Discussion strategies

WebCampus Discussions are a great way to foster learning and promote engagement and community in classes taught in all modalities. This page discusses why to use online discussions, and shares some tips for designing and facilitating effective online discussions.

Why include online discussions

Online discussions in WebCampus, just like those in a face-to-face class, can be used for any number of purposes. A few popular uses of online discussions include to:

  • Help students prepare for class by sharing initial thoughts on assigned content.
  • Test student comprehension of important points from readings or class meetings.
  • Encourage student interaction as they debate contradictory ideas, brainstorm different approaches to solving a problem, or collaborate on a group assignment.
  • Give students a place to follow-up on a conversation that began in class, or another avenue for participation if they are not comfortable speaking in class.
  • Create a student FAQ discussion where students can post a question, and other students are encouraged to answer.

Designing online discussions

To promote student interaction with content and each other on the discussion board, consider the following tips as you setup the discussion and provide guidance to students.

Post an interesting and clear discussion prompt:  This may be one or a series of questions aimed at engaging students with the course content in some way. You may ask that they choose a side on a question related to the topic, make an argument based on the readings, provide additional rationale to a statement, report on current events in a field or content area, etc. You may also ask that students start the discussion themselves, with questions for their classmates based on the course readings or lecture. The best discussion prompts are open-ended and interesting, but also specific in what you want students to cover in their responses.

Require students to read and respond to their peers: Determine how many messages a student must reply to, then provide information on what that response should include. You generally will want students to go further than just “Good job!” or “I agree!”. If you give specific directions for the responses, you will generate better discussion. Consider asking students to find peers they disagree with then provide additional information to try to convince the peer that their view is incorrect, or asking students to provide additional examples to help support their peer’s arguments.

Require students to post their own response before viewing their peers’: The users must post before seeing replies setting requires that students think and post their own answers to your prompt before being able to see their classmates’ posts. This ensures that students are not borrowing from their classmates’ posts before coming up with their own answers.

Consider using the Groups Discussion option: Another available setting is to designate this as a Group Discussion. This would be helpful in creating smaller group discussions, as opposed to having all students in the class in one large discussion. Small group discussions may be more effective in engaging students, as they will have a smaller number of peers' posts to read through and respond to.  It would also be possible to assign a small group where students discuss a prompt, then have everyone return to a whole-class discussion where the small groups can post about what they found.

Facilitating online discussions

Consider the following ways an instructor can facilitate discussion to deepen learning and promote engagement and a sense of community within a class.

Clarify your role: The first consideration when facilitating online discussions as an instructor is to determine the role you want to play. Will you be an active participant, jumping in and commenting on threads and moving the conversation along? Or will you observe quietly, making sure students are on track, but leaving it up to them to lead the discussion and interaction with their peers? Some discussions may warrant more instructor participation, while others (such as peer workshops) may be best left just to the students. If you plan to be an active participant, it will help to create a system such as to post to at least three students or try to respond to up to 1/3 of students who have substantive posts per week. Play around with what works best for you, your students, and the discussion.

Model good discussion behavior: In general, if an instructor is providing points for students to interact with one another, he or she will not be awarding points for short and not-so-helpful responses such as “I agree” or “Good job.” As the instructor, your participation should move beyond these short missives, and try to model the type of behavior you’d like to see in your students’ responses. Think about what you do in a face-to-face class to encourage deeper thinking in discussion: you can provide additional information, reflective questioning, or gentle prodding to move the discussion in the direction you’d like to see it go.

Encourage student-to-student interactions: A couple of common methods used to encourage student-to-student interactions in discussion board posts include confirming and redirecting.

  • Confirming: Ask other students to confirm or comment on another student’s response or comment. For example, if Student A posts a response in one direction, and Student B posts the opposite, pull them together to discuss in more detail. “Jade, do you agree with what Jon said about issue X? If not, can you provide some additional detail that may help convince him of your argument?”
  • Redirecting: Direct student questions back to the class or to specific members of the class. For example, if one student has an interesting idea or question posed in his or her initial post, but hasn’t gotten many responses from classmates, you might post something like, “That’s a good question. What do the rest of you think about that?”

Send a wrap up post or announcement: One method to show students that you are paying attention, and to help them to see the importance of the assignment and their participation in it, is to create a summary discussion board post or announcement after the discussion has concluded. Here you can point out great ideas addressed by specific students; this can help all students to see model behavior that you value in the class, and also can make those students feel good about a job well done. You can also make sure that, no matter the trajectory of the discussions, your students are on the same page as you with the major ideas that you want to stick with them.

Use grading and feedback to improve quality: Another way to help move student participation in discussions in the direction you want is via grading and feedback. If you ask students to reply to one another, you might assign a certain number of points for the initial post, and a certain number that are tied to responses; if students don’t do responses, they have no way of making full points. You can also use your weekly discussion feedback to students to help them stay on track. A quick “Also, great responses to classmates this week. Your answers to your classmates’ questions were thorough and well thought-out.” or “Your response to your classmate was a good start, but lacked detail and adequate information to really engage your peer. For future responses, really try to dig in there and provide as much information as you would if you were speaking face-to-face.”

Be prepared to manage conflict: Sometimes discussions may spin off track or even begins to move in a negative direction. It’s a good idea to have a plan for what to look out for and what to do when you encounter conflict in your online discussion. A few sample tips include: anticipate controversy and set expectations, look for signs of conflict and unease, and provide a space for difficult questions, among other ideas. See Kelly, R. (2013). Managing controversy in the online classroom. Faculty Focus. March 19, 2013.

Additional resources

Herman, J. H., Nilson, L. B., & Brookfield, S. D. (2018). Creating engaging discussions: Strategies for “avoiding crickets” in any size classroom and online. Stylus Publishing.