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Facilitating Discussions Online

Many tools are available to facilitate discussions and engagement in your online courses, but what are some techniques you could use to engage students in meaningful discussion? The following techniques for facilitating discussion will help you engage students while retaining some of the benefits of face-to-face meeting in online learning.


Online Discussion Boards

The first tool that comes to mind when we think about online discussions is generally the discussion board, but how can we use discussion boards effectively and encourage students to participate fully?

Prompts

First, develop effective discussion prompts and questions that will spur students to respond. Make sure that the prompts you develop address what you want students to gain from the discussion. How does this discussion align with the learning objectives for your course? How will this discussion help your students reach those goals? This straightforward rubric from University of Connecticut may help you evaluate the efficacy of your discussion prompt.

Parameters

Set clear parameters for participation in discussions. Consider using a grading rubric to establish expectations for quantity and quality of discussion posts and responses. Be sure to share this rubric with students before they are expected to participate so they have a clear idea of your standards. Be specific in regard to how, where, and when students should post. Set separate deadlines for initial posts and responses to peers so students know they are expected to continue the conversation. Also, provide modeling or examples of substantive responses to guide students. One example of discussion response guidelines is the “3C & Q” Model by Jenn Stewart-Mitchell.

Your Role

Clearly define your role in the discussion. Will you be participating alongside students? Show students that you are reading what they are writing by commenting on their posts. You do not need to comment on every single post for every discussion, but choose a handful to which you will respond. You can provide extra information, pose a thought-provoking question, refocus the discussion if it veers off-track, ask students to clarify or elaborate on their ideas, or dispel misconceptions.

Feedback

Provide students with timely feedback and grading. Use the grading rubric you shared with them to create an interactive rubric on Blackboard. This is the rubric you should use to grade students’ discussion participation. In addition to using the rubric to grade, add targeted feedback for each student within the grade center that praises what they did well and provides guidance for how they could improve ahead of the next discussion.


Synchronous Sessions

While discussion boards may be the tool we first think of regarding online discussions, you may also be considering how to spark discussion in your synchronous online classes. Try one or more of the following strategies to engage students in synchronous sessions.

Check-In

Begin your synchronous class session with a check-in to gauge how students are doing. Something as simple as having them share an emoji or GIF to express their mood or state of mind can help you see how students are feeling and can help break the ice for future conversations.

Build in Discussion

Embed discussion questions into your lessons. If you are using PowerPoint or another presentation method to share slides, incorporate points to open up a dialogue with students. Rather than lecturing for an hour as the “sage on the stage,” provide opportunities for students to draw connections, express reactions, and engage with the course material.

As you plan your synchronous sessions, prepare students for what you will cover and what your expectations are for participation. Within the session, explain the relevance of the discussion to course outcomes. Consider posing questions that will elicit strong responses. For example, an either/or question that forces students to take a side on an issue. Alternatively, you could ask students to prepare their own open-ended discussion questions based on course readings or asynchronous lecture materials.

Multiple Ways to Participate

Give students different options for participating in the discussion. Encourage them to use their microphone or video to converse verbally. Allow them to use the chat thread to write their responses. Incorporate a whiteboard tool so students can type or write their thoughts directly on the screen. Use polls to engage students and as a springboard for further discussion. Provide a shared document to which students can contribute ideas. The more ways students can participate, the more voices and ideas will be represented.

Breakout Rooms

In face-to-face classes, small groups are a great way to encourage students to participate. In synchronous online classes, you can use breakout rooms to facilitate small group discussions. Before sorting students into breakout rooms, first make sure students know what they should be discussing. Then, establish group roles (e.g. a speaker to convey group ideas to the whole class, a writer to record the group’s conversation in a shared document, etc.). Once students have been sorted into breakout groups, navigate between the rooms, making note of students’ points as you observe their conversations. When you reconvene the entire class in the main room, call on students (by name or by group) to share what they discussed, and echo back some of the ideas you heard as you monitored the breakout groups.


Notable Tool: ULTRA Conversations

If you are using Blackboard ULTRA Course View, you have an additional way to engage students by enabling the Conversations tool on individual assignments, documents, tests, and links. If you decide to enable this tool, provide students with specific guidance just as you would for a discussion board or synchronous discussion. Encourage students to discuss the course content with you and their classmates, to ask for help with concepts they find difficult, to share helpful resources or strategies, and to answer their classmates’ questions. Be intentional about when you enable conversations, and be explicit concerning your expectations.


Using the tools at your disposal to facilitate online discussion and engagement, you can create a sense of community and incorporate some of the spirit of face-to-face classes into your online course. The techniques outlined here can help you achieve those goals while creating a richer learning experience for your students and a more fruitful teaching experience for yourself.

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