Better Discussions

Consider Your Purpose

Before digging into the “how” of discussion in your online classroom, take a moment to ensure you are clear on why you have them: what is the purpose of discussion in your course? What learning outcomes are you working toward? What might successful discussion look like in your course?

Fundamental Principles

No matter the types of discussions and facilitation methods you employ, some principles of discussion will remain relevant:

  • Model what it looks like to be part of your classroom community. Don’t simply state your expectations, model participation as an exemplar of substantive contributions and through your willingness to be authentic, explore, experiment, wander, and be vulnerable.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Instructors often decry “I agree” and other short, affirmative answers…but these are often the result of limited questions. Consider: if the question being posed has one right answer or answers that are “closed” by their simplicity, should it be used for discussion?
  • Foster agency and ownership by allowing students to take the lead and assisting them in supporting their positions.
  • Listen out loud. Teachers naturally use discussion to make learning visible; don’t forget to show that you are present and listening!
  • Don’t hyper-focus on grammar and mechanics unless such a focus is justified by the nature of the forum, such as in a presentation board, and are an explicit part of your grading policy or rubric.

Some Discussion Types

You’re probably familiar with content forums–whether for directed content discussion or reflection—which are the most common kind of discussion, but depending on the needs of your class and students, discussion forums of many other types have been used effectively, such as:

  • Meet, greet and represent forums allowing students (and instructors!) to get to know one another and share who they are and what they care about.
  • Project, collaboration and draft sharing forums for working together and sharing, which can be more or less directed.
  • Virtual water cooler, coffee shop, or cafĂ© forums for informal, ongoing social interaction not composed in advance or even necessarily directed at a particular topic.
  • Current events forums for bringing real-time, real-world events and topics into the class, which serves to engage and connect learners and instructors.
  • Guest forums for bringing in outside experts in a way possibly more amenable to asynchronous (and lower-bandwidth) learning situations.
  • Resource forums to centralize contributions students and teachers discover as a course progresses.
  • Presentation forums for lighter-weight “presentations” that can replace or supplement resource- and bandwidth-heavy methods such as web conference presentations.

And remember, being cautious about creating a structure that is too divided or complicated, that these discussions can be employed course-wide for all students or distributed within groups.

Facilitating Engagement

Once you’ve decided on the purpose(s) and type(s) of discussions, it’s time to consider methods of facilitating engagement. Here are some methods that have been successful.

Break the Text Barrier

Keeping bandwidth concerns in mind, use—and promote the use of—emoji, images, and media. This could mean simple activities like having learners introduce themselves using only emoji or bringing in media from elsewhere, or more complex tasks such as creating original images, memes, charts, infographics, etc., some of which could be part of other assignments.

Let Students Lead

Give students the opportunity to lead discussion. One popular method is by having learners take a turn posing questions, perhaps by bringing in contemporary issues, related journal articles, or other relevant artifacts. You can even have a discussion about…discussion! Give learners a chance to share what they think makes for good discussion, things that have worked (and not worked!) in their earlier experiences, their ideas for activities, that kind of thing.

Expand your direction

This doesn’t mean to direct more responses but to ask for specific kinds of responses. Just a few possibilities:

  • Quick research: provide a list of topics, or have students brainstorm one, and ask for rapid research, with a time limit or other constraint.
  • Collection and curation: ask participants to compile a collection of links and resources on a particular topic, along with some added value, such as summaries or explanation of the importance of each. This works well with groups!
  • Classic compare and contrast of previous responses, a model that can work even better if you ask them to work with more than two existing posts.
  • Summarize and query: ask students to summarize a thread, the posts by a particular group of students, or some other selection…and ask questions about what is missing and what they didn’t understand.
  • Weaving: ask learners to identify commonalities and conflict across and within a selection of posts.
  • Elevator pitch: ask participants to create an original post—or summarize an argument or position—in a (very) limited number of words. This works well with media, such as asking for this as a 30 second or less video or audio file.
  • Hypotheticals: ask students to propose a hypothetical change, difference or revision and explain how that would effect their own—or someone else’s—position.
  • Scenarios and role playing: use the discussion board as a place for learners to engage in scenario activities, taking on roles and participating in character.

Break the Platform Barrier

Your course might lend itself to “discussions” outside of the Canvas discussion board or other traditional tools. You could ask your students to meet virtually, using audio or video, and have a debate, convene a panel, or just…talk to each other using applications such as Zoom or FlipGrid.

“Discussion,” or the essential features for meeting some learning outcomes, can happen in the comments of a shared document, through “track changes” in a Word document, or using a collaborative annotation tool like

Of course it’s always important to balance the benefits of these approaches and tools with the increased demands on you and your students.

Failure Happens

There is no “secret sauce” that guarantees discussion will be as active and engaging as you would like. It’a not impossible that the same course with the same basic curriculum and structure will have discussions that soar one quarter and merely move along the next. And that’s OK…sometimes students (and teachers) learn more from the “failures” than you might think.