October 31, 2018

Online Discussions

Online Discussions

Discussion boards are very useful in online courses as discussions promotes learner interaction with the course content, with other learners, and with you (the instructor). However, discussion boards also can be a lot of work for the instructors. As instructor, you need to frequently monitor the online discussions, provide prompt responses, and grade student postings in a timely fashion.

How to foster effective discussions in your online course?

Tip 1 From the start of the course, provide students with clear expectations and guidelines for online discussions. Make sure that you model these discussion expectations in all of your own postings to online discussions.
Tip 2 Create open-ended questions or questions with multiple answers, promoting critical thinking and connecting discussions to course learning outcomes.
Tip 3 Use different discussion-board designs (e.g., student-led facilitation, case-study scenarios) to provide opportunities for students to discuss concepts and solve problems with each other.
Tip 4 Assess and evaluate the quality of students’ discussion posts using grading rubrics. Provide students with standards of performance with model examples of good, medium, and poor discussion postings.


Here are a few “survival tips” for managing and grading online discussions:

Show All | Hide All

Survival Tip #1: Specify Discussion Protocols & Use Rubrics for Grading

Students need to know what is expected of them in the online discussions.


Survival Tip #2: Promote Engagement by Assigning Students Roles in the Discussion

  • Encourage students to respond to one another, otherwise, they will “recite” to you, looking for the definitive response.
  • Enhance student-student interaction within the discussion by assigning each student with a specific “role” in the online discussion. Each role will frame their participation, engagement & participation.
  • Roles may include Facilitator, Devil’s Advocate, Connector, Explorer, Summarizer. (see: Using “roles” in your online discussions, CU Online Blog for Faculty, University of Colorado Online)
  • Roles also may relate to a case study which is discussed in the forum, as in this Mason example from Dr. Smith’s online History course:

    In my online history course, I had students role-play different perspectives on the bombing of Hiroshima (e.g. reporter in Japan, an adviser to President Truman, a curator at the Smithsonian). They loved the assignment and it brought the history to life for them, which is always important, but especially critical in online learning.

    Suzanne Smith, Professor, Department of History, CHSS, GMU


Survival Tip #3: Read but Don’t Respond to Every Posting in a Discussion Forum

  • In active and/or large online courses, it is unfeasible for an instructor to respond to each and every discussion posting.
  • Make sure that you read each posting; however, be selective in responding to student postings within the discussion forums.
  • Which posts to respond to?
    • Comment on groups of postings (i.e., respond to several student postings at a time).
    • Comment on postings that may need clarification, correction or guidance. Ask additional questions, if needed to clarify concepts or to assess student understanding.
    • Comment on particularly good postings, identifying what makes these postings good (e.g., use of citations, critical thinking, grasp of concepts, etc).
    • Respond to each student at least once in online discussions during the online course.
  • Post discussion summaries or wrap-ups in the discussion forum or in regular course announcements.
    • Sum up the major points of the discussion, and point out significant contributions.
    • Identify common errors or difficult concepts, and direct the class to resources to enhance understanding.
    • If possible, positively acknowledge each student about their discussion postings at least once during the course.
    • Students also may be assigned the “summarizer” role in discussions. (See Tip #2)

Survival Tip #4: Use Blackboard Tool for Grading Discussions

  • Assess the quality of students’ posts, not just frequency or number of posts. Use rubrics to assess quality (see Tip #1).
  • Refresh and review how to use Blackboard to grade discussion forum participation (discussion grading) or discussion threads (thread grading).
  • Review video “Grading a Discussion Forum in Blackboard” (YouTube, Greenville Technical College, 4:32 minutes)You may grade all of a student’s postings in a discussion forum or you may grade postings by discussion thread. within a forum.
    See Grade Discussions | Blackboard for further information.

Survival Tip #5: Try Participation Portfolios

        • Assessing quality of discussion postings means that you need to read every student’s post, which may not be feasible in very large classes.
        • In an active and/or large online class, consider engaging students in self-assessment of their discussion participation by asking them to submit a Participation Portfolio in which they provide excerpts of their “best” contributions for grading.
        • In Participation Portfolios, each student submits evidence of their “best” discussion postings over several weeks of the course. Having students gather evidence of their own quality participation can save an instructor much time in an active and/or large online course.


Best Practices from Mason’s Online Faculty

How do you use discussions to enhance learning in your online course?

Focus Online Discussions with Rubrics and Guidelines

It’s recommended not to limit the length of students’ online discussion posts. Best practices indicate that critical thinking can be enhanced in online discussions, not by limiting posts, but by focusing discussions with detailed rubrics, guidelines an etiquette documents.

Dr. Nada Dabbagh (GMU, CEHD) has developed some useful online discussion rubrics and protocols available here.

– Dr. Larisa Olesova, Senior Instructional Designer, Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning; Adjunct Faculty (CEHD)

Discuss Case Studies

I use management case studies in my online business class. I find that it helps with starting the discussion by making a provocative observation about the issues in the case, leading students to take a side on the issue. Students then must support their perspective with evidence from the case. I select solid responses representing the differing perspectives and lead students to work through the logic and the implications of the different positions for managerial decision makers. The fact that a decision is ultimately required by the end of the online discussion helps to keep the conversation from beginning too theoretical or drifting off topic.

– Dr. Gregory Unruh, Arison Professor of Values Leadership, School of Integrative Studies

Assign Roles to Students in Discussion Groups

I like to put students in groups of 5 or 6, using the Blackboard ‘groups’ function. For each weekly discussion, I assign roles to three students in the group: a starter, a wrapper, and a skeptic. The starter and wrapper are tasked with the beginning and ending a conversation, respectively, according to a question or task that I assign to the group. Meanwhile, the skeptic’s job is to ask questions during the week to keep their peers thinking and to move the conversation forward. I have separate rubrics for these ‘special’ roles versus the regular role. I’ve worked closely with an instructional designer to design the discussions and to assess their impact.

– Dr. Margaret Slavin, Assistant Professor, Nutrition an Food Studies, CHHS


Additional Resources