Engaging students in online discussions, both asynchronous and synchronous, supports the same learning goals as in-person discussions,such as facilitating co-construction of knowledge, critical thinking, self-reflection, and perspective-taking. Additionally, online discussions can create a bond between and among learners because the process of shared meaning-making depends on each other’s contribution to the discussion.
This page focuses on what to do before, during, and after online discussions. Do not dismiss the power of a well-structured asynchronous discussion: it can engage students deeply, inspire more thoughtful and elaborated responses, and foster participation among students who may remain quiet in synchronous or face-to-face discussions.
STRATEGIES & EXAMPLES
Know the goal of the discussion and design the discussion to meet that goal. Not all online discussion boards look the same because they have different goals. Some discussions happen within a limited period of time (say, within a single week) while others extend over a longer period (perhaps the entire semester). Here are some examples:
Simple, semi-structured discussions
- Asynchronous: To help students brainstorm ideas and perspectives, each student is asked to post a unique response to a question posed by the instructor or another student. Discussion topics may switch week to week.
- Synchronous: To support students to develop the ability to critically reason and communicate using disciplinary language, the instructor gives students a complex problem to review before class. In a synchronous Zoom session, students discuss the problem in small groups through Zoom breakout rooms and are then brought back to the main room for a brief whole class debrief in which the TA monitors the chat and the instructor guides discussion.
Highly structured discussions
- Asynchronous: In a mathematics class focused on deep understanding of methods, the instructor asks each student to do 3 tasks by 3 specific time points over one week: 1) post a graph of a linear regression in an asynchronous discussion board and engineer a data set that corresponds to it; 2) Choose one other student’s data set and perform the linear regression, and 3) Choose yet another student’s regression and discuss the meaning of the correlation coefficient (example from Maria Andersen as cited in Stachowiak, 2020).
- Asynchronous and Synchronous: To help students solve complex problems in an ethics course, over the course of two weeks students work in small groups to do a Jigsaw Discussion of an e-case study.
This document of alternative discussion structures from Kidder and Cooper of Idaho State university offers many concrete examples of discussion structures that engage students.
Design an assessment plan that promotes thinking, not performance. Focus too much on grading for quality, and you will stifle creativity and stress out yourself and your students. Ignore quality in favor of completion, and your discussions will lack commitment and inspiration. Here are some options for striking the right balance:
Grade for completion, give feedback on quality. Try the three-step approach: 1) specify a quantity and types of discussion posts you expect, 2) award a few points for completion, and 3) provide feedback to students on the quality of the posts. You might require an original post and a certain number of responses to another post, or specify the types of post (such as a real-life example, a connection to other work, or a calculation). See “After discussion” section for tips on giving feedback equitably.
Grade for quality, give feedback. Some instructors have rubrics or checklists that they use to assess contributions or ask students to self-assess their participation first as a basis to award a grade. Keep the points low-stakes to shift the focus to learning, not performance. See “After discussion” section for tips on giving feedback equitably, and read more about and find examples of online discussion rubrics.
Set up groups and time limits in advance. Whether synchronous or asynchronous, decide how many people will be discussing and for how long. In asynchronous online discussions, such as ones on Moodle forums or Blackboard Discussion boards, this should take place over a period of time that allows sufficient opportunity for students to access and respond. Set times for the discussion to open, a time by which students need to post, a time by which they need to respond to others, and a time by which the discussion is closed. For synchronous discussions, you can seed multiple discussions among random groupings of students via Zoom breakout rooms; or you can pre-assign students to breakout groups. You may find more success with small group discussions in the online environment. Small group sizes generally range from 2-5 people; however, setting up norms and building a feeling of safety is more predictive of group effectiveness than size of the group (Duhigg, 2016). It may take time to build a culture of online discussion in your course, so be patient.
Set up the reporting/notetaking tools for you and your students:
- You might use Perusall for text-based asynchronous discussions prior to, after, or in place of, a synchronous discussion. UMass IT provides some limited support for Perusall, and talk with the library about working with texts in Purusall.
- For small group synchronous discussions, consider using a common online spreadsheet to organize notetaking for each group. The benefit of such a tool is that it approximates what we do in a face-to-face classroom: you can “circulate” while students talk, listen in, answer questions, and ask questions to stimulate further discussion (Bruff, 2020).
- Prepare one document with all the links you might need to send students throughout the discussion. Have a TA, colleague, or student test accessing any links in advance.
Setting the Social Stage
Discuss expectations for interaction. Set guidelines for online discussion (set them collaboratively with your students, or simply provide them), pointing out how online discussions differ from face-to-face discussions. For synchronous discussions, explain, model, and reinforce the use of a chat or backchannel (e.g., Zoom chat) in the whole class discussion to approximate the natural interactions that occur in face-to-face environments. You can create a record of contributions through the “Save chat” function. A TA or student can monitor the chat so that you can voice those contributions to the entire class (Bruff, 2020).
Have your first discussion be a “fun” or “content-neutral” one. Your goal here is to get students comfortable with the technology, the norms for engagement, address any potential problems right away before you get into content, and build community. You might do this in the first few weeks as a community-building activity by having students post about themselves on the discussion board.
Synchronous (e.g., Zoom Sessions)
- Give students the discussion question or goal of discussion in writing. Explain what will happen after the discussion (e.g., a poll? One group member reporting out to the class?)
- You can drop into breakout rooms, but also considering having students record notes on a “note catcher” in the form of an online collaborative document (see this template matrix-formatted note catcher or this document-style note catcher). Each group has access to the note catcher and updates the document as they discuss. Monitor the document for themes, questions, and bring students back when groups seem to be finished talking.
- Leave time to synthesize the discussion (see next section)
Asynchronous (e.g., discussion boards)
- Check in on the first few posts, especially in the first few weeks of class. Pose additional questions or invite other students to respond to a useful comment. If things are going in the wrong direction, add a comment to redirect.
- Get feedback from students after a few discussions. Consider if norms need to be adjusted based on challenging conversations you are hearing.
- Immediately deal with violations of the norms for interaction. Talk individually to students who have erred using the norms and why they matter as a framework. Give them the opportunity to try again with more clear guidelines.
End with a synthesis of the discussion to solidify learning. There are many options for how to do this:
- Assign group roles that include a “discussion synthesizer”” that rotates among students. Student can synthesize in writing, by recording a video, or through a visual recap of the discussion (e.g., a concept map, flowchart, analogy, etc.) that is connected to course objectives.
- Write or record a weekly recap that synthesizes the discussion(s), mentioning students by name to build personal connections between yourself and students (this also assures students you are engaging as much as they are).
- Have each student or group turn in their top takeaway and remaining questions from the discussion for you to review.
- Summarize what you hope they got out of the discussion. Have them self-assess if they got there, what their group missed, and next steps.
Give feedback on content as well as process. Feedback can be given on a group level (e.g. themes and trends you noticed as whole) in a brief video or written post/announcement. Considering choosing a few students' contributions to highlight every so often. Social recognition is a powerful motivator. Occasionally, give the entire class feedback focused on discussion norms you set or developed with students. Aim to provide each student with individualized feedback at least once; in larger classes, rubrics and checklists can help you efficiently provide targeted feedback. See Moodle rubrics and Blackboard rubrics for further information, and contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more ideas and assistance setting up these tools.
Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at email@example.com
Bruff, D. (2020, June 11). Active learning in hybrid and physically distanced classrooms [blog post]. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/2020/06/active-learning-in-hybrid-and-socially-distanced-classrooms/
Duhigg, C. (2016, February 25). What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. The New York Times.
Stachiowiak, B. (2020, July 2). Designing for the uncertain fall [audio podcast]. Teaching in Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://teachinginhighered.com/podcast/designing-for-the-uncertain-fall/