Blog 10

Designing effective online discussions


By Yelin Su, Educational Developer, Teaching Commons

Asynchronous discussion is one of the most commonly used instructional strategies in online teaching. Successful asynchronous discussion plays an important role and contributes significantly to collaborative knowledge construction. However, it is unrealistic to expect that a question posted in a discussion forum by itself could generate student responses and dialogue that resemble in-class conversations and facilitates collaborative learning. It can be challenging to encourage students to engage intellectually with online discussion and sustain such conversations. Successful online discussion demands careful planning ahead and extra commitment and efforts from instructors. In this blog entry, I share some tips and good practices for creating a quality online discussion experience.

  • Start with creating an online social world

A sense of community is critical in a fully online learning environment though it is difficult to establish. If you want successful student interactions and discussion, have icebreaker activities at the beginning of the class so that students make “human” connections to perceive each other as “real” individuals, create their online identities, and feel comfortable tackling intellectual tasks together. This suggests offering social acquaintance activities before asking students to intellectually engage with content material. In additional to the usual practice of having students introduce themselves to their discussion group, it is essential to follow up with a 2nd activity where students complete a collaborative task where they share their own opinions, raise questions, negotiate and reach agreement on certain essential issues of the class. For example, you might want to ask students to collaboratively define norms and a code of conduct or to decide on a range of members’ roles in group discussion/collaboration. Instructor’s participation in these icebreaker activities is also vital. The first a few weeks and activities are critical for initiating interactions, clearly defining the purpose of the group, establishing expectations and ground rules, modeling exemplary online behaviors, and detecting potential problems for the early intervention. This also suggests that discussion groups should be neither too small nor too big (the literature suggests a preferred group size of 4-10 students) and that the group membership remain stable throughout the class.

  • Ask the right questions

For a discussion to be meaningful and valuable, it must have a purpose. Discussion questions that are very open-ended and vague in what students can achieve from the participation won’t generate active and meaningful student interaction and might lead to disengagement. Consider your goals for each discussion. What do you want to achieve with this discussion? How does the discussion fit into the unit or the course as a whole? What knowledge, skills, perspectives or values do you want students to take away from the discussion? Formulate your discussion questions accordingly. It is also important to communicate your objectives to students to help them see the relevance of the discussion participation and to focus their thinking.

  • Facilitate discussion

Group discussions must be monitored and facilitated. Once you’ve decided the objectives of your discussion and formulated your discussion questions, envision and plan the discussion. Ask yourself, what might be students’ initial responses, where do I want the conversation go, and how might I lead the progress of the discourse? The literature suggests 5 phases of collaborative knowledge construction: sharing/adding, negotiating meaning, elaborating, evaluating/testing of proposed synthesis, and consensus/applying constructed knowledge. Depending on your objectives and your students, students might not always have to go through all five phases in a particular discussion. However, these 5 phases are quite useful in planning your discussion facilitation. It is important to facilitate by asking questions to further and maintain the conversation rather than providing answers. You can consider using some of Davis’s (1993) suggested types of questions to guide the discussion.

  • Exploratory: probe facts & basic knowledge
  • Challenge: interrogate assumptions, conclusions or interpretations
  • Relational: ask for comparisons of themes, ideas, or issues.
  • Diagnostic: probe motives or causes
  • Action: call for a conclusion or action
  • Cause & Effect: ask for causal relationships between ideas, actions or events
  • Extension: expand the discussion
  • Hypothetical: pose a change in the facts or issues
  • Priority: seek to identify the most important issues
  • Summary: elicit synthesis

Always remember to synthesize each discussion at the end to bring closure. Discussion facilitation requires facilitator’s frequent presence and time commitment. It is a good practice to share facilitating responsibility with students by asking them to take turns to be the discussion facilitator.

  • Assess the discussion

Assessment is an integral part of students’ motivation. It is a common practice to allocate a small percentage of the marks to students’ engagement in group discussion. This provides additional motivation for participation and help make participation requirements explicit.



Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Loannou, A., Demetriou, S., Mama, M. (2014). Exploring factors influencing collaborative knowledge construction in online discussions: Student facilitation and quality of initial postings. American Journal of Distance Education, 28, 183-195.

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