Students discussing assignment

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 UC Davis Canvas), can continue conversations beyond the classroom space and give students additional time to form and articulate ideas, whereas synchronous discussion (which typically happens in person or in a webinar or online chat) can be 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 own understanding of course concepts, unpack a complex idea, research and debate some information, think through a problem more deeply, or focus on a particular reading in greater depth.

Tips for Writing Effective Discussion Questions

  • 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?”
Students read each others’ posts and are exposed to multiple perspectives about the midterm topic, and to uses of quotes and evidence integration that they may not have expected. It works well online because each student really has to take the time to find quotes and has time to read through what classmates have done. In person, there’s never enough time for that kind of close reading.Mary Stewart, University Writing Program

Best Practices for Facilitating a Discussion (Online or In Person)

  • Introduce a discussion activity
    • Offer some brief context and an introduction to the activity by explaining how the discussion relates to course material.
    • 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.
    • State what students should accomplish or have understood by the end of their discussion.
  • 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 good 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 important to demonstrate your interest in your student’s insights by participating in the discussion (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 choose at least one other student’s post to respond to. This likely will not lead to the kind of organic “back-and-forth” conversation that some instructors find happening in a face-to-face classroom, but it will encourage students to read their peers’ responses and gain some new perspectives.
  • Facilitate a synchronous webinar discussion using audio/video
    • 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 speak. Just as students must raise their hand in a face-to-face classroom, students in a webinar should also visually indicate interest before speaking in order 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 will ensure that the discussion environment does not become distracting from microphone feedback or other noise.
    • Organize break-out rooms within the larger webinar. Just as students can feel uncomfortable speaking in a large classroom environment, students may also feel hesitant to speak in a large group webinar. Find opportunities to get students talking among each other in smaller groups.
  • Determine how you will assess learning and grade a discussion activity
    • Decide on a metric for discussion activities. Do you intend to grade based only on completion or do you want to grade for other measures too?
    • Communicate your expectations to students for how they should participate and what you will be looking for. After the discussion, give students feedback in the discussion to help them understand the kind of score they received.

Tools for Online Discussions

  • In UC Davis Canvas, forums are generated using a rich-text editor that can help instructors allow for a high level of accessibility. Some features to 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 the university’s course management system (UC Davis) – but it is worthwhile to check if you are considering using a tool that is outside of the learning management system
  • If you would like students to enter mathematical equations into their discussions, consider using a discussion tool that has equation editors built in them like Piazza. 

Advantages of Online Discussion

  • 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 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 Face-to-Face Discussion

  • Advantages of face-to-face discussion:
    • 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
    • Responding in writing to course concepts can further the discussion that was begun in class and can influence the next session’s discussion
  • 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 can augment the discussion with classroom resources (i.e., whiteboard, projector, document camera)

References & Resources

Bart, M. (2011). Strategies for Facilitating More Effective Class Discussions. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/strategies-for-facilitating-more-effective-classroom-discussions/

Kelly, R. (2014). Strategies for Managing Online Discussions. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/strategies-managing-online-discussions/