online discussion

Tips for Enhancing Online Discussion

One of the ways that technology is expanding opportunity for learning is by extending the classroom through online discussion. Asynchronous discussions do not occur in "real time" but are more like bulletin boards to which comments and questions can be added by participants over time. Again, such fora are very useful in extending learning opportunities beyond the classroom but facilitating online dialogue is not necessarily intuitive. Most of the suggestion presented below are for asynchronous discussions, though many are also useful for synchronous forums as well. Here are fourteen tips to increase student interaction and learning in your online discussions:

Require participation Communicate expectations as to acceptable quality and quantity of participation.  For example, students may be required to respond to the question you (or another student) poses and to the responses of at least two other students.  You may wish to provide guidelines regarding quality as well.   This may be as simple as pointing out that "I agree" is not a substantive comment in an online discussion.  Or you may provide criteria regarding how students should support their opinions with reference to readings, research or other course materials.

Include a grade for participation   Be clear about how students can succeed in discussion with reference to quality and quantity guidelines as well as requirements for timeliness. Entering an asynchronous discussion after it is nearly over can be unproductive (though there are ways around this problem - such as asking a late student to summarize the discussion that has already occurred.)

Provide an overview of what is due for each week .  This weekly agenda will help keep students working as a cohort and ensure a "critical mass" for getting discussions off the ground.

Make the discussion interesting Asking students to respond to "known answer" questions is unlikely to generate sustained involvement.   Discussion questions should be open-ended, focused on learning objectives and likely to spur some controversy or interaction. 

Participate wisely : The instructor should not dominate the discussion. Nor should he or she be absent.  It is your job to keep the discussion on track by guiding without "pontificating". Frequently an instructor will provide a comment that students perceive as the "official answer" and discussion can come to a grinding halt. 

Require a product which is based on or the result of discussion : A "hand-in" assignment that is based on class discussion can help students to synthesize, integrate and apply what has been discussed.

Keep your tone clear, concise and conversational Avoid "academese", colloquialisms, acronyms, slang and abbreviations.  Precise language and complete sentences provide good models for your students and encourage appropriate participation.

Structure the discussion Topics should not be too open-ended or students may lose focus.  One way to structure discussion is through debates.   Assigning or asking students to choose a position in advance can be helpful.   Other structuring devices include - problem solving, case studies, interviews, panels, brainstorming, summaries, etc.

Have students lead the discussion   Assign students to post focused, topic relevant discussion questions and lead the discussion.  It may be necessary to model a few discussions in advance and/or assist the student to choose appropriate discussion questions in the early stages.

Include ideas, and information generated in discussion on exams  This serves two purposes.  It reinforces the importance of student collaboration and makes "cheating" much more difficult.  If students need to participate in class discussions to answer exam questions they will be unable to simply "copy" from outside sources.

Form Small Groups or Learning Teams Assigning students to these (rather that allowing self selection) can help avoid logistical problems that inhibit productivity.  If you do allow self selection, establish a deadline for this process (a week to ten days) and then default to teacher assignment to the groups after the deadline.   Small groups can:

  • Develop group presentations
  • Peer review each other's work
  • Prepare for exams
  • Analyze a case study, etc.
  • Small groups are especially helpful for large classes

Make sure discussions are of a long enough duration to allow full and thoughtful participation Ten days to two weeks is often required to fully flesh out an online asynchronous discussion.

Deal with unacceptable behavior via private email Include policies on unacceptable behavior in syllabus and orientation materials.

Be encouraging, supportive, timely, and constructive in all discussions and all evaluations of the products of discussions  Promote quality participation by publicly acknowledging it.  Ask for more detail from students who submit incomplete or shallow comments, but do this in a constructive and supportive manner.

If you use synchronous technologies such as zoom or Bb Collaborate Make sure to record the session so that those that can't attend don't feel left out, that they missed something and can watch it later.


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Created by Alexandra M. Pickett Aug 19, 2010 at 11:52am. Last updated by Alexandra M. Pickett May 20, 2020.


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