The following process can be a useful way to approach the design of an engaging discussion:
- Determining the discussion goals and alignment with course learning outcomes
- Selecting a topic and discussion structure
- Drafting compelling discussion questions
- Setting up for student success
- Planning for social engagement during the discussion
- Grading and Evaluating
Judith Boettcher has identified four different types of discussions: Introductions & Community Building, Initial Content Engagement, Investigation & Research, and Integration & Documentation. In the early phases of designing discussions, identifying which primary category the discussion fits into, as well as which of the course learning outcomes are met (at least in part) by the discussion can help to define the scope of the discussion activity.
- Introductions & Community Building: This type of discussion combats feelings of isolation, supports the emotional component of learning, lays a foundation for student-to-student communication, and leads to the creation of a comfortable and trusting social presence. Introductory discussions and Cyber-Cafes are examples of this type of discussion. This type of discussion is not usually formally evaluated, being present, and supporting the learning community are ways students might earn points for this type of discussion activity.
- Initial Content Engagement: This type of discussion helps students become aware of what they already know and encourages curiosity about information yet to come. It is similar to a think-pair-share classroom activity. This type of discussion often launches a new unit, module, or topic. Evaluation tends to be informal and emphasizes participation.
- Investigation & Research: This type of discussion engages students with the content. Students may need to read, analyze, or investigate course material to participate in this discussion. Sharing insights, summaries, case studies, or simulations may be part of this kind of discussion. Evaluation tends to be based on the expected level of engagement. The grading rubric will have more and varying requirements and expectations regarding the use of core concepts and exploring/responding to the ideas of other students.
- Integration & Documentation: This type of discussion gathers evidence of student understanding for grading purposes. Students must use their new knowledge to solve problems, investigate associated questions, or make predictions. This discussion type is action-oriented and may require integrating new concepts with prior knowledge. This type of discussion tends to have a higher impact on student grades and requires more detailed feedback from the instructor.
Once the goals of the discussion are clear, the topic and the structure, or format, of the discussion become important. In step one, the learning outcome being met by the discussion was identified. In this step, that topic can be further refined and defined. There are also several discussion formats, for example, an instructor-guided discussion, a small group discussion, a role play, or a debate.
- Instructor-Guided: This format helps the instructor to create social and teacher presence, and to model interaction. As such, it can be especially useful at the beginning of the semester. This discussion type helps to increase student understanding of a specific course topic and stimulates critical thinking.
- Small group discussions: This discussion format is especially useful when students should work together to discuss a topic, analyze a problem, or synthesize results.
- Role Play: facilitates dissension without conflict and enhances the rigorous consideration of alternative viewpoints.
- Debate: encourages critical thinking and the opportunity to explain & evaluate different viewpoints.
After determining the format of the discussion, the placement of the activity in the course plan is the next step. One key question is: “How will I ensure that students have enough knowledge of the topic to be able to engage with the discussion activity I am planning?” A planned pre-discussion activity, such as a course reading, video, or assignment can set students up for success. Similarly, determining how to know what students have learned in the discussion helps instructors plan for the post-discussion assignment. One type of post-discussion assignment is a summary. Summaries can be set up and graded similarly to short essays. Ideally, this summary activity can be a building block for a larger assessment, such as a major project or exam questions. Another key factor to consider in this step is the investment of time: how long should students plan to engage in a discussion and how long does the instructor need to plan to be engaged in the discussion? Instructor-guided discussions tend to take a larger investment of instructor time than do small group discussions, role-plays, and debates, while formats such as role play and debate tend to require more of an investment in time on the part of the students. Knowing how much time instructors and students will likely need to engage in a discussion activity can help when balancing assignments and workload, as well as calculating how students will spend their time to meet the credit hour requirement.
Ensuring that you use open-ended questions for discussions is one way to encourage students to engage more fully with a discussion topic, and there are other tips for creating engaging discussion questions as well. Using action verbs, composing questions that allow for a variety of responses, and using reflective questions can all help facilitate deeper engagement. Some useful question starters include:
- In what ways
- In…., then….
- How might
- Can you create….
- What are some possible consequences….
- What do you think about….
- What is your opinion about….
Clear discussion goals, structure, and instructions will help students engage successfully in an online discussion. Thinking through the technology that students will need to use, and offering help documents for that technology will ensure that students are able to engage in the activity with less frustration. Ensuring that students understand the ground rules of the discussion (start dates, cut-off dates, a minimum number of posts, supporting arguments with evidence, what to do if no one answers your post, replying to comments on your post when to summarize a conversation) can help students interact through the discussion in the way their instructor intends. Making the grading rubric available to students can also help students define their expectations for engagement.
Similar to instructor roles during a face-to-face discussion, instructors should plan for their engagement during an asynchronous discussion. How often will the instructor post? When will the instructor be involved? Knowing whether the discussion is intended to be instructor-led can help determine the level of engagement to plan.
Once the discussion end date has passed, students (or the instructor) may draft discussion summaries as post-discussion assignments. These summaries not only sum up the discussion but can serve as foundational documents for larger evaluated work, such as a larger project or exam. Whether a summary assignment is used or not, evaluating students’ discussion posts is a key final step. Using a grading rubric can speed up the evaluative process, and can help students to understand how their discussion post(s) are graded. Rubric criteria might include thoroughness of initial post, grammar, spelling, word choices, responses to peers, frequency of posts, content contributions, references, clarity, analysis, positive contribution to the learning community, and etiquette. Rubric criteria should be selected that best support the goals of the discussion and best measure the learning outcomes.
- Boettcher, J. (2019, April 22). Four Types of Discussion Forums in Online Courses. Designing for Learning. http://designingforlearning.info/four-types-of-discussion-forums-in-online-courses/.
- Design, Teach Engage Site - https://designteachengage.wisc.edu/online-discussions/sdc-formats-tips/
- Gernsbacher, M. A. (2016). Five Tips for Improving Online Discussion Boards. APS Observer, 29(9).
- Woods, K., & Bliss, K. (2016). Facilitating Successful Online Discussions. Journal of Effective Teaching, 16(2), 76-92.