Designing an Online Discussion

How to design an effective online discussion

In Jay Caulfield’s book How To Design and Teach a Hybrid Course:  Achieving Student-Centered Learning Through Blended Classroom, Online, and Experiential Activities, he discusses creating, participating in, and evaluating discussions as a means of learning. An instructor should consider the following:

  • setting the tone of the discussion,
  • preparing students for meaningful discussion,
  • creating logistically clear directions for discussion assignments,
  • evaluating discussion work, and
  • defining the student and instructor roles when engaging in the discussion (Caulfield, 81).

When designing online discussions, Caulfield identifies the following variables to consider:

  • class size,
  • content,
  • student demographics, and
  • teaching preferences (Caulfield 82).

We would add the following to this list:

  • type of interaction (student-student, student-instructor, student-content),
  • desired learning outcomes, and
  • level of Bloom’s taxonomy facilitated.

Setting the tone

Formal vs. informal

Online discussions can be used in both formal and informal ways. Consider the following elements when deciding the tone.

Formal Informal
academic language casual language
citations included personal thoughts, opinions, and/or reflections
evaluated on both content and presentation evaluated on content only.
communicated expectations of structure and form of posting casual structure
requires more time to construct a post requires little time to construct a post.

Instructor Presence

Whether, when, and how much presence the instructor has will affect how the discussion is constructed and facilitated.

Instructor Lead Student lead
The instructor generates the topic. Topics generated by students.
The instructor reviews all posts and comments. The instructor may review but limits efforts to control or guide the discussion.
The purpose is to measure understanding. The purpose is to facilitate reflection and share perspectives
The outcome is focused on the grade The outcome is focused on further in-class discussion.

Planning the discussion assignment

When planning your unit activities, it is helpful to map out what parts would work better online and what parts would work better in the classroom. Consider the desired outcomes below.

  • Independent Reflection: If you want students to reflect independently on content and/or make personal connections, the discussion should probably occur online. Students will have time to respond to a question you pose.
  • Understanding of Multiple Perspectives: If you want students to appreciate and understand a topic from multiple perspectives, the discussion could occur online or in the classroom. Consider the amount of time available in class. Consider whether this activity will benefit from or be hindered by the hierarchical structure of an online discussion forum. Classroom or small group discussions may be more organic. Online discussions may provide the opportunity for deeper reflection, and the discussion questions may be more open-ended.
  • Measuring Mastery: If you want to know whether students understand the content before class, online discussions can place students in a position to apply knowledge to measure understanding. This can be used for self-guided formative assessment or graded for summative assessment purposes. You will need to consider the time necessary to respond to all student posts, so smaller classes may be better suited for discussions with this type of outcome.

Selling online discussions

When designing an online discussion, you must market it so students understand its purpose. Consider the following questions:

  • Why will students complete this activity? Is it graded? Do they know the purpose of the activity? Will they care?
  • How much time will their participation take? Are the outcomes worthy of that time?
  • How will they know whether they were “successful?” What does success look like? How can you communicate that to students?
  • What is the return on investment for students? Will the results be leveraged for another activity? Will you integrate it into the next class period? Will you/they do something with the results?


Caulfield, Jay. How to Design and Teach a Hybrid Course: Achieving Student-Centered Learning through Blended Classroom, Online, and Experiential Activities. Stylus Publishing. 2011.

Keywordsonline, discussion, plan, designDoc ID113251
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2021-08-25 08:07:35Updated2024-04-16 12:58:39
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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