The best way to learn how to use online discussions is to use them. Begin with the steps and suggestions in this unit, but take time as you are teaching online to reflect on how well discussions are working for you. Any course, whether it is online, hybrid, or face-to-face is a work in progress. Don't be afraid to experiment and revise. And . . . don't forget to get input from your students!


 You Try it!

Create a good discussion question that will encourage critical thinking and interactivity. Share your question in the discussion forum in this course. You will find additional directions and details in the forum description.