Online Discussions

A wealth of research has been conducted on the use of asynchronous online discussion boards to promote learning.  Consequently, the use of online discussions has often been referenced as a highlight of providing powerful learning activities online.  Because an online discussion is an open palette, it is important to think about how a discussion board is setup.  Facilitating a meaningful discussion online can sometimes be challenging for faculty and students. Below are some tips to share with students when utilizing group discussions online.

ideaIdeas for Incorporating Online Discussions

The focus of an online discussion should be on the content of a contribution.  By provide simple guidance to how students should organize and structure their contributions allows the focus to remain on the content.


Suggestions for Style and Responses

Separate Paragraphs for Separate Ideas | Long sections of writing online are difficult to read

Be Specific with Threads | keep your threads specific to the topic discussed

Utilize Netiquette | Remember you are writing for a academic audience.  Punctuation, grammar, and case structure are important. ALL CAPS indicates SHOUTING

Thoughtful Posts | In the reply, change the subject heading to reflect the focus of your comments (see below)

Hyperlinks | Embed links to supporting content within your post to support your contributions


Focus Contributions

Guide students to post thoughtful and meaningful responses to topics by having them categorize responses. Ask students to include an appropriate category within in their post.  This allows students to identify the types of contributions they are making to the discussion.  These categories are not restricted, add categories that are relevant to your course.

Reflective | initial thoughts and comments on course content

Expansive Questions | what parts of the content make you think about or want to explore the content more in depth

Substantive Insights | connect or reinterpret content with personal examples, or a post from another peer

Collegial Challenges | with specific support highlight disagreements you have with the content or another post

Personal Realization | explain significant shifts in your perspective on topic

Affirmation | include reasons why you agree or affirm another's idea

Facilitator Roles

Monitoring an online discussion board can feel overwhelming at times.  Developing a manageable schedule to review contributions and choosing which message to respond to is something to consider.  Consider the type of role you will take within your online discussions.

Select a Group Moderator | have each group select one member to focus, guide, and summarize the discussion at the end of the week.  Rotate this role among group members to promote the synthesis of ideas.

Guide on the Side | Monitor and target interventions by encouraging interactions among group members rather being

Content versus Process | create a unique forum like an "e-lounge" where all students can engage in "how-to" technical issues or communicate about general topics.


Consider the Question You Ask

The quality of contributions often begins with the type of question that are posed in the online discussion.  For instance, asking a 'yes' or 'no' question will result in closed responses for students.  Choosing questions that encourage students to wrestle with issues and problems provide for a deeper discussion.

Consider creating small cooperative learning groups allowing students to develop a small community of learners that are connected with each other socially and cognitively.  Considering adapting cooperative learning activities within your online discussions.


Assessing Discussions

Numerous rubrics have been developed to help assess student contributions on a discussion board.  Some examine the quantity of student contributions, whereas others focus on the quality of student contributions over he duration of the discussion. 

Discussion Rubric 1documentlink - Academic Technologies, UW-Madison

Discussion Rubric 2documentlink - Academic Technologies, UW-Madison

Online Discussion Protocols and Rubricslink - Dabbagh, 2003

Online Discussion: Assessment Frameworkslink - Anderson & Elloumi, 2004

Assessing Effectiveness of Student Participation in Online Discussionslink - Edelstein & Edwards, 2002

Discussion Rubricdocument - Collison, G., Erlbaum, B., Haavind, S. & Tinker, R. (Eds.). (2000).  Facilitating on-line learning: effective strategies for moderators.  

helpSupport provided by Technology Services

Technical assistance is provided to instructors, students, and staff using the discussions tool inside of Desire2Learn.


Dringgus, L.P. & Ellis, T. (2005). Using data mining as a strategy assessing asynchronous discussion forums. Computers & Education, 45, 141-160

Edelstein, S., and Edwards, J. (2002). If you build it, they will come: Building learning communities through threaded discussionslink. The Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 5(1).

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., and Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer on in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), pp 7-23

Kleinman, S. (2005). Strategies for encouraging active learning, interaction, and academic integrity in online courses. Communication Teacher, 19(1), 13-18

Rovai, A. P. (2003). Strategies for grading online discussions: Effects on discussions and classroom community in Internet-based university courses. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15(1), 89-107.

Thomas, M.J.W. (2002). Learning within incoherent structures: the space of online discussion forums. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 18, 351-366