Discussions are an excellent way to promote critical inquiry, reflection, and dialogue in online, hybrid, blended, or fully face-to-face courses. Asynchronous web-based discussion tools, such as those typically found in a course management system (like ISU’s Canvas), can continue conversations beyond the classroom space and give students additional time to form and articulate ideas.  In contrast, synchronous discussion (which typically happens in-person, a live-webinar, or online chat) used to provide immediate feedback, clarification, or redirect the conversation in response to issues that arise. Both asynchronous and synchronous discussions are useful for promoting community and creating presence.  A discussion activity often works best when students need to articulate their understanding of course concepts, unpack a complex idea, research and debate some information, think through a problem more intensely, or focus on a particular reading in greater depth.
  • Keep discussion questions short. Ideally, only ask students to answer one question, but if you’d like to give students options, make it clear that they get to choose one question to answer.
  • Make the question visually clear if providing the question in an asynchronous forum. Put the question in bold or italicized typeface or in a larger font.
  • Avoid elliptical or unclear questions. Keep your prompts specific and with a clear objective in mind.
  • Avoid leading questions. Don’t bring your own assumptions about the answers into the question. Keep the question specific while allowing for multiple possible responses in order to generate discussion.
  • Ask discussion questions that use different types question starters to elicit different level of thinking.
    • Analysis questions: “How would you explain…? “What is the importance of…?” “Why is this significant for…?”
    • Compare-and-contrast questions: “How does… compare to…?” “What is the difference/similarity between… and…?”
    • Cause-and-effect questions: “What are the causes of… on…?” “What are the effects of… on…?” “How do the causes of… impact the effects of…?”
    • Clarification questions: “How do we know that…?” “What is it mean for… to be true?”

Introduce a discussion exercise

  • Offer some brief context and an introduction to the activity by explaining how each discussion activity connects to the course objectives and content knowledge in this discipline.
  • Provide very explicit (i.e., step-by-step) instructions for how students should complete the discussion activity, both in terms of what content they should be exploring, but also how they should share their responses.

Keep students engaged in the discussion, whether online or in-person

  • Encourage students to respond to each other, not only to get them talking but to get them to think through others’ responses and perspectives.
  • Be a presence in the discussion where possible. Respond to particularly useful insights or offer feedback on ideas that may be inaccurate or not fully formed. Directly ask for other students’ input on particular questions or concerns that arise during the discussion. As an instructor, it is essential to demonstrate your interest in your student’s insights by participating (without taking it over completely).
  • Respond in a timely fashion. In a hybrid or online course, in particular, it is useful to respond to any questions or concerns within 24-48 hours.
  • In online discussions, set clear deadlines and expectations for how students should respond to discussion questions, and how long their responses should be. Encourage students to respond to at least one other student’s post. This step will encourage students to read their peers’ responses and gain some new perspectives.

Facilitate a ‘real-time’ webinar with discussion

  • Ask students to use a “hand raise” button (or another tool for showing the student’s interest in speaking) within the webinar platform when they want to talk. Just as students must raise their hands in a face-to-face classroom, students in a webinar should also visually indicate interest before speaking to avoid confusion in the webinar room.
  • Ask students to keep their microphones muted in the webinar room until they would like to speak. This instruction will ensure that the discussion environment does not become distracting from microphone feedback or other noise.
  • Organize break-out rooms within the webinar. Just as students can feel uncomfortable speaking in a large classroom environment, students may also feel hesitant to talk in a large group webinar. Find opportunities to get students talking among each other in smaller groups.

Determine how you will assess learning 

  • Decide on a metric for discussion activities. Do you intend to grade based only on completion, or for other measures too? will you use a rubric?
  • Define the learning benefits to students (skills practiced, content knowledge gained, the tasks for completion, and the criteria for success).

For many of today’s students and more than a few educators, effective participation in online discussions in education may not be second nature. Read Educause’s 10 Tips for Effective Online Discussions web article.

Create connections with your students and between your students using an ice breaker discussion forum. Choose a few topics and have your students select one to respond to – make sure you respond with your answer, too!

To stimulate more discussion, Wiggins and McTighe (2013) suggest using these kinds of questions, which they identify as “essential questions”:
  • They are open-ended (meaning they have no single correct answer);
  • They are thought-provoking;
  • They require higher order thinking (meaning application, analysis, synthesis, or creation rather than memorization and regurgitation);
  • They point to important course concepts;
  • They tend to raise more questions for the learners;
  • They usually require answers with justification and/or evidence; and
  • They often recur over time.
The following example questions come from the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh: Example 1: Promote discussion
  • Ask students to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a topic (such as electronic communication, for example)
Example 2: Promote engagement with reading assignments
  • Using the information from (insert readings here, such as chapters 7 & 8), give your own example that illustrates a concept from the reading (such as at least three of the author’s main concepts, for example). You may use a personal experience or you may create an example.
Example 3: Promote engagement with the library (ensure sources are available virtually)
  • Part 1: Ask students to use the library to find an article about a relevant course topic
  • Part 2: Ask them to provide an overview of the article and discuss why this is relevant to your social or work life, using concepts from the article and the course readings
  • Part 3: Ask them to cite the article and provide the DOI or link.You may also wish to ask them not to use an article that a co-learner has already posted
Example 4: Promote use of other sources
  • Ask students to read an article attached to the discussion that you’ve posted
  • Part 1: Ask students to write a critical evaluation of the article and explain their points using examples from the article
  • Part 2: Ask them to find two sources that support their evaluation of the article and give a brief summary of both
  • Ask them to explain why they believe these sources are credible and whether they would or would not be valuable to this author
Example 5: Promote (asynchronous) student collaboration
  • Part 1: Ask students to post their topic idea in the form of a proposal for their final projects (it’s best if you provide a template or format)
  • Part 2: Once they have posted, ask them to find another student’s project posting and read their proposal
  • Part 3: Ask them to develop two potential research questions that they may want to consider in the course of their project development.  Make sure these questions require thoughtful responses rather than just looking up an answer or yes/no questions
  • Ask them to choose a classmate who does not already have multiple responses so that everyone receives a peer response
Example 6: Promote engagement with peer review
  • Part 1. Ask students to post a rough draft of an assignment as an attachment on the discussion board
  • Part 2. After they have posted their draft, ask them to choose another student’s draft to review; it’s usually best if they download it first and add commentary and then upload the version with their comments
  • Considerations: ensure you have given students clear criteria for peer review, learn more from the Peer Assessment page.
  • Edutopia’s The 40 Reflection Questions (PDF)
  • Kearsley, G. & Blomeyer, B. (2003). Preparing teachers to teach online. NCREL; Retrieved from http://home.sprynet.com/~gkearsley/teachongonline.htm
  • McTighe, Jay and Wiggins, Grant (2013). Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.
  • Smith, R. (2008). Conquering the content: A step-by-step guide to online course design (1st ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh (n.d.). Examples of good discussion questions. Retrieved from https://uwosh.edu/canvas/

Here are a few easy ways to guide student reflection:

  • Invite students to share:
    • one thing they feel most confident about and why
    • one thing they struggled with and how they overcame it or how they plan to
    • one thing they still don’t fully grasp
    • one most helpful resource from the week/lesson/etc.
    • one resource they wish they had during the last week/lesson/etc.
  •  Use Grossman’s Continuum of Reflection as a guide:
    • Content-based reflection, where you ask students to provide evidence and make inferences
    • Metacognitive reflection, where you ask students to think about their thinking, e.g. noting differences between thoughts and feelings
    • Self-authorship reflection, where students gain distance from earlier thinking and are asked about how feelings and thoughts influence each other
    • Transformative and intensive reflection, where students are asked to note how their feelings and thoughts have changed over time
  • Use ‘Levels of Reflection’ as a guide:
    • Reporting and responding, where students are asked to observe, provide evidence, ask questions and state opinions
    • Relating, where students make connections between content and prior learning or personal experience
    • Reasoning, where students analyze content, including discussions of relevant research literature
    • Reconstructing, where students imagine future applications, such as in future professional contexts

Advantages of asynchronous online discussion in an online or hybrid class:

  • Students have time to think deeply about the content
  • All students are required to participate
  • Writing paragraph-length responses helps students develop academic writing skills
  • For hybrid courses, responding in writing to course concepts can further the discussion that was begun in class and influence the next session’s discussion

Advantages of synchronous ‘real-time’ online discussion in an online or hybrid class:

  • Sense of community from the shared temporal space
  • Immediate feedback for questions and concerns
  • Discussion can be more instructor-led
  • Instructor can make changes to the activity spontaneously

Advantages of synchronous discussion in a f2f class:

  • Increases sense of community
  • Immediate feedback for questions and concerns
  • Discussion can be instructor-led
  • Instructor can make changes to the activity spontaneously
  • Instructor  (or students) can augment the discussion with classroom resources (i.e., whiteboard, projector, document camera)

Discussions in Canvas are generated using a rich-text editor that can help instructors allow for a high level of accessibility. Some features of the rich text editor include image descriptions, document structure, semantic elements, color and spatial cues, color contrast, table headings, and link descriptions.

Most asynchronous discussion tools are free of cost – especially ones that are hosted within Canvas – but it is worthwhile to check if you are considering using a tool that is outside of the learning management system.


Related instructional tools

Discussions, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University, is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Discussions, is a derivative of Discussions developed by the University of California-Davis’s EdTech Commons (retrieved on May 13, 2020) from http://edtech.ucdavis.edu/teaching/discussions/.

  • 4 Starters – U of Southern CA
  • 5 New Twists for Online Discussions – U of Wisconsin
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