Online Discussions: Make Them Sizzle With These Ideas

online discussions

Teachers have been using online discussions for a while, way before the “flipped classroom” was even an idea. They can be a valuable tool for extending learning and allowing kids to interact outside the classroom. But how do you get the most out of online discussions? Here are some ideas.

1. Keep the online discussion groups small.

If your online discussion groups are too large, students will be overwhelmed. If you have a class of 25 students and require three responses, that will be 75 posts in one group! Small groups -no more than six – will allow students to read everything and respond when they feel compelled to rather than randomly picking a couple of people out of a large number of responses.

2. Keep your expectations a little vague.

If you tell students in online discussions that they have to respond to the prompt and reply to two other students to get full credit, that is all that most of them will do. Your type A students will log in and do all three in one sitting and never go back to the online discussion board.

One way to address this is to tell the students they can get a 20/25 if they do the minimum requirements. In order to get full points, they have to check into the discussion more than once (if the discussion is open all week, several times) and do posts with some substance. This will force the kids to do more than they otherwise would.

You can also play around with having the students come up with the topics of discussion instead of always giving them something to start with.

3. Assign roles.

One of the problems I have had with online discussions is getting a wide variety of responses. How can you ensure that the group will have a lot of different ideas floating around and they aren’t just agreeing with with everyone else has said? One of the ways I have done this is by assigning roles. Here are the roles I have used in the past that have worked well, especially when I’m only giving them a day to respond:

  • First Responder -This person has to be the first to respond to the prompt. A lot of times I take on this role to ensure that whenever someone logs in, they have something to respond to.
  • Devil’s Advocate – has to question other people’s opinions.
  • The Yes-Man – has to agree with other people’s opinions.
  • Free Spirit-can respond however they like.
  • The Contemplator – introduces new topics of conversation based on what has come before.
  • The Summarizer – summarizes the group’s discussion the following day.

Because the First Responders and Summarizers operate under a time constraint they are only required to respond once. The others have to respond twice.

Every time we have a new discussion I shuffle the roles.

4. Require engagement over time.

There are two participants that can be a problem – those who respond quickly and then don’t go back on again and those who wait until the last minute to contribute. I require them to post on several different days to get the full points.

What I tell my students now is that have to respond five times on three different days. I give them five days – Monday through Friday. This gives everyone a nice compact amount of time to work with. A decent number of them still wait until Wednesday to start, but no one puts them off until Friday. 

5. Participate!

Kids love it when you participate in the discussion too. Plus, it’s a good way to make sure they are going smoothly. I always make a point of responding to the kids who are reluctant to participate in class discussions instead of the kids that always seem to be engaged.

However, don’t post too early. You want the students to be responsible for discussions, not you! I wait until the second day before I go into check on them so that I don’t jump in too early. 

6. Continue the online discussion the following day.

Another problem I have had was that once students did their required work, they had no incentive to go back and read what others had posted. However because my students could access their discussions through the Canvas app we use as our platform, students could go back and review the previous discussion and read it all.

There are a number of things that you can have the students do at this point. Make your grading easier by having the kids see if everyone met the requirements of the discussion. However, I like to have them discussion a few things, such as:

  • Find the most insightful comment. Who really said something interesting? What did they say?
  • Pick one of the questions that remains unanswered and discuss.
  • Find textual support for something that wasn’t posted by a member of the class.

If you create in class discussion groups that are different than the online discussion groups, students can report to the other class members in their group what happened in their online group. Did they discuss the same stuff? Did anyone bring anything up that was insightful that the whole group should know about?

7. Require detailed responses.

Have students find textual support for their responses. Tell them not to make them too long or they won’t be read, but a paragraph is a reasonable amount to expect. If they write this way every day it is good practice for the longer essays they have to write later.

Doing discussions in the classroom? Check out these posts:

Painful Class Discussions? Here’s the Cure

Silent Discussions in the Classroom

Student Created Discussion Questions That Rock


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