10 Tips for Reworking Online Discussions

Tips collected by Luke Konkol

We often hear that asynchronous online discussions “just don’t seem to work.” The reasons why run the gambit from feeling like busy-work for students to simply being too much to read. This post shares ten quick ideas (in no particular order) instructors might consider to tweak their online discussions and make them a better experience for instructors and students alike.

1. Make reflection and drawing connections central

We often drop a prompt in a course assuming students know why it’s important—sometimes the prompt itself is even “why is this important?” But if the purpose of discussions is to serve as the mortar between the bricks of your course content, feel free to say so. Add a sentence or two at the start of your prompt saying, “In the last unit, we discussed concept X. In our readings for this week, so-and-so builds on that idea in the context of Y.”

2. What are the objectives?

How is this discussion tied to particular course objectives? Make this explicit, too. This may even influence the depth and breadth of the discussion. Are you having students discuss because one of your objectives is to engage in a certain type of scholarly discourse? Or are the prompts content-based?

3. Use rubrics

Rubrics make your job easier if you grade discussions. More importantly, they make what you expect students to do more transparent. How much weight do you put on conventions? Where do you want students to look? Do you expect references to course materials? Outside materials? How important is the community-building aspect of these discussions? Or are they more like open essays?

Click on the headings below for some samples of discussion rubrics and reach out to CATL if you’d like a file you can import into your Canvas course.

Relevance: The overall relevance and development of discussion in your posts. 

  • 4.0 pts: Excellent
    • Posts are clearly related to the discussion prompts
    • Posts are detailed and on topic
    • Prompts further discussion
    • Clearly develops new ideas or builds on them
  • 3.0 pts: Good
    • Posts are clearly related to the discussion prompts
    • Posts are detailed and on topic
    • Prompts further discussion
  • 2.0 pts: Satisfactory
    • Posts are clearly related to the discussion prompts and mostly on topic
  • 1.0 pts: Needs Improvement
    • Off topic or not clearly related to the prompt
    • Remarks lack depth
  • 0.0 pts: No Post
    • No posts made or posts are disrespectful

Quality: The overall quality of the posts made

  • 3.0 pts: Strong
    • Comments are appropriate, thoughtful, reflective, and respectful
    • A good argument is made and supported
    • References course materials appropriately
  • 2.0 pts: Satisfactory
    • Comments are appropriate, thoughtful, reflective, and respectful
    • An argument is made
    • Has an understanding of course materials
  • 1.0 pts: Needs Improvement
    • Comments are respectful
    • Post shows minimal effort (e.g. "I agree…")
    • Missing an understanding of course materials
  • 0.0 pts: No Post
    • No posts made or posts are disrespectful

Community Contribution: Contribution of posts to the learning community / overall discussion.

  • 3.0 pts: Strong
    • Represents a developing class culture
    • Motivates further discussion and encouraging of classmates
    • Creative approach to the topic / presents new ideas
    • Responses are frequent and thoughtful
  • 2.0 pts: Satisfactory
    • Represents a developing class culture
    • Attempts to motivate further discussion and encourage classmates
    • Creative approach to the topic Responses are thoughtful
  • 1.0 pts: Needs Improvement
    • Posts are essay-like or do not go far beyond recounting course materials
    • Responses are minimal
  • 0.0 pts: No Post
    • No posts made or posts are disrespectful

 

Adapted from Dr. M. Rowbotham (SIUE) 

Subject knowledge and integration of material

  • Excellent (2.0): Discussions reflect integration of required readings and supporting the key issues and topics of material. Discusses your reaction to the content; cited appropriately in post if needed.
  • Proficient (1.5): Sound grasp of material. Some discussion of your reaction to content: appropriately cited.
  • Sufficient (1.0): Familiarity with most material and principles in the discussion. Lacks substantive use of readings. Minimal discussion of your reaction to content. Absent citations.
  • Needs Improvement (0.5): Poor grasp of material and principles in discussion. No discussion of your reaction to the content.
  • No Post (0): No post made or replies are disrespectful.

Critical analysis of topic

  • Excellent (2.0): High level analysis; Provides useful feedback appropriately. Adds new ideas and/or relevant questions to discussion.
  • Proficient (1.5): Sound analysis of discussion. Provides feedback to group. Adds some new ideas.
  • Sufficient (1.0): Missed some of the main issues. Analysis is simplistic or sketchy. Little substantive feedback provided to colleagues.
  • Needs Improvement (0.5): Lacks analysis of topic. Provides unsubstantiated opinion and anecdotes. No feedback to group members.
  • No Post (0): No post made or replies are disrespectful.

Timely and complete participation

  • Excellent (1.0): Posts on time. Responds to questions and others with clear understanding of content.
  • Satisfactory (0.75): Posts on time. Responses show some understanding.
  • Partial (0.5): Post is late, or adds little to the discussion.
  • Minimal (0.25): Posts are too late to enable others to respond.
  • No Post (0): No post made or replies are disrespectful.

 

Adapted from Purdue University 

4 Points: 

  • 3-4 or more postings; well distributed throughout the week
  • Readings were understood and incorporated into discussion as it relates to topic.
  • Two or more responses add significantly to the discussions (e.g. identifying important relationships, offering a fresh perspective or critique of a point; offers supporting evidence).

3 Points:

  • 2-3 postings distributed throughout the week.
  • Readings were understood and incorporated into discussion as it relates to topic.
  • At least one posting adds significantly to the discussion.

2 Points:

  • 2-3 postings; postings not distributed throughout the week
  • Little use made of readings.
  • At least two postings supplement or add moderately to the discussion

1 Point:

  • 1-2 postings; postings not distributed throughout the week
  • Little or no use made of readings.
  • Postings have questionable relationships to discussion questions and/or readings; they are non-substantive.
  • Postings do little to move discussion forward.

0 Points:

  • No post made or replies are disrespectful 

4. Emphasize and recognize student labor

Depending on whether your discussions are high- or low-stakes and the frequency with which they’re required, it’s worth noting how much work students put into them to make sure it maps onto what you expect them to be doing. It’s worth doing an informal poll of your students to get a better sense for how much work they’re putting into discussions and what could be done to make them more valuable.

5. Divide that labor to achieve quality over quantity

Along with #4, you might also consider requiring fewer posts over the course of the semester, breaking students into groups, or assigning sets of ‘leaders’/‘original posters’ and ‘researchers’/‘respondents.’ One common problem in online fora is redundancy. This usually happens when the topics of discussion are limited to a few possible tracks coupled with a class size of any more than a dozen students. In cases like this, many “first posts” look the same and many “responses” fall in the “I agree” category. Dividing labor up in this way opens you up to set higher expectations with regard to what initial and responding posts should look like. One example is to have initial posters provide a précis or summary and one engaging, open-ended question to which their classmates respond.

6. Everyone gets feedback

While many situations make it virtually impossible for you to respond to everyone, discussions where everyone gets some feedback are ultimately more engaging. You might consider integrating this into the assignment by suggesting that students only reply to posts that do not have a response yet.

Another strategy is to respond less directly to multiple students at once. Consider checking in mid-week and posting a separate response addressing common themes or recurring ideas. Maintain the feel of an engaged community by ‘citing’ the posts you’re replying to in lieu of blanket statements. E.g., say “Verna and Cary raise a critical issue with regards to X” or “Randall, Leona, and Austin all note Graves’s concept of Y” as the lead into a posed question rather than simply “a number of you have asked…”.

7. Provide clear guidelines

It’s easy to assume online discussions are all the same because there are limits to the tools available to us, but a new version of an old joke applies: ask 10 instructors about online discussions and you’ll get 11 different opinions. It’s worth providing a stand-alone document explaining your vision for discussions in your course. What is the goal of your course’s discussions—developing ideas? Sharing progress? Providing critique? How do you want discussions to “feel”? Is this an informal community? A scholarly dialogue? A debate? What is the format—can (or should) students use emoji? Do you require citations? Course or outside readings? In short: What does an effective, constructive, discussion look like in this course?

This is also a good place to articulate your expectations for discussion leaders, share your rubrics, and guide students in budgeting their time based on what you expect.

8. Disagree—or encourage others to do so

Many asynchronous online discussions infamously turn into “I-agree”-fests. Injecting a little pushback or instances of “how would the author respond to X critique” can help prevent this. Consider encouraging this on the part of students as well through a rubric or expectations guide (above).

9. Mix it up

Even the best-laid discussion plan can devolve into a quote hunt as the semester goes on. While it’s not the worst thing for students to learn what to look for when engaging with course materials, it’s worth mixing it up so students develop a wider set of these skills. Mixing up discussion leaders (above) can help, but, if you prefer to write your own prompts, consider a using a variety. Here are few types of prompts to consider:

Depart from what the key thinkers say and ask students for their own opinions. Invite them to support those opinions with evidence or articulate how they’ve arrived where they’re at.

  • How might you respond if …
  • How would you suggest …
  • What might happen if …
  • To what extent do you agree with …

Provide a prompt which zeroes in on a key concept or responds to particular passage or other source. Give students free reign to respond however they like within the subject matter rather than providing them an anticipatory suite of possible responses.

  • What was the contribution of …
  • How would … respond to the critique …
  • What does … mean when she says …
  • How is the notion of … related to …

Treat the discussion forum as a poll or conduct a poll of the class prior to opening the discussion and share the results asking students to respond.

  • Identify commonality or explain sources of difference
  • Compare poll results to those of another group
  • Describe whether the results map onto expectations given course topics
  • Use the results to drive opinion questions
Assign students précis or summaries of particular reading sections, materials, or current events they find on their own. Invite them to pose open-ended questions of their own in response.
Consider working with a colleague to add them as a TA in your Canvas course. Invite them to lead a discussion related to a topic about which they are passionate. This can be especially effective if it presents an interdisciplinary approach.

There are a number of ways to creatively integrate this type of discussion.

  • Working on a two-sided topic or ongoing academic debate? Integrate this into discussion by assigning sides or allowing students to pick one.
  • Rotate students in roles as respondents of a particular stance.
  • Have students take on the point-of-view of key thinkers or theorists and respond not as themselves but as those figures.
  • Have students create “character sheets” (think Dungeons & Dragons) for particular figures or generalized schools of thought and use those to simulate a debate.

10. Bring it back around

Discussions are most effective (and more engaging) when treated as means rather than an end in themselves. Much as you might provide feedback (above), consider ways you can draw from what students draw out as key points or issues in discussion during “class time”—be this synchronous sessions or asynchronous materials. Drawing connections between the course materials and student contributions helps to reinforce the relevance of their work and underscore the community-building piece which is so central to good discussion.

We’d love to hear from you!

Let us know how you do discussions. What strategies have you employed? What works? What do students like and what are some areas to avoid? Feel free to share sample prompts and success stories. Also let us know if you’ve done interesting things with online discussions that we haven’t had the space to cover here (like video-posts, word clouds, or wiki-building). Comment below or drop us a line at catl@uwbg.edu.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.