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:
- Establish the ground rules by stating expectations and providing directions.
- Construct discussion questions that promote reflection and critical thinking.
- Facilitate the discussion.
- 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:
- Provide clear instructions on how to participate in the forum.
- Netiquette: Remind students that discussions are public and that you expect their contributions to be professional and respectful.
- Let students know what you consider to be the minimum and maximum length of their responses.
- Inform students that you expect them to respond to one another, and tell them how many responses are required.
- Establish a deadline for participating in the discussion. Some instructors set two deadlines: one for a student's initial response and a second for the student's responses to other students.
- Communicate how the discussion will be graded. Ideally, you should use a grading rubric that you can share with your students.
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.
- Make sure students know the purpose of the discussion assignment.
- Ask open-ended questions that encourage students to reflect and analyze. Such questions may begin with terms such as "Imagine," "Defend," "Justify," "What would happen if . . .," "Suppose," etc.
- Since adult learners prefer a "problem-based" approach to learning develop questions that apply critical thinking to "real life" issues (i.e. to apply knowledge in a way that requires students to recognize assumptions, implications, and consequences).
- Create scenarios or problems that will require students to seek more information. (Problem solving requires that students recognize what information is needed for analysis and application).
- Expect to reformulate, restate, and refine the question as the discussion progresses. This is part of facilitating the discussion (see next page).
- Make sure that your discussion question and the expected learning outcomes align with the student learning outcomes for your course!
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:
- Expect to spend more time in the first discussion as you may need to answer technical questions and help students get started with using the discussion board.
- Make sure that you are are competent with the technical aspects of managing discussions.
- Ask follow up questions and provide guidance that keeps the discussion focused.
- Use Socratic questioning to push students to critical reflection.
- Be ready to deal with negative postings and correct misinformation
- Identify students who are not participating and through private e-mail encourage participation
- Acknowledge exemplary contributions.
- Set aside time in your schedule to read and respond to discussions.
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.
- Provide some type of summation of the learning activity. This may be a posting in which you summarize the main points raised by the discussion. You may also ask students to list the most significant aspects of the discussion or to reflect on how their understanding changed as they participated in the discussion.
- Use a rubric to grade student's learning in the discussion forum. Rubrics make grading more objective, and, when shared with students, they provide detailed feedback on their performance. (Note: Currently, Blackboard does not have an interactive grading form that you can complete and return to the student. It does, however, have a static rubric that you can create and refer to as you grade. Upgrades to Blackboard in the summer of 2011 will include an interactive grading form).
- Return the grade and feedback in a timely manner. (Follow your divisional or departmental policy regarding returning graded work to students).
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.
- Use the discussion board for building community by providing a place for students to introduce themselves, meet, and share questions and ideas. This is especially important at the beginning of the semester.
- Sometimes, instead of formulating a question, have students create two or three multiple choice questions on a chapter or reading. Have them explain why it is important to know the answers to these questions.
- Use the discussion board for collaborative and group projects. In some classes, you may even want to experiment with letting students lead and moderate discussion.
- Use discussions as a "Classroom Assessment Technique." For example, you can have students read a chapter and then by midweek, post the "muddiest point" to the discussion board. This gives you a chance to see where students need additional help. It also allows students to help each other.
- Use the discussion board for brainstorming activities where students come up with topics for research, ways of solving problems, or various ways of looking at topics.
- Set up writing groups on the discussion board where students can review and critque each other's work during the writing process.
- Create a discussion forum for "Online Learning Tips." This is where students with online experience can post tips for success in online. Those who are new to the online envrionment may benefit from the advice of experienced online students.
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.