What Makes a Successful Online Discussion?

Image retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/qbwdoh3

Research shows that active discussions among online learners are essential to cognitive gain as well as student satisfaction with and perceived learning from asynchronous online learning [1-10]. But how can faculty teaching online courses ensure that students do not engage in shallow participation, but actively engage with the subject matter and peers, use critical thinking, and  create new meaning? What goes beyond knowing and gets students to do something with their knowledge? In other words, what makes a discussion successful?

There are many possible answers, from:

  • how the discussions are designed (what topics they address, how questions are formulated, how realistic the deadlines are, etc.),
  • to your facilitation style (how actively you follow the evolving discussion to challenge students, identify new teachable moments, etc.),
  • to how much intrinsic motivation learners have (are they just looking to pass the class or are they looking to learn as much as possible while they’re in the course).

you - studentsSomewhere on the design end of this continuum of possible answers lies a factor occasionally overlooked: how clearly are  expectations spelled out? Having clear expectations not only benefits the faculty (you know exactly what you are looking for and employ the same objective method to grade all students’ posts), but also benefits students (they know how to engage in discussions in such a way as to meet or exceed grading expectations).

So what should faculty expect then? One aspect of discussion-related expectations has to do with students respecting netiquette (i.e., the do’s and don’ts of online communication). For ideas on wording to explain to your students what communication expectations you have in your online course, please see my syllabus template and refer to the communication policy.  Another aspect has to do with specifically what you deem the discussion’s success factors to be. You are probably looking at the quantity, quality, and timeliness.

Quantity has to do with the number of posts. Typical online online discussions involve an initial post (addressing a discussion topic, answering a discussion question, sharing work to be critiqued by peers, etc.) and at least however many peer responses you require. If you have a small group of students, you may wish to require that each student respond to all others, so as to maximize the learning opportunities. If you have a medium-size or large online class, you may consider setting a minimum number of posts — anywhere from 1 to 3 peer responses is the norm. This choice also depends on how in depth you ask for responses to be. Are you looking for a more organic conversation or a more formal and structured one? Are you giving students specific prompts or guiding questions to answer as they respond to peers? Is there research involved? (if so, careful to keep it light enough to still stay in the realm of discussions and not cross the essay line).

Closely related to quantity is timeliness. Do you spell out by when initial posts and peer responses should be made? Do you take into account possible time zone differences?

Tip: The collapsible menu below is controlled by + (expand) and x (collapse).

Sample Discussion Starter Language

Discussion Starter Language (Peer Feedback)

Initial Post: Make an initial discussion post by 11:59 pm U.S. EST/EDT on Day 7 of Week 5. Once you make your initial post, you’ll be able to see and respond to everyone else’s posts. For this initial post, share your ___ Assignment with the class.

Peer Responses: Carefully read your classmates’ initial posts and respond to all your peers by 11:59 p.m. U.S. EST/EDT on Day 3 of Week 6. In these peer responses, put forth a constructive critique on the respective peer’s ___ Assignment, addressing the following prompts:

  • guiding statement or question
  • guiding statement or question
  • guiding statement or question.

To ensure that each student receives adequate feedback, respond first to work that has not yet received any responses. Discussion posts should always be thoughtful and courteous and include some references or direct evidence from the week’s content, readings, or assignments in support of your statements.

In the sample language above, you clearly show that you expect two kinds of posts (initial and peer responses), you specify when they are due (week, day, and time on a specific time zone). You emphasize what students should be doing at each stage, and recommend some best practices (deciding which posts to respond to, what attitude to have, what evidence to include, etc.).

This brings us to quality. You are probably expecting students to demonstrate subject matter knowledge, stay on topic, make at least one point and support it with evidence from the course lecture/readings, demonstrate critical and/or creative thinking. Other things you may consider to be factors contributing to what differentiates a mediocre post from an excellent post could be demonstrating a strong command of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Staying within the netiquette boundaries you have set. And, of course, using the citation/formatting style that you specified in the course syllabus.

To sum up, the more specific you are with what you expect out of a discussion, the more likely students will meet those expectations. You could spell out these expectations in the form of instructions, grading criteria, and/or a grading rubric. Brightspace by D2L (or “D2L” for short ) has a native rubric that you can consider associating with discussions. If you’d like to have a partner in the design of your online discussions, please book an appointment with me through my new online scheduling system. Wishing you many succesful online discussions!

Tip: The collapsible menu below is controlled by + (expand) and x (collapse).



[1] Al- Shalchi, O. N. (2009). The Effectiveness and Development of Online Discussions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(1). [2] Barna, E., & Correia, A.P. (2009). Student-led facilitation strategies in online discussions. Distance Education, 30 (3), 339-361. [3] Ke, F., Xie, K. (2009). Toward deep learning for adult students in online courses. The Internet and Higher Education, 12 (3-4), 152-155. [4] Morrison, J. R., Watson, G. S., & Morrison, G. R. (2012). Comparison of restricted and traditional discussion boards on student critical thinking? The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 13(3), 167-176. [5] Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. (2010). The impact of asynchronous and synchronous instruction and discussion on cognitive presence, social presence, teaching presence, and learning. (Regent University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, Document ID 250918726. [6] Seo, K. (2007). Utilizing peer moderating in online discussions: Addressing the controversy between teacher moderation and nonmoderation. American Journal of Distance Education, 21(1), 21-36. [7] Swan, K. (2001). Virtual interactivity: design factors affecting student satisfaction and perceived learning in asynchronous online courses. Distance Education, 22, (2), 306-331. [8] Uzuner, S. (2009). Questions of culture in distance learning: A research review. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10 (3). [9] Zha, S., & Ottendorfer, C. L. (2011). Effects of peer-led online asynchronous discussion on undergraduate students’ cognitive achievement. American Journal of Distance Education, 25(4), 238-253. [10] York, C.S. & Richardson, J.C. (2012). Interpersonal interaction in online learning: Experienced online instructors’ perceptions of influencing factors. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, (16)4, 83—98.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *