Topics Map > Discussion
Topics Map > Student Engagement > Student/Student
Topics Map > Student Engagement > Student/Instructor
Topics Map > Active Learning > Online
Topics Map > Active Learning > Discussions

Using Online Discussions to Increase Student Engagement

This is a document that introduces uses of online discussions

Asynchronous Discussion

This document was created to guide the development of asynchronous discussions. Research guides the content and recommendations found here, but this document is meant to be informational only. Additional consultation with an instructional technology consultant is recommended since various situational factors can lead to different design decisions.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a discussion is: 1. The “consideration of a question in an open and usually informal debate” 2. “[A] formal treatment of a topic in speech or writing.” While discussions are often thought of as taking place live in a face-to-face classroom, they can also be an informative learning tool in asynchronous and distance learning environments. Asynchronous discussions can allow students who are less likely to speak up in class to engage more fully, improve learning outcomes for students with disabilities, and give ESL speakers more time to comprehend what has been said and more fully formulate their responses.

Creating a classroom environment conducive to discussions is the key to successful discussion activities, regardless of whether the discussions are held face-to-face or online or synchronous or asynchronous. Many practices for creating an inclusive learning environment also create a learning environment conducive to discussions. Instructors can improve the likelihood that their class environment will be conducive to student discussions by establishing trust and community with and among their students. Instructor social presence and behavior modeling are key tools for establishing trust and building a community.

Ensuring that students also have access to their discussions is a key element to the overall success of the discussion. Before a course start date, careful thought around technology, tools, bandwidth, and accommodations for discussion tools can help ensure that all students can participate in discussions throughout the course. Once an accessible discussion tool has been selected, how-to guides and technical support can help remove barriers to engaging with the tool that students without prior experience may face.

A learner’s ability to “construct knowledge through reflected discourses” in a learning community is known as cognitive presence. Two other types of presence contribute to a learner’s ability to have a cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. Social presence can be promoted through community building and is the sense of belonging learners have as part of the community. Instructors can contribute to a positive social presence in the course by being authentically present, responding to students, and monitoring and engaging in discussions. Teaching presence refers to the design and facilitation of learning. The instructor demonstrates teaching presence through the course design and discussion, setting the ground rules for discussion interactions and assisting students in building social norms for the class and discussion.

A well-planned and carried-out discussion allows students to engage actively in their learning. The format of discussions itself is best suited to higher-level Learning Outcomes, such as applying, analyzing, and evaluating. When discussions are designed to be low-stakes opportunities to construct knowledge in learning teams or the broader learning community, students can actively demonstrate their understanding of the targeted learning outcome for the discussion activity.



  • Bakar, N. A., Latiff, H., & Hamat, A. (2013). Enhancing ESL learners speaking skills through asynchronous online discussion forum. Asian Social Science, 9(9), 224.
  • Bassett, P. (2011). How do students view asynchronous online discussions as a learning experience? Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 7(1), 69-79.
  • Birch, D., & Volkov, M. (2007). Assessment of online reflections: Engaging English second language (ESL) students. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 23(3).
  • Dahlstrom-Hakki, I., Alstad, Z., & Banerjee, M. (2020). Comparing synchronous and asynchronous online discussions for students with disabilities: the impact of social presence. Computers & Education, 150, 103842.
  • Delello, J. A., McWhorter, R. R., & Lawrence, H. (2019). Fostering a Community of Inquiry in Online Discussions. Academic Exchange Quarterly. 23(1).
  • Discussion. Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 20 Jul. 2020.
  • Harasim, L. (1990). Online education: An environment for collaboration and intellectual amplification. In L. Harasim, ed, Online education: Perspectives on a new environment, pp. 39–66. Praeger Publishers: New York.
  • Kelly, R. (2008, August 11). Creating Trust in Online Education - Faculty Focus: Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning.
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology. (2005, June 2). Establishing Trust Online Is Critical For Online Communication Say NJIT Experts. Science Daily. Retrieved July 8, 2020 from
  • Skinner, E. (2009). Using community development theory to improve student engagement in online discussion: A case study. ALT-J 17(2), 89-100.
  • Wang, Y. M., & Chen, V. D. T. (2008). Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence--A Practical Experience. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 12, 157-177.
  • Zhu, E. (2006). Interaction and cognitive engagement: An analysis of four asynchronous online discussions. Instructional Science. 34(6), 451.

Keywordsonline discussion, online, asynchronous discussions, canvas discussions, student discussionsDoc ID104034
OwnerKaren S.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2020-07-15 14:47:04Updated2024-04-18 08:31:32
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
Feedback  1   0