Tips for Effective (Online) Discussions


SECTION 1: How to read a paper for the purpose of preparing for an in-class discussion?

Your before-class preparation is a necessary (but insufficient) condition for an effective in-class discussion to take place. So, how do we stack the odds in our favor in preparation of a good discussion? Well the answer is simple. The more thoroughly you have engaged in the pre-class assignment, the greater the likelihood that you will be able to contribute positively and constructively to the in-class discussion (online or face-to-face).

We will be reading a great variety of articles in this class. Below are a few suggestions to help you approach how to read an article and put you in an analytical and evaluative frame of mind (rather than trying to figure out "what do I need to remember from this article before I go to class?").

Start by placing the reading in perspective to your own needs, interests and level of engagement:

  1. Why was this paper written? The text will "feel" very different if it is an original research paper, a review paper, or a conference proceeding paper.
  2. What is this paper about? Typically a well-written abstract (and conclusions) of a paper will tell you what the author(s) wanted to get across to you as a reader.
  3. What do you want to gain by reading this article - more depth (go in details), more breath (get the big idea), or both?
  4. How much time are you willing to spend with the reading?

Then, read the article using your critical-thinking skills:

  1. What previous literature do the authors bring to bear to justify their work? (Is it narrow or broad?)
  2. Are the aims / purpose / objectives in alignment clearly described?
  3. Are you familiar with the methods / experimental design / statistical tools? (will you take the time to google scholar some terms if need be?)
  4. What are the "dependent" variables and the "independent" variables?
  5. What can you learn from focusing on the data presented in figures and tables?
  6. Are the interpretations, discussion of results, and conclusions sound and well supported by the data analysis and (or) other (literature-based) evidence?

Finally, practice your meta-cognitive skills and ask yourself:

  1. Are the findings presented generalizable to other populations? Why or why not?
  2. Does the methodology presented have limitations? If so what are these?
  3. What are the implicit (not stated) implications of this work?
  4. As far you know, do the findings contradict or support the existing literature on the topic? How?
  5. Last but not least, what were the ASSUMPTIONS (MOTIVATION) that made the author do what they did? (who supported this research financially? What can you learn from the acknowledgment section of the article?)

Section 2: Norms and and working agreements to follow during an in-class discussion

What happens during class is also very important. A good discussion is not about getting the "right answer" to a question but rather it is about the "exploring ideas" and deepening our understanding of concepts, theories, or a "simple" scientific fact. A good discussion is a collective effort that require (meta-cognitive) awareness of what's enfolding in front of our eyes.  Learning to be an active and constructive participant to an in-class discussion is not trivial. Similarly, facilitating an in-class discussion require special instructional "skills." As your instructor I will do as much as I can to improve the effectiveness of our in-class discussions and activities. Below are "Norms" and "Working Agreements" that we will follow during our in-class discussions and activities. Theses norms and working agreements were developed by colleagues in the school of Education involved in the "Discussion Project" aimed improving instructors and students skills at fulfilling their teaching and learning potential through high quality "discussions."

Norms: The norms constitute the foundation of how we treat each other as they embody the values and beliefs that are necessary to a productive interaction. For example in our interactions during an in-class discussion, we…

  1. Presume positive intentions of your classmates.
  2. Approach disagreement with curiosity.
  3. Engage respectfully.

Working Agreements: The working agreements provide instructions and guidelines highlighting the particulars of how we do our best work. For example, our intervention during an in-class discussion will be…

  1. Focused on the prompt (i.e., follow the instructions!).
  2. Grounded in the text at hand (unless instructed otherwise).
  3. In interest of moving the discussion forward, building on others’ ideas.
  4. Focused on deepening collective understanding through inquiry, critical questions, and evidence.

Section 3: Basic discussion skills to foster learning community

There are constructive and destructive group (discussion) behavior. Discussion is not a competitive sport but a team approach to tackling a problem. Some of us are talkative while others prefer to listen. Some of us are extrovert while others are introvert.  In addition to norms and working agreement, establishing a positive group dynamics is essential to creating an effective learning community. Below is list of constructive and destructive behavior that will help you identify your strength and weakness as a participant in a discussion.

  • Constructive Discussion Behavior
    1. Cooperating : Is interested in the views and perspectives of other group members and willing to adapt for the good of the group
    2. Clarifying : Makes issues clear for the group by listening, summarizing, and focusing discussions.
    3. Inspiring : Enlivens the group, encourages participation and progress.
    4. Harmonizing : Encourages group cohesion and collaboration. For example, uses humor as relief after a particularly difficult discussion.
    5. Risk Taking : Is willing to risk possible personal loss or embarrassment for the success of the overall group or project.
    6. Process Checking : Questions the group on process issues, such as agenda, time frames, discussion topics, decision methods, and use of information.
  • Destructive Discussion Behavior 
    1. Dominating : Uses most of the meeting time to express personal views and opinions. Tries to take control by use of power, time, and so on.
    2. Rushing : Encourages the group to move on before the task is complete. Gets tired of listening to others and working with the group.
    3. Withdrawing : Removes self from discussions or decision making. Refuses to participate.
    4. Discounting : Disregards or minimizes ideas or suggestions of teammates. Severe discounting behavior includes insults, which are often in the form of jokes.
    5. Digressing : Rambles, tells stories, and takes group away from primary purpose.
    6. Blocking : Impedes group progress by obstructing all ideas and suggestions (“That will never work because . . . ”).

Section 4: What does participation look like and how could it be evaluated?

The table below provides a guideline for a student's contribution to in-class discussion (participation assessment criteria), the associated grade, a description of what the student is doing and the degree to which the student contributes to the norms and working agreements of effective discussions.

Assessment Criteria  Grade (Points)  Description  Norms and Working Agreements 
Outstanding  A-AB
Actively engaged. Contributions in class reflect exceptional preparation. Ideas offered are always substantive, provide one or more major insights as well as direction for the class. If this student were not a member of the class, the quality of discussion would be diminished markedly.   Consistent adherence 
Good   B-BC
Engaged. Contributions in class reflect thorough preparation. Ideas offered are usually substantive, provide good insights and sometimes direction for the class. If this student were not a member of the class, the quality of discussion would be diminished.   Adhered to regularly 
Adequate   C
Present. Contributions in class reflect satisfactory preparation. Ideas offered are sometimes substantive, provide generally useful insights but seldom offer a new direction for the discussion. If this student were not a member of the class, the quality of discussion would be diminished somewhat.   Adhered to sometimes 
Non-Participant   D
Attends classes but says little or nothing in class. Hence, there is not an adequate basis for evaluation. If this student were not a member of the class, the quality of discussion would not be changed.   Adhered to rarely 
Unsatisfactory   F
Misses classes without legitimate reason(s); when in class, says little or nothing, and/or pays little attention.   Consistently not followed 

KeywordsTips for Effective Online Discussions   Doc ID105469
OwnerMichel W.GroupEffective Teaching | Internationally Diverse CC
Created2020-08-31 17:19:49Updated2023-09-07 12:30:14
SitesDS 875 (EPD 690) College Classroom ISIF
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