Using Asynchronous Discussions to Increase Student Engagement & Active Learning
This is a document that introduces uses of online discussions
This document was created to provide guidance in the development of asynchronous discussions. Research guides the content and recommendations found here, but this document is meant as informational only. Additional consultation with an instructional technology consultant is recommended since a wide variety of 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.” And, 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. In fact, asynchronous discussions can offer students who are less likely to speak up in class the opportunity 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, and regardless of whether they are synchronous or asynchronous. Many of the 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 two 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. Prior to a course start date, careful thought around technology, tools, bandwidth, and accommodations for discussion tools can help to ensure that all students will be able to participate in discussions throughout the course. Once an accessible discussion tool has been selected, how-to guides and technical support can help to remove barriers to engaging with the tool that students who do not have prior experience with the tool 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 presences 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 design of the course 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 offers students the opportunity to engage actively in their own 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.
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