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The Instructor's Role in Online Discussions

By Michelle Everson / February 2011

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©2010 Michelle Everson

A few years ago, I was preparing one of our graduate students to teach her first online course. She had been a teaching assistant for one of my online courses, and was very familiar with the structure and content of the course. Her main concern, however, involved how to handle course discussions. She knew students would work through eight asynchronous discussion assignments in small groups during the semester, she had observed how I interacted with the groups during their discussions. Nevertheless she was worried she wouldn't be able to actively participate in the discussions as much as I did. She asked me for advice. I told her though I wanted her to be a presence in each discussion room and to engage in some discussion with students, what was most important was not the quantity of her interactions with students but the quality of those interactions. Personally, I enjoy engaging in conversation with students in online discussion forums, and often return to the discussions even though I know I don't have to. I strongly feel that instructor presence is important, and I also believe instructors can play an important role in discussions. But that wasn't always the case.

When I first started teaching online, I worried a lot about how my own involvement in discussion forums might stifle the kind of student-to-student interaction I was hoping to foster. I didn't want students to come to assume (or expect) that I would always show up during their discussions to "lecture" or provide them with all of the answers. I wanted them to feel comfortable interacting with each other, and I worried they might become self-conscious if they felt I was going to judge them as they tried to make sense of the content. So, for the first couple of times I taught online, I did not participate in discussions. My rule then was I would only interject if the discussion was getting off track, or if misconceptions were voiced that other students did not catch and attempt to correct, or if there was any inappropriate behavior going on.

Through end-of-semester course evaluations, it became clear to me that students wanted me to participate in group discussions and were sometimes disappointed when I didn't share some of my own thoughts, ideas, experiences, and examples with them. If anything, students felt they needed more feedback so they would know if they were on the right track. I obviously didn't think about how important that would be to students, especially when I was asking them to wrestle with statistical ideas and concepts that probably seemed like a foreign language to many of them. It suddenly dawned on me; I had so many great opportunities in the online classroom for rich formative assessment. There were many ways I could interact with students, provide them with valuable feedback, and still avoid giving away all the answers.

I now see my role in discussions as being multifaceted. I can help structure and facilitate discussions, and once those discussions are underway, I can help cheer the students on and try to highlight important things that are posted so other students know these are things to pay attention to. I can clarify subjects that are confusing for students or provide them with other examples to ponder. I can share some of my own thoughts and experiences as a way to help the students get to know me better and feel more comfortable communicating with me. I can probe and question students further, especially if I see they are not quite getting it or if I worry about the way they are reasoning through a problem. If students post things that are incorrect, I usually question them a bit about how they got that answer rather than tell them the answer is wrong; I hope that through questioning, they will realize their own errors. If necessary I will provide direct instruction during my interactions with students, but I spend more time questioning students and attempting to reassure them that they are getting the main ideas.

I once had a student comment that she didn't feel comfortable trusting what her classmates were posting during group discussion because—like her—they too were learning statistics for the first time and how could she possibly know that they had the right ideas and were not leading her astray? I do expect my students to learn from each other and trust each other, and it's important to carefully cultivate that atmosphere of trust. I'm constantly asking students to take risks in my course. It's not always easy for students to explain their own understanding of certain ideas and concepts to their peers, and it can be very scary for some of them. It's almost like I'm asking them to walk a tightrope. I like to think that by being involved in discussion, I can be that safety net that catches students when they fall, and I can help dust them off and get them right back up on the rope again.

In the end, the graduate student I was working with did just fine in her course, and her students performed in similar ways on assessments and assignments as my students did. As might be expected, we noticed some differences along the way in terms of how much we were each posting and interacting with our students in our respective courses (I tended to post more than she did), and we each preferred working in different ways (e.g., she liked to get most of her posting done at specific times each week, whereas I tended to check in more often and respond throughout the week). Again, however, I don't think it's the quantity of interaction we should concern ourselves with so much but the quality, and what is ultimately most important is letting the students know you care and you are listening to what they say and you value the contributions they are making to class discussions. How you do this is up to you, but there are multiple ways it can be done.

About the Author

Dr. Michelle Everson is a lecturer in the Quantitative Methods of Education track within the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. She has been teaching online for six years and teaches introductory and intermediate statistics courses, in addition to a course called "Becoming a Teacher of Statistics." In 2009, she received a Distinguished Teaching award from the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. She is the editor of resources for the Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education, and the statistics editor for MERLOT.


  • Fri, 20 May 2011
    Post by Patrick Donohue

    We've seen great success (ref. @CTuckerEnglish), with the reverse order too: inclass discussions are enhanced by the results of the online discussion. This is our own version of the flipped classroom.

    I am affiliated with Collaborize Classroom. It's a free tool and so any feedback you have for us would be super helpful.

  • Sat, 26 Feb 2011
    Post by Michelle Everson

    Thank you for your comment, Nitin. I have not yet taught a blended course. I generally just teach fully online courses or traditional face-to-face courses. This summer, however, I'll teach my first blended course, and I like the idea of using discussion to reinforce (or more deeply probe) some of what is discussed in a face-to-face environment.

  • Thu, 17 Feb 2011
    Post by Nitin Dvivedi

    Great article about Instructor role in online discussions. It confirms my approach to teaching Blended undergraduate and graduate level class.I find that probing my students in online discussion allows me to reinforce some of the concept we discuss in our class (blended. In my Graduate level Statistics class, I often ask application questions, clarification questions and how to questions. During week, I often provide multiple topics. Online Discussions and Perceived Learning study by Wu and Hiltz (2003) indicates that online discussion improved students perceived learning in the Blended Learning mode. I conducted brief survey using survey instrument described in Wus article and found similar results.