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Mitigating Conflict in Asynchronous Online Discussions: Strategies for instructors in higher education

By Susan M. Yelich Biniecki, Courtney Hoffhines / April 2023

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Organized asynchronous discussions in online, formal higher education courses are an integral part of many classes [1, 2].  These discussions serve a variety of purposes that include working on small group projects [3], learning through games [4], and processing subject matter [5]. Within these settings, conflict can emerge. Conflict is a situation when individuals or groups strongly disagree; however, it is important to acknowledge that not all conflict is negative. Instructors often aim to foster a debate of ideas resulting in constructive conflict, or that fosters critical thinking about historical events, business ethics, and science problems. Instructors also may integrate dialogue in online discussions with the purpose, for example, of creating understanding within a political divide. However, certain conflict challenges may create a negative learning environment, and instructors need to mitigate those situations, or decrease the severity of the conflict [6]. The purpose of this article is to identify conflict challenges present within asynchronous online discussions and to present evidence-based strategies to mitigate conflict within these higher education instructional settings.

Online Asynchronous Discussions and Conflict

Online asynchronous discussions are typically situated within a class message board or group project setting. Within each of those settings, both constructive and destructive conflict can exist [7]. The potential for conflict is present for all course participants and may take place between learner and instructor as well as learner(s) to learner(s).  When instructors integrate effective pedagogical approaches, such as project-based learning in conjunction with asynchronous group work, conflict can arise. Peers interacting within asynchronous discussions can lead to positive conflict, or an exchange of diverse opinions. However, negative conflict also can arise based on three main categories: ideas, communication, and priorities [5]. Conflict over ideas may appear as students disagree over a concept from the readings or there may be a power struggle about whose idea is best for a collaborative project [8].  In communication, students may have a conflict with another person’s messaging. That messaging may be in the form of abruptness or lack of clarity from another student or even the instructor [9]. Lastly, students may have conflict because of priorities. For example, even though the discussion may be asynchronous, students may have different priorities, or personal values, based on family obligations or work, and therefore, need to respond to message board discussions within different time periods. In this situation, a misunderstanding of the delay in response may cause conflict and decrease morale if not addressed.  Identifying various conflict challenges is the first step toward selecting and instructional strategies for mitigation.

Conflict Challenges

When strategizing to mitigate conflict, practitioners can first consider the specific conflict challenges faced within collaborative, asynchronous learning environments. Conflict challenges include navigating effective online collaboration, participating in small group discussions, and developing discernment for healthy conflict. Careful consideration for each of these challenges allows strategic practitioner responses and proactive prevention.

Navigating effective online collaboration.  Online asynchronous learning can be fraught with conflict challenges considering the complex subtleties of peer groups as well as course design concepts. Group dynamics and trust among teams vary in an online environment [10, 11]. Group cohesion plays a vital role in both student satisfaction and performance [12]. This cohesion is especially important considering the conflict of balancing teamwork with individual achievement realities [13]. While clear-cut areas of conflict within collaborative structures include team member actions, such as social loafing [14], it can also include limitations within instructor communication, such as use of global or generic instructions that are not explicit enough for online learning structures [10]. With the demands on today’s practitioners, it can also be easy to overlook areas of course design that may lead to unnecessary areas of conflict within collaboration. For example, consider group projects that optimize group autonomy, but limit direction in how to establish group norms and role facilitation. Limited direction and structure may establish group self-governance; however, group interactions may devolve into conflict challenges over collaborative processes. As practitioners transition course design principles from face-to-face settings to online formats, challenges may emerge [10] as online learning often aligns to learning activities that are highly self-directed [12]. Conflict may emerge when there is not an established balance of course structure and autonomy [10].

Participating in small group discussions. Small group discussion participation is another important opportunity for knowledge sharing in online learning. The peer interaction available through discussion boards is both a form of participation and commitment [10] for today’s virtual learner. Unfortunately, discussion boards are also a source of potential conflict challenges, especially when considering harmful communication. A hallmark concern for conflict in an online learning environment is incivility [15]. This form of conflict may appear as challenging, negative language, or even criticizing within communication [16]. For example, discussion boards that are student-run may utilize peer feedback or question-posing activities. This structure may potentially lead to students utilizing poor communication protocol, including ignoring specific students within the group, or undermining the validity of other peer input and responses.  In addition, although discussion boards aim to allow students to process content socially, students may feel personal competition with others in order to prove they are better. This competitive behavior undermines cooperation and an exchange of ideas.  While a positive outcome of discussion may be the promotion of cooperation, a real potential exists for unproductive individual competition [13], resulting in conflict.  Limited guidelines in collaboration [5] with peers and course activities may exacerbate incivility in online discussions.

Developing discernment for healthy conflict.  Being able to discern constructive conflict may create a valuable extension of the learning environment. The presence of healthy conflict is perhaps overlooked at times within our online courses. For instance, practitioners create healthy conflict when integrating opportunities for cognitive dissonance [5] and intercultural, interprofessional learning [10] online. As instructors, we want students to share differing worldviews and learn from each other through some disagreement.  That exchange may develop through normalizing peer disagreements within brainstorming activities and task orientation [17], supported through dialogue modeling [5]. If practitioners are not actively aware and engaged in discerning healthy conflict, instructors could cut off a healthy conversation or allow the conflict to degrade. For example, if students were to contextualize a course reading in differing ways according to their distinct experiences, an instructor may either choose to optimize this opportunity by asking additional questions, or they may deteriorate the healthy conflict through validating one worldview or ignoring both.

Evidence-Based Strategies for Conflict Mitigation in Asynchronous Online Discussions

Instructors can utilize diverse evidence-based strategies to mitigate conflict in asynchronous online discussions. Categories of strategies include: providing support throughout the course for student ownership, creating points for class and group cohesion, incorporating relevant small group facilitation strategies, integrating leadership concepts, and structuring purposeful instructor monitoring. Instructors may draw from these strategies and decide how to adapt within their own learning environments.

Providing support throughout the course for student ownership. Best practices in online instruction include a beginning module with an orientation and specific rules of netiquette; however, instructors often neglect to provide support for students to process conflict throughout the course [16]. This support integration may appear in various forms, including collaboration skill development, instructor guidance, problem-posing, facilitative reflection, and even the use of roles and scripts. If small group work is beneficial to developing group processing skills, formative assessments addressing group skills need to be integrated to support student ownership and development [16].  The instructor also can utilize problem posing feedback to foster ownership through learner reflection. “Problem posing feedback throughout discussions at spontaneous and scheduled times can prompt individual and collaborative learner reflection and is a type of dialogue between the educator and the learner” [5].  In addition, providing scripts to address conflict throughout the course such as role plays at the beginning and during class may support groups to work out differences and personal conflicts [3]. Collaborative scripts may focus on scenarios involving instructions over general group norms, expectations for interaction, and problem-solving processes [13].

Creating points for class and group cohesion.  In order to mitigate conflict, a small group or the entire class needs to periodically bond over shared or common experiences. Because there is rarely spontaneous socializing within an asynchronous setting, the instructor may need to integrate those moments throughout the course in addition to the standard introduction board at the beginning of a class [3]. A positive atmosphere of personal connection can mitigate negative conflict, as well as enhance the learner experience. For example, cohesion strategies involve “less weighty learning tasks” [10] or activities that allow students to collaborate for a common goal such as a virtual game mid-course or a celebration of a student’s life event they choose to share.

Incorporating relevant small group facilitation strategies. Each learning environment or moment within a course may require different facilitation strategies [18, 19]. Making judgments about peer facilitation vs. instructor facilitation within small group discussions can mitigate conflict [11]. Peer facilitation may be best used to encourage participation, and teacher facilitation may be best used to achieve specific learning objectives or to reach a consensus of opinions [20]. When student facilitators are primary, incorporating a specific activity, such as a formal check where students revisit netiquette or group norms, can be helpful.

Integrating leadership concepts in team development. The integration of leadership concepts can foster collaboration and help teams deal with conflict effectively.Students need cues for task leadership and relational leadership within small groups [12]. Cherney et al. note that leaders in smaller groups had more significant challenges with conflict, perhaps because of the specific tasks small groups need to accomplish [14]. We may assume students possess leadership strengths, but students need support in developing leadership skills within online courses in order to balance task and relational leadership [12]. For example, group leaders need to develop skills to understand those who need time to reflectively observe and how to engage all learners in meaningful ways in small group work [21]. Providing leadership self-assessments and tools emphasizes the importance of leadership and the developmental nature of learning these skills.

Structuring purposeful instructor monitoring. Although instructor presence is a standard for good practice in online courses, structuring purposeful monitoring [10] to mitigate conflict is a specific type of instructor interaction. Research emphasizes proactive instructor engagement in three different ways to mitigate conflict: managing [22], supporting [3], and saving [5]. The first level of mitigating might be managing conversations, such as detecting where students may need clarification in instruction.  For example, in asynchronous groups within online games, “instructors can detect when their students are having trouble understanding how the game works, which concepts are missing, and which problems they are encountering” [4]. Mitigating conflict within this scenario provides a first level of intervention before a student has a conflict with another student in-group work or with the instructor. The second level of supporting connects to conflict in which, for example, an individual student is having difficulty trying to navigate conflict with another learner about how to coordinate a project or work out a group process. The third level is saving. An instructor would need to engage in saving when the conflict can be damaging to the learning objectives of the course and harmful interactions between or among students. Examples would include cyber bullying, uncivil responses, or social exclusion.

Conflict challenges and strategies for mitigating conflict are depicted within Figure 1.

Figure 1. Conflict Challenges and Strategy Wheel 
(original design by authors, Yelich Biniecki and Hoffhines)

[click to enlarge]

 The Conflict Challenges and Strategy Wheel depicts the conflicts commonly experienced within asynchronous learning as outlined in this article, as well as evidence-based strategies available for the mitigation of conflict.

Identified conflict challenges are represented in the inner circle and the strategies for mitigating conflict are within the outer circle. This visual can help inform practitioners’ effective instruction in asynchronous online discussion environments within higher education. Practitioners may create their own innovations for ways of building on this figure for practice.    


Online asynchronous discussions have a long history within higher education courses. Although conflict cannot be avoided, understanding ways to categorize conflict challenges within discussions can support practitioners’ use of related evidence-based strategies to mitigate conflict. The mitigation of conflict can help inform positive course experiences for both individuals and overall learner communities.     


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About the Authors

Susan M. Yelich Biniecki serves as an associate professor of adult learning and leadership at Kansas State University. She holds a Ph.D. in adult and continuing education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research interests focus on adult learning, international adult education (emphasis on Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe), continuing professional education, administrative leadership, and military learning. She currently serves on the Fulbright Specialist Roster.

Courtney J. Hoffhines holds a Ph.D. in adult learning and leadership from Kansas State University. She has served as an education professional for 15 years, working with students and families located within the greater Kansas City metro. Her professional interests include instructional design, continued professional learning, policy review, educational equity concepts, and engaging educators through leadership development.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution International 4.0 License. Copyright 2023 held by Owner/Author 1535-394X/2023/04-3587270 $15.00


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