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Facilitating Online Discussions

How to facilitate an online discussion

In Muilenburg and Berge’s article A Framework for Designing Questions for Online Learning, they present advice on how to start and maintain a robust online discussion (Muilenburg & Berge, 2006). 

The rationale for using online discussions

  • Facilitation of critical thinking skills – “involves not only knowledge of content, but also concept formation and analysis, reasoning and drawing conclusions, recognizing and avoiding contradiction, and other essential cognitive activities” (Scheinin, 1995).
  • Facilitation of higher-order thinking – “thinking creatively, critically, or in a decision-making or problem-solving manner” (Sparapani, 1998).
  • Facilitation of distributed or shared thinking – “the connected mental acts of thinking are spread out among a number of different individuals” (Lipman, 1998)
  • Facilitation of constructive thinking – “constructing knowledge from personal experience . . . social interaction and collaboration to share multiple perspectives, and integrating personal experience, personal interpretation of the world and the perspectives of others to create socially-constructed meaning” (Wilson, Teslow, and Osman-Jouchous, 1995).

Constructing a good question

Questions to promote deeper learning

  • That is an interesting point. What might someone who disagrees with you say to challenge your opinion?
  • Can you compare your response to xxx (another student's post)? Are you both saying the same thing or not? Why or why not?
  • You made a good observation. Can you give us some examples to support your view?
  • What are the alternatives to the one you suggested? Are there other solutions?
  • What is your reasoning for this? Can you compare this with the xxx post? What is different, and what is similar?
  • What might happen to xxx if your idea was implemented as you described?

Uses for online discussion

Online discussions can be used as single-serving, ongoing activities throughout the course and everything in between. They can prepare students for a new topic before they come to class. They allow you to continue a classroom discussion after a class period ends. If you teach a face-to-face class, refer to each virtual discussion to ensure students see the value, participation, and connections between the two. There are dozens of reasons to conduct online discussions. You can use them to:

  • aggregate ideas,
  • apply course concepts to real-world scenarios,
  • foster critical thinking, and
  • facilitate collaborative reflection.


Use a discussion forum to allow students to reply to your prompt and each other. Consider a critical thinking activity such as a case study or debate for a more interactive discussion. Ask students to support their original posts with outside sources. Then, ask students to reply to two or more students. Make sure students support their replies as well. Tell them that answers like “good job” and a smiley face are unacceptable. Model what a good peer reply should look like. We looked at the when and why of virtual discussions.


To maintain student participation over time:

  • Use effective prompts.
  • Try different activity types.
  • Have multiple due dates—one for the student’s original post and another for their replies to other students.
  • To elevate the quality of student work, provide clear instructions and expectations and model what original posts and replies should look like.
  • To manage your instructor workload, consider using student moderators who summarize the discussion each week.  For example, they can identify the three most common ideas and the top three questions no one else could answer.
  • You don’t always have to reply to every student thread, but you do have to maintain a presence in every virtual discussion.

Facilitating Online Discussions ( video) (You will need to log in with your NetID.)


  • Lipman, M. (1998).Teaching students to think reasonably:  Some findings of the philosophy for children program.  The Clearing House, 71(5), 277-280).
  • Muilenburg, M. & Zane L. Berge. (2006). A framework for designing questions for online learning.
  • Scheinin, P.M. (1995). Improving Thinking Skills. [Online}  [6/27/1997].
  • Sparapani, E.F. (1998). Encouraging thinking in high school and middle school:  constraints and possibilities.  The Clearing House, 71(5), 274-276.
  • Wilson, B., Teslow, J., & Osman-Jouchoux, R. (1995). The impact of constructivism (and postmodernism) on ID fundamentals. In B. B. Seels (Ed.), Instructional Design Fundamentals: A Review and Reconsideration (pp. 137-157). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Keywordsonline, discussions, facilitationDoc ID113252
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2021-08-25 08:22:36Updated2024-04-16 12:58:39
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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