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Discussion Management Tips for Online Educators

By Jo Macek / September 2009

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I started teaching online classes more than 10 years ago. My training with Davenport University in 1998 consisted of five weeks of online and on-campus "how-to" workshops about using the technology. A few years later, the six-week online training at Franklin University still focused on software navigation but included rubrics for student participation.

As educators, we were told, and we also assumed, that because we were the subject matter experts, we would know how to teach the subjects.

My primary question, however, did not concern the technology: "What do I say online?"

After attending education conferences, reading books about online teaching, and receiving a wealth of student feedback, I developed several techniques to manage discussions in my online classes.

1. Ground the Learning in Real Experiences.
When the instructor and all the learners are remote, and all the interaction between them is "virtual" (electronic), it's more important than ever to connect the material to the real world.

Students usually practice their analytic skills and problem-solving skills on case studies. However, case studies are often developed by the textbook author, or if it is an actual study, may be several years old, making them potentially less and less applicable to students' real lives.

I would much rather cull my examples from the evening television news or National Public Radio. Using current events sends a signal that the information discussed in class is relevant to today's world. Students can research background data, use theory, and gather a variety of viewpoints to propose outcomes.

I keep an eye out for controversial issues that my students could discuss, but I also relate my personal experiences, too. I discuss the situation, participants, my decisions, and the reason for my decision; then I ask students for their comments. If the situation did not work out as expected, I explain this and ask the students what could I have done differently.

Pulling from my personal experiences makes me more human and illustrates that the course is applicable to the real world.

2. Motivate Through Discussion.
The beginning of a class always generates excitement. Students might reply to everyone's posts. By the end of class, some students will have withdrawn. For other students, time devoted to reading assignments, researching papers, and posting comments will be shared with commitments for work and family. Keep your students motivated to keep reading, researching, and posting throughout the class.

Motivation does not mean posting "good job" or "keep going." Those are warm fuzzies and are nice but will not keep your students reading and researching. Motivation does mean engaging your students in discussions. Keep them wanting to come back to class.

First, you must remain motivated throughout the course. Maintain a consistent level of communication. As discussion wanes, so will your opportunities for responding. As the course progresses, students might post shorter and less complete comments.

Develop discussion questions that foster discussion, not just feedback about their post. Pose "what if" questions or scenarios. Include graphics or visuals, if your server and the course can accommodate, and ask for comments or responses. Tell an appropriate humorous story that illustrates a point in the class.

You might be tempted to frontload the interesting tidbits to get everyone excited. Resist this temptation. Save your good stories and examples for when the discussion begins to fade.

If you have a getting-to-know-you or off-topic section in the class forum, you'll find students are willing to post some pretty interesting information about themselves. The online format lets students write their own biographies for others to view, which is not really possible in the same way in a classroom-based environment. Draw on the information they provide to ask your students about their experiences and ideas. Ask them to apply a course concept to their job or home life. Provide a scenario and ask for feedback. Personalize the questions to a specific student. When one person answers, so will others.

In a live teaching situation, you can make eye contact, smile, change your tone of voice, and use other cues to show your appreciation for a student's participation in discussion. Online, you need to give more explicit praise to keep the students motivated. Send an email to a student who has done an exceptional job on a discussion, thanking her for making the extra effort. Or single out a student's comment, referencing the student's name, and use the comment as a springboard to further discussion: "Thanks for sharing that example, Sarah. You made a valid point. How might Sara's idea apply to...?" Behavior that is rewarded gets repeated!

3. Use Synchronous Discussion.
Synchronous discussions are real-time interactions, which can take place via chat, phone, VOIP, or other conferencing-style method. They are similar to phone or online conferencing.

In the classroom, students sometimes remain silent after the instructor asks a question because they are thinking. Teachers can see it on their faces. They are searching their brains for information and are working on compiling an answer. They are processing information.

Online, there are no visual cues to let the instructor and other students know that everyone is still processing information, and all that dead air is magnified online or over the phone.

Provide questions to students before the meeting. They can research information and make concerted comments about the topic. Questions in synchronous discussion should be comprehension or application questions: classifying, describing, identifying, locating, choosing, illustrating, and interpreting. For example, I ask students to think about theory X and name two things that indicate support for it.

Synchronous discussion is not the time to ask synthesis or evaluation questions.

Make sure all students speak—not "have the opportunity to speak," but actually engage their vocal chords. I require all students to provide relevant input verbally. I might direct questions to specific students who have not spoken, or award a grade for participation. In an online environment, where students typically can't see one another, our voices are one of only a few things that allow us to identify and connect with each other.

I don't want to suggest that someone needs to be saying something at every moment. Some quiet time is beneficial, especially for those students who are reluctant to speak up. Do allow for some dead air while students process information. Someone is usually mustering up the courage to say something. Give them a few long pauses to think of questions they want to ask, and always let students ask questions at the end of a synchronous meeting. This is the time to allow as much dead air as you want. Always be the last person to exit the discussion, as someone might think of a question at the last minute.

4. Recommend Extra Stuff.
The instructor should, at some point, write a post to the students recommending a web site, book, movie, museum, event, or professional organization.

State why you are making the recommendation. Write a brief review describing how it would be helpful for students. When you recommend a book that's used in your field, you're showing that you are knowledgeable and reinforcing your qualifications to teach the course.

Will a student read the book, see the movie, or join the organization? Probably not. On the other hand, occasionally they do.

This is the time to promote your own books, articles, or films. Tell students why you wrote a particular article and some of the difficulties you had in your research or writing. Adult students especially are nervous about academic writing. This gives them the opportunity to know that everyone, even experienced writers, can work through the writing process successfully.

In an on-campus class, I can tell students about my experiences, background, and even share stories about my dogs. I can be more personal. In an online class, stories about my dogs are too distracting in a discussion forum. I must focus my educational and work experiences that are specific to the course.

5. Use White Space.
Posts in text-based discussions (forum boards, chats, email) should be written as short, brief paragraphs with a lot of white space.

Do you find that students aren't reading the syllabus or lecture (sometimes called a learning block or guidance)? That's because they're too long! Should they read these? Yes!

No one reads long and cumbersome pieces of information. Have you ever received a long letter from your university or institute? Did you read every single word? Probably not. We usually read the first few lines and the last few lines, especially if the middle is a large bulk of words.

Large chunks of information should be divided into shorter segments and can be delivered or posted throughout the week. Paragraphs should be one to three lines, with a blank line between paragraphs. Use capitals for headings. Use at least a 12-point font.

Use color and italics sparingly. Overuse of emphasis dilutes the attention you're trying to draw. Also be aware that certain colors may be challenging to read on screen.

6. Use the Book, But Don't Teach the Book.
For some online courses, the university may have already chosen the textbook. In pre-set curriculum courses, the discussion questions and homework assignments may already be written. Your job is to explain and expand upon the texts and assignments, and guide students to understanding. Students can read the book; you do not need to restate the information. Use the book as a stepping stone to other ideas and examples.

Illustrate theories with information from the textbook, citing pages and such, but provide additional insight and examples with your postings, lectures, and comments. Depending upon the topic, you might post theories or comments referring to other textbooks or articles.

A textbook is a framework for accumulating knowledge, not the font of all truth. Students should be able to question the information, not revere it.

7. Don't Always Reply.
Do not reply to every single post on the class discussion boards.

If the students are required to post an introduction in the first week of class, you should reply to each individually to show that you are 1) present, 2) involved, 3) interested in the students' success in the class.

You may want to reply to all initial discussion questions. With 40 students, that's a lot of posts! Some of the posts will be repetitive, but suppress the urge to write "good job" to each of them. If the purpose of using technology is to share information and guide students to learning, you should only be posting when you can provide substantial information.

You already know that students will comment on each other's posts. If you post a comment to each of these, you'll be doing most of the "talking." Let the students share information, but be there to guide them.

8. Expect Tangents.
Tangential discussions will happen. The question is how to deal with them.

Are off-topic discussions interruptions or teachable moments? If the discussion is beneficial to the class and new knowledge is shared, then you might want to continue the thread, or begin a new one. In history or humanities, for example, my students might post information about a vacation to one of the places being discussed. I add information or highlight events or art.

Sometimes students start a discussion that will be covered later in the class. Ask them to keep notes of their ideas and questions and post them later. If the discussion is not worthwhile, rein the students in and divert them back to the topic.

9. Ask Good Questions.
What makes for a good discussion question? The best questions for online classes are ones that make the student research and support their answers, rather than "show knowledge" questions.

Ask about "factors that contributed to..." or "what if..." Ask for supporting documentation, not just "support your answer" (students tend to think their opinions and personal examples will suffice).

In a face-to-face class, I can review the previous lecture by asking "who, what, where, when, how" questions. But online, questions need to be more substantive, soliciting discussion, thinking, and research. It doesn't work online to ask a series of short questions, one after another, to build up to a full discussion.

10. Pre-write.
Write discussion questions or substantive replies to students ahead of time.

Some colleges have pre-set discussion questions. That's fine. However, you must reply to student comments during the synchronous discussion. If you only reply to asynchronous postings, you'll run the risk of writing "I agree" to every one.

Research and write a substantive post that goes along with the topic of discussion for the week. This could be a scenario, case study, interesting tidbit of information, a (very) short research essay, or clarifying and elaborating information from the textbook. Ask a question related to this essay. Some concepts are difficult to grasp, so I have a few pre-written explanations and examples that go with different material that I teach.

Won't this seem canned to students? No, because what you write will conform to the discussion question or the topic discussed that week. You might also add or delete a bit of information in your post depending on the trends of the discussions. These do not need to be long posts either. Include some shorter comments and questions.

Some examples:

Do you want your way of life to change? That is the real question behind this week's discussion question.

The larger society is asking the smaller group of indigenous people to give up their way of life.

What would you be willing to give up for the good of the whole? I am not sure I would be willing to give up my lifestyle. What about you?

In an on-campus class, the instructor addresses all the students in lecture but not individually. I consider online discussions a direct communication with each student. We cannot all see or talk to each other, but we can share knowledge in a community environment. These guidelines have helped me to be more time efficient in my communications, and more personal in my interactions.

Remember that less time spent on the computer does not equal less efficiency or less communication.


  • Thu, 18 Sep 2014
    Post by Amirta John

    Your provided tips are very interesting and effective, because you are an expert and I am sure you provided us those tips which you utilized before in your daily routine.

  • Fri, 29 Aug 2014
    Post by alex

    I am also a school teacher and I was teaching start when I am in college and doing studies to gather as well but now I am professional teacher and I agree your point of views.

  • Mon, 02 Dec 2013
    Post by quarry operations

    A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I feel that you should write extra on this subject, it may not be a taboo subject but typically individuals are not sufficient to talk on such topics. quarry operations

  • Thu, 14 Oct 2010
    Post by [email protected] mba

    This is really a very informative and educative post, but i want to know discussion question for small business management.

  • Wed, 06 Oct 2010
    Post by flora

    well you give a best tips to all the future people like most of people think that just to study a short time schooling and college or doing some courses then we are becoming the teacher but the can not thing that because of that bashing and misbehaving they can make a child stubborn and because of stubborn may be the children left study and because of an un trained teacher the whole future is finished of that boy!

  • Wed, 01 Sep 2010
    Post by Jeanna Bailey

    Great reading material. Kept my attention.

  • Tue, 29 Jun 2010
    Post by Tareq Beck

    Well Done! Best Tareq

  • Thu, 24 Jun 2010
    Post by Brandon Avants

    I have never taught an online course. reading this article opened my eyes and answered some of the questions that I had. It is easy to stand in front of a class and engage the students. Learning how to engage them in an online manner would be much more difficult.

    Using current topics for class, even from the evening news is a great idea.

    Thanks for your insight!

    Brandon Avants

  • Fri, 11 Jun 2010
    Post by Gregory Whitfield

    These are all valid points. I have taken numerous online courses and the instructors' comments were more meaningful when I noticed that he/she had not responded to every post.

  • Thu, 10 Jun 2010
    Post by patricia barnett

    Hello All: Substantive posts show how much and how deep the students understand the material. All learners are interested in "how long the paper needs to be", so a minimal word count for discussion questions is great!

  • Tue, 08 Dec 2009
    Post by Michelle Everson

    I can relate to so much of what you write about, Jo. I've been teaching online for six years and discussions are big parts of all of my online courses. I was especially interested in your "Don't always reply" tip. This is still something I struggle with. I end up feeling like I want every student to know I've read what he/she has to say and that I value it, but you are correct in that it can get overwhelming if you attempt to do this (especially this semester when I am teaching three online courses, one of which has 44 students!).

  • Thu, 15 Oct 2009
    Post by clintonette garrison

    Thanks, this is helpful. This is my first time teaching an on-line course and I really appreciate the tips.

  • Tue, 13 Oct 2009
    Post by Bill Osborne

    Classic learning model. Particularly like the "Big Questions" (#10)& the grounding in reality.

    Well Done! Best Bill

  • Tue, 13 Oct 2009
    Post by Leah MacVie

    This article had so many great ideas that I can't wait to share. My favorite, as a student, always was: 4. Recommend Extra Stuff. I gobbled that information up! as do students still.

  • Wed, 30 Sep 2009
    Post by Renee Hochstetler

    Thanks for sharing these helpful tips. When it comes down to teaching online, it's important to have conventions in mind that will engage students and facilitate discussion. While content is important, it's the instructor's approach that engages the class.