One of the struggles many teachers have is to get students to engage in discussion in online spaces. We now have a wealth of tools that facilitate discussion in both synchronous (i.e. Blackboard Collaborate) and asynchronous modes (i.e. discussion boards) to create dynamic learning environments.

First and foremost, we use discussion activities to promote the social construction of knowledge between students. For this to be successful the teacher must design the activities within the learning space to encourage and guide students to the level of discourse required for them to achieve the learning outcomes of the course.  The key to success for these activities lies in being explicit to students in the why and the how of the discussion activities.


Adapted from: Harasim, L. (2012). Learning theory and online technologies. New York: Routledge.


Using an image like the one above with students can show how, through discussion, they are exploring ideas around a topic to synthesise that knowledge as a group and learn how to apply that knowledge in the ongoing flow of the course.

Designing a task


If the purpose of your discussion activity is to get students to practice reflective and critical thinking skills, are you setting them up for success in the task description and your facilitation of the task? Students need to know the purpose of the activity and how it fits within the structure of the weekly or course learning activities.

For example, when using discussion board activities, the classic task design is to pose a question and then to ask students to comment on a couple of their peer’s posts. Asking students to reply to one or two posts once they have posted is not enough to stimulate deep approaches to the discussion. They are only looking at constructing their own answer independently and then meeting minimum requirement of replying. If you want to stimulate a active discussion then you need to structure your task descriptions to include instructions on how to interact with the dialogue.

To construct this dialogue instead of asking them to comment use words like ask, add, extend or connect.  Some examples of response questions are: –

  • Look for ideas that are different from yours.
  • Whose ideas raise new questions?
  • In what ways can you build on other’s ideas?

It has been found that posing these types of dialogue prompts that require students to read and then re-read with a critical eye has positive outcomes on the quality of the participants posts (Williams, Jaramillo & Pesko, 2016).

Facilitating the Task

One of the most effective ways to maintain online discussions is to ensure that you design the activity and then craft your responses so that you are seen as facilitator rather than being the “leader” of the discussion. Research suggests that the teacher should post less often but in more meaningful ways, such as, using the following questioning sequence to help frame your own interactions (Noyelles, Zydney, Lin & Chang,  2014). Rather than replying to individual students, construct your responses to encourage students as a whole through this sequence, driving the discussion forward.


Also, this sequence can be used to help link one discussion activity on to another, providing a basis to move to deeper approaches to learning as you move the students through the course.

In an upcoming episode we will be talking through the specific communication tools we currently have available in our platforms and their pedagogical purposes.


Sydney Uni: Strategies for Engaging Students in Online Discussions

University of Waterloo: Online Discussions – Tips for Students



deNoyelles, A., Zydney, J., & Chen, i. (2014). Strategies for creating a community of inquiry through online asynchronous discussions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(1), 153-165.

Harasim, L. (2012). Learning theory and online technologies. New York: Routledge.

Williams, S. S., Jaramillo, A., & Pesko, J. C. (2015). Improving depth of thinking in online discussion boards. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 16(3), 45-66.


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