Three strategies for better online discussions

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By Michael B. Sherry

What does it take to make online discussions work?

Online learning management systems provide opportunities for students to continue discussions beyond the space and time of a regular class period. However, online discussion forums differ from classroom conversations. Notably, they require students to participate in discussion by writing, rather than speaking. Contributing and responding in writing can have both advantages and disadvantages for students. Some may appreciate having more time to compose their thoughts and may be more likely to participate than they would in face-to-face discussions. Alternatively, those who struggle with writing may be frustrated, and without the nonverbal cues of facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, misunderstandings can easily arise. Finally, students may draw on their experiences, for better or for worse, with social media discussion forums.

Below are three strategies for addressing these challenges.

1. Provide Clear Participation Guidelines

The following questions can help you generate guidelines (with or without student input) for online participation:

  1. What is the purpose of the online discussion?
  2. What practices will help students accomplish that purpose?
  3. What would “good” participation look like?

For example, in most face-to-face discussions, regulating word choice and syntax is less important than encouraging participation. So, if the purpose of the online discussion is to generate enthusiastic conversation, rather than academic text for a subsequent assignment, you might consider allowing informal language and not evaluating grammar and style. In fact, the use of informal language and other visual features (like emoji 😊) may be one way writers attempt to build rapport with readers in the absence of verbal resources like tone of voice and facial expressions.

2. Show Students How to Participate

Asking students to make a post and reply to two others tells them what to do, but not how. Here are two practices, with examples, for modeling how to promote and sustain discussion:

  • Ask good questions: When students ask questions that invite multiple, complex interpretations—open, higher-order thinking (O-HOT) questions—they spark more responses and more substantive discussion. Sadly, students may be more used to answering one-right-answer recall questions and so they may, when prompted, ask these same kinds of closed, lower-order thinking (C-LOT) questions that can block further conversation. Figure 1 shows examples of questions you can use to help students formulate genuine inquiries about events, characters, or a writer’s choices (Applebee et al., 2003; Cambridge Primary Review Trust, 2017).
  • Take up what someone else has written: When students quote or refer back to what others have already written in their responses, they are more likely to generate subsequent discussion. Responses that include this kind of “uptake” (see fig. 2) may quote words and employ pronouns like “this/that” and “I/you/he/she/it,” as in “You said that . . .” or “What makes you think that?” (Nystrand et al., 1997).

3. Help Students Use Visual Strategies to Make Better Connections

The visual design of discussion boards can inhibit connections. To tie a post or a reply to more than one idea, as we so often do in face-to-face conversation, may mean responding in two different “threads”—those hierarchical chains typical of online discussion forums. Additionally, threaded discussions require that, in order to follow the flow of the conversation, students must scroll down or click multiple times—another obstacle to participating. Below are three visual strategies for helping students weave better connections during threaded discussions:

  • Encourage students to use names when referring to what others have already written. This way, they can reference more than one contributor. Additionally, seeing one’s own name while scrolling down the page makes a writer want to stop and respond.
  • Invent a font-style system with students for indicating types of responses or changes in topic. For example, italicizing disagreement, bolding a new argument, or using a particular color for each topic can draw attention to those moments and invite responses.
  • Students may have their own symbol systems for creating connections, thanks to social media discussion forums (e.g., @name for citing a previous speaker or #topic for indicating a new/existing idea). If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. 😊

Clear guidelines, generative models, and flexible visual strategies can make it easier for students to participate in online discussions. As such forums become increasingly associated with public, civic discourse, beyond the classroom, teaching students to participate in them productively is a worthy goal.

References

Applebee, A. N., Langer, J. A., Nystrand, M., & Gamoran, A. (2003). Discussion-based approaches to developing understanding: Classroom instruction and student performance in middle and high school English. American Educational Research Journal, 40(3), 685–730.

Cambridge Primary Review Trust. (2017). Dialogic teaching (p. 77) [Evaluation report and executive summary]. London, UK: Education Endowment Foundation.

Nystrand, M., Gamoran, A., Kachur, R., & Prendergast, C. (1997). Opening dialogue: Understanding the dynamics of language and learning in the English classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.


Michael B. Sherry (mbsherry@usf.edu) is an assistant professor in the College of Education at University of South Florida and a former middle and high school teacher.

Adapted from Educational Leadership, April 2020.

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