Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Building Better Online Discussions

Discussion forums are a mainstay of online courses however, their use has not drastically changed throughout history.  The discussion forums used today are adapted from mail correspondence courses.  Students would receive readings and assignments in the mail and would have to mail their responses to the instructor, who would in turn, mail back feedback to the student.  The internet has sped up the feedback process and allowed students to interact, however, the general procedure has not changed much from the original correspondence courses.

Discussion boards get mixed reviews from students and instructors.  Students typically appreciate having the discussion board information for review and the interaction with classmates, but the task of posting and responding invokes some complaints. 

Some student complaints include:
  • Discussion boards are over used
  • A lack of instructor guidance
  • Responses are too numerous to keep up with
  • Too much variation in depth and breadth of responses
  • Discussions get off track 
  • Instructors do not keep up with grading and feedback

Preventing Discussion Fatigue

When discussions are overused, students and instructors can get overwhelmed.  This can result in discussion fatigue where the students post the minimum amount and do not engage in deeper thinking about the topic.  Instructors may give minimal feedback and can become uninvolved in the conversation.  This adds to a lack of guidance and feedback to direct students to the main ideas.  Also, when students are not continuously interacting on the discussion, the discussion becomes stagnant.

So how can we prevent discussion fatigue?


Building Community


Building a community of learners within the course will foster better discussions because they will feel safer to take academic risks and be more constructive in their interactions.  This is typically done with an introductory discussion board where students and faculty introduce themselves, but it should not stop there!  Instructors can continue to build community by posting funny videos or current events on a general discussion board to start conversations.

Facilitating Discussion

Good discussions require facilitation and some heavy scaffolding at the beginning of the course. Students need to be trained to interact and to make connections.  As the course progresses, students will become familiar with the procedure and will begin to do this more on their own. 

Here are some tips for how to facilitate discussions:
  • Write good, higher level questions
    • Convergent thinking questions like "why,"" how" or "in what ways…"
    • Divergent thinking questions like "imagine," "suppose," "predict," "if… then…," "can you create…"
    • Evaluative thinking questions like "defend," "judge," "justify," "what do you think about…"
  • Provide Structure and Directions
    • Provide rubrics with clear expectations for posts
    • Give a clear topic
    • Describe how you expect students to approach the discussion (i.e. debate, informational, reflections, etc.)
    • Provide clear deadlines and length expectations
    • Provide guidance on what their interactions with their peers should look like
    • Provide some sample sentence starters to help facilitate interaction
  • Consider lengthening the discussion time from one week to two.  This allows students to have more in depth discussions.
  • Facilitate Discourse
    • Identify areas of agreement or disagreement
    • Seek to reach consensus/understanding between students
    • Encourage student contributions
    • Set the climate for learning 
    • Assess the learning path
    • Keep the discussion on track
The goal is to create richer, more in-depth discussions to increase learning.  Change doesn't happen overnight and these changes can require the instructor to spend extra time preparing and facilitating discussions. It is very unrealistic to jump in head first and to try and do everything on this list at once. Start slow by making one or two changes and gradually add more.  Just a few small changes can help rejuvenate discussions to foster critical thinkers in the classroom!

Discussion Board Resources:


Agostinelli, M. (Lecturer), Neiffer, J. (Author). (2015, July 1). Building better online and blended classroom discussions by design. ISTE 2015. Lecture conducted from , Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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