Purposeful Online Discussions

Effective Discussions

Discussions are as good as the prompt that starts them. An often overlooked aspect of fostering substantive discussion is to make sure your discussion prompt is actually a discussion prompt and not an individual assignment in disguise. “List three reasons why X happened. Justify your answers from the text.” isn’t actually a discussion prompt. It’s a question that the student answers and then walks away having proved to the instructor that they read the book. If you just want to know that they read the book, try a reading quiz in the Canvas Quizzes tool or a Quick Check.

If you want students to discuss why X happened, try phrasing the prompt in a way that supports discussion and reflection and provides a rationale for replying to one another.

One thing that is sometimes overlooked is the amount of people that can reasonably participate in an active discussion at once. Generally speaking, the number of students in an online discussion group would be the same as the maximum number of students you would put in a small group if you broke them up in a physical classroom with movable furniture. Since you’re grading these discussions, you generally want all students to participate. If you normally do whole-class discussions in-person, think about how long it would take and how overwhelming that would be if every student had to actively participate. For discussions resembling whole-class discussions, you’ll want to break the class down into groups of around 10-12 so everyone can participate easily. For more on the small group discussions, see the Canvas Guide “How do I create a group discussion in a course?

See the following Infographic on discussion prompts for more tips. Click on the image below to embiggen or download a pdf of the infographic for yourself or to share with colleagues.


Building a Better Discussion Prompt Infographic

Moderating Discussion Forums

Class discussion in a live classroom—either as the whole class or in small groups—is a great way to get students to interact with one another and with the content. In an online course, discussion forums are often the main means of whole class communication. Whether you use formal discussion prompts or provide informal opportunities for collaboration or topical discussion, moderating these forums is different than moderating a whole class discussion in an in-person classroom.

Despite rumors to the contrary, it is not necessary to reply to every post every student makes in your discussion forum. Excessive faculty posting can preemptively close down conversations. The question becomes “how much is too much and how much is not enough?” The answer to that question can vary based on the course content, the level of the students, and the interest of the instructor, but commenting on 1/4 to 1/3 of all substantive posts is a reasonable place to begin. Making sure to spread your comments over the course of the week is also important to encourage students to participate over time.

As a rule, if you will not give participation credit to a student for simply posting “I agree” or “good job,” then it’s not helpful to model those sorts of posts in your own discussion forum participation. As the expert on the subject, you will surely have additional thoughts, further data, or reflective questions to add to any discussion. You can also pull together threads of ideas or themes that you see across several students’ posts and make connections back to the course text or primary concepts. Many faculty use some form of Socratic or reflective questioning in their face-to-face classes and similar strategies can also work well online. Students need to see you publicly value substantive discussion by giving points for it and modeling it in the forums.


When Discussion Goes Bad: Conflict in an Online Course

Conflict—whether overt or covert—is something no one enjoys dealing with in the classroom. In a face-to-face class, you may be able to quell inappropriate behavior with a sharp look or a word of warning after class. In an online class, inappropriate behavior may be harder to spot and harder to combat due to the text-based nature of most communication. Managing Controversy in the Online Classroom (a Faculty Focus article) provides an overview of proactive and reactive ways to avoid controversy and handle it when it does appear.

To avoid conflict that stems from incivility, beginning with Core Rules of Netiquette is a good place to start. Reminding everyone that there is another human being on the receiving end of each message can help students calibrate their reactions to the context. Asking students to participate in discussions by posting video comments also reinforces the reality that they are talking to other real people. Mintu-Wimsatt, Kernek, and Lozada (2010) suggested a list of netiquette items for a graduate online class which includes:

  • Do not dominate any discussion.
  • Never make fun of someone’s ability to read or write, especially when English is a second or third language.
  • Use correct spelling, grammar, and plain English.
  • Keep an open mind and be willing to express even your minority opinion.
  • Think before you push the “Send” button.
  • Do not hesitate to ask for feedback.

When conflict occurs, Horton (2006) recommends some options for instructors:

  1. If you have taught the course before, you may be able to anticipate problems and have a consistent, thought-out response ready.
  2. Include netiquette requirements in the syllabus and course introduction. Many learners may not know the conventions and expectations for online learning. Enforce policies consistently.
  3. When you come across unacceptable behavior, do not respond without taking a moment to think about the behavior in context. For example, if students are experiencing frustration with the course or the tools, respond to both the usability issue and the way they expressed it.
  4. Differentiate between first-time violators and serious or repeat offenders. What can be used as a learning experience versus what requires disciplinary action?
  5. Help students learn to disagree professionally and politely. If they are used to the sort of disagreement and “debate” that occurs on Facebook, instructions and modeling appropriate ways to give and respond to legitimate criticism may be helpful.

References and Resources

Kelly, R. (March, 2013). Managing controversy in the online classroomFaculty Focus.

Kelly, R. (March, 2014). Discussion board assignments: Alternatives to the question-and-answer format. Faculty Focus.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Digital Course Design Resources by Trustees of Indiana University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.