Down-and-dirty Guidelines for Effective
Discussions in Online Courses
Joanna C. Dunlap
Educators who design and deliver online courses must connect with their learners
as they do in their on-campus courses. They have to provide true opportunities for
inspirational and meaningful learning, rather than a sterile experience of clicking within
a labyrinth of links. In an online course, student engagement occurs in three distinct
ways: Interaction of the student with the instructor, with other students, and with the
content (Moore & Kearsley, 2005). Much of the literature on online interaction is
concerned with social interaction (student‐to‐instructor and student‐to‐student) because
of the criticality of social context in supporting learning and as a way to minimize
student isolation and increase student motivation and retention (Ludwig‐Hardman &
Dunlap, 2003). Without a high‐level of social presence (Anderson, 2004; Aragon, 2003;
Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997), learners can feel isolated and disengaged because of a
lack of communication intimacy and immediacy (Lombard & Ditton, 1997). Therefore,
discussion‐based activities are the bread‐and‐butter of many online courses.
Because of the critical role that social context plays in inspirational and meaningful
learning, online courses need to include opportunities for rich and relevant discussion,
supported by solid instructor facilitation and strong group participation. To achieve this
goal, educators need to use strategies that (1) create a sense of learning community in
which learners learn from each other and from the teacher (Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Rovai,
2002), (2) encourage the sharing of multiple perspectives (Bender, 2003), and (3)
promote high quality work through collaboration and peer review (Hurst & Thomas,
2004) – without creating an instructional situation in which everyone is online
constantly (Dunlap, 2005). Unfortunately, accomplishing this level of social presence in
online courses – especially those courses that primarily rely on asynchronous
communication technologies – is challenging, even for experienced educators.
The purpose of the following list of guidelines is to help educators new to online
teaching, design, facilitate, and manage effective discussions for learners in online
courses in order to establish the level of social presence needed to encourage
inspirational and meaningful learning. These guidelines do not work in isolation, but
work systemically together to create an effective online learning experience.
Setting Participation Expectations
1. Inform learners about your online schedule, and make sure they know how often
you expect them to be online.
2. Balance discussion and other activities. Weekly discussions can get tiring, and can
lose power if overused. Give everyone a break from discussions.
3. Have discussion participation count towards the final grade. (See #19 below for a
strategy –Inspiration Points – that can be used to determine a participation score.)
4. If you have a large class, have smaller groups participate in a discussion instead of
the whole group (e.g., if 30 students, have 3 groups of 10).
5. Share guidelines for discussions that help learners understand what it means to
contribute effectively to discussions. For example, here is a “Top 10” that I provide
my students before we start engaging in online discussions:
a. Be direct: Share comments, ideas, and suggestions directly with classmates.
b. Be specific: When praising or commenting on others' contributions, avoid
being vague. Be clear about what aspect (excerpt, portion, etc.) of the
classmate's comment you are responding to. Describe how the classmate's
contribution helped you understand the topic or think about the topic in a
c. Be nonattributive: Do not describe a classmate's attributes but rather
describe your experience of her or his contribution – the effect that her or his
contribution had on you. Use “I statements” that convey your experience of
the other person’s efforts.
d. Share knowledge and ideas:
Applications and examples from the workplace and community
Great tips and tricks
Unique resources such as useful website, books, blogs, articles,
workshop information and/or technical work groups etc.
Relevant personal and professional experiences
Strategies, tools, and problem solving skills
e. Encourage vision: Present unique, insightful ideas, perspectives and
questions that are thought provoking and promote further discussion.
Encourage new ways of thinking that makes the group see something in a
new way. Disseminate new information and knowledge about the topic being
discussed. Demonstrate your ability to see beyond the obvious.
f. Contribute to group's sense of wellbeing and harmony: Be open to
others' comments and ideas. Make statements that support and honor
differences. Share thoughts and opinions with others without judgment or
prejudice. Make comments that help create a healthy learning environment
and inspire people to want to learn more. Make statements that mediate
differences and find commonality. Make statements that lift classmates'
spirits. When appropriate, share comments that draw the conversation back
to the focus of the discussion topic.
g. Demonstrate knowledge of the topic: Contribute to discussions by making
comments that are insightful and informed (include resources, personal
experiences with a topic, and so on).
h. Actively Participate: Make an extra effort to actively participate throughout
the discussion and engage classmates throughout the duration of the
i. Offer Assistance: Offer assistance to other students and help others who
need extra explanation on a topic.
j. Ask Questions: Pose questions and ask for help when needed.
An alternative to providing learners with a set of guidelines, have learners develop
the “ground rules” for discussion. Have students answer questions like:
What is our definition of a respectful, balanced discussion?
How will we determine in what order people speak?
How do we feel about interrupting?
What should we do if someone dominates the discussion?
What should we do if we don't hear from everyone in the room?
What should we do if we discuss something controversial or uncomfortable?
What should we do if someone says something we don't like?
This activity helps students reflect on their own discussion habits, makes it clear to
everyone what is expected during discussions and empowers students to stick up
for themselves and others when one of the rules is violated (e.g., someone
dominates the discussion or keeps interrupting others). It also gives students a
chance to practice being in a discussion before they have to participate in a
discussion covering a course topic, allowing them to become more comfortable
with their peers and the discussion format.
Setting the Tone for Social Sharing and Community
7. Make sure learners understand the need for civility.
8. Personalize your communications. Send a personal message to each student at the
start of the semester. Use learners’ names in posts.
9. Share a story, related to the content of the course, if possible, that gives learners
insight into your values, passions, interests and so on. Consider using a tool such as
PowerPoint, VoiceThread (http://voicethread.com), or Jing
(http://jingproject.com) to enhance your story with photos, images, and audio clips
(including your voice) – making it a digital story, in other words. See
http://www.augustcouncil.com/~jdunlap/movie for an example of a digital story
that helps my students feel more connected to me (and therefore, more willing to
share and participate in course activities, specifically discussion) while introducing
an important topic of my courses – values for teaching and learning. Notice that
students never see me, but hear my voice, see photos of my family and listen to me
describe a life‐altering event that reflects my own values around teaching and
learning. Now that I have shared, the students are more open to sharing.
10. Use an icebreaker. For example, ask learners to post bios/introductions, including a
list of “facts” about themselves – some true and some not true. Have learners guess
which facts are false using a “20 Questions” protocol. Other examples include:
Completing a sentence – “I was driving my car today when I…”
Have students interview and introduce each other
Provide a hook – e.g., ask students to describe the weirdest gift they ever
Play a game – e.g., sinking ship with 20 passengers, the lifeboat can hold
11. Give learners non‐threatening opportunities to practice participating in online
discussions (using the tools, protocols, etiquette, etc.). Consider the following
Post entertaining photos (not related to the course content) and ask learners
to share their captions.
Similarly, send learners to a website that requires they do something and then
ask them to share their experience with the group. For example,
have them visit http://trevorvanmeter.com/flyguy/ and respond to the
following questions in a discussion forum:
- What happens to you while you are there?
- What is your favorite part of the experience?
- Why do you think I am asking you to do these sorts of activities?
Have them visit the Mr. Picassohead website –
http://www.mrpicassohead.com/ – and create an artwork, then submit a link
to the discussion forum. Once posted, encourage learners to comment on
each other’s artwork.
Launching and Structuring Discussions
12. Tie discussions to course events: projects, readings, preparing for an
assessment/test, etc. And consider alternatives to the question‐answer format such
as role‐plays, debates, case studies and games.
13. Use high‐level questions that are thought provoking, hypothetical, controversial,
etc. For example, ask students to complete the sentence (“What most struck me
about the book we are reading is…”). Ask questions that require learners to take a
position, provide a rationale for the position, present evidence to support their
position, and attend to other learners’ contributions.
14. Ask follow‐up questions to stimulate conversation. For example, what reasons did
you have for saying this? Can you please elaborate? How do you define x? What do
you think might be the implications of your previous statement? Are there
alternatives to this approach?
15. Limit the number of topics/questions used to ignite a new discussion to two or
three. Stack the deck in favor of deeper discussions. Post a separate message for
16. Allow learners to choose which topics/questions they focus on.
17. Use provocative subject lines: “Three reasons why the author is dead wrong,”
“Computers program children,” “All we need to know about teaching we can learn
from skateboarders,” or “Why I love the Raiders.”
18. Don’t jump into the discussion right away. As soon as you start contributing to the
discussion, it has the potential of shutting down ideas—students are less like to
share alternative viewpoints. For example, if students start a discussion on Monday,
I will wait until Thursday to post (and I make sure students know this is my plan so
they don't think I have disappeared and I am not monitoring). This allows the
students to post their original position without being swayed by me. I monitor the
discussion, even though I don't post, during those first few days to get a sense of
who is participating, where the discussion is going, what themes are emerging, what
misconceptions need addressing, and so on. Then, on Thursday, I post to threads
of discussion instead of to every individual student post. This shows students that I
am attending to all of their comments, even though I do not have a 1‐to‐1 ratio of
Giving Learners a Role
19. Have learners assess the value of discussion contributions, e.g., assigning
Inspiration Points to each other. Inspiration points, modeled after the “karma
points” approach used by members of the online Slashdot.org community (and
similar to the valuing process used by community members of Amazon and Ebay),
involve students in the evaluation of the quality of discussion contributions. The
idea behind inspiration points is that the learning community, not a moderator or
an instructor, should be responsible for (1) determining the value of community
members’ posting in terms of helping the community achieve specific goals, and (2)
awarding those valued contributions.
To make inspiration points work, I give each student a certain number of
inspiration points (e.g., three) that she or he can assign to valued discussion
contributions within a certain timeframe (e.g., by week’s end if online, or by the
end of the evening session if on‐campus). Because the students are evaluating each
other, I work with them at the beginning of the semester to establish criteria for
determining “value” and then apply the criteria to their assessment of peers’
contributions and the creation of their own contributions. For example, inspiration
point criteria may include sharing original ideas, writing clearly, presenting a
coherent argument, providing evidence to support an argument, “listening” to
others and incorporating their ideas and perspectives and so on (see below for an
example of criteria).
Criteria for Inspiration Points
Here is how we will assign our allotment of inspiration points for each discussion:
hough you may have introduced an interesting idea or
contributed to the discourse, it is not original enough, or is
You provide a succinct, interesting, original, and well‐documented
argument or idea, or provide a useful link or pertinent fact.
on is creative and original, and compellingly argues
a very clear point. You support your contribution with evidence.
n exceptional contribution to the discourse
Ways to Improve Chances of Receiving Inspiration Points
Choose provocative subject lines to make our postings stand out.
Present our own perspectives.
Construct an argument. Provide evidence, present a rationale that supports
our positions, and reference the opinions of others, linking to supplementary
evidence when appropriate.
Open up debate by remembering that the best response is one that gets
people thinking, and that makes them want to reply.
Learn from others who have posted before us by reading through the posts
and referring to appropriate posts in our own.
Rules for Assigning Inspiration Points
Only award inspiration points to those who have contributed significantly to the
discussion – vote trading is unacceptable. Award inspiration points based on the
quality of the message, irrespective of the content of the message – vote for
exceptional messages even if you do not necessarily agree with the ideas presented.
In my experience, the community‐centered focus of inspiration points improves the
quality of each post during a discussion because students are more reflective and
thoughtful about their responses, make sure their responses are supported by evidence,
and work hard to provide value to the learning community by moving the discussion
forward. By using inspiration points, I participate more in the discussion because
students have taken over part of or the entire evaluation role. The inspiration points
that students accumulate for their valued contributions to the discussion can be used to
determine a score for class participation.
20. Have learners write a one‐page (e.g., 250 word) summary of the week’s (or
whatever unit of time used) discussion that includes a general overview of the
discussion, an excerpt of their most valuable contribution to the discussion, and an
explanation for why they consider it their best.
21. Ask the learners to become discussion leaders. Alternatively, have small groups of
learners facilitate a topic.
Engaging Quieter Learners
22. Use strategies such as inspiration points to encourage people to get involved.
23. Besides relevant and engaging activities, create a structure in which learners need to
post by a certain time and then respond to others by a certain time.
24. Organize learners into groups to make it more likely that everyone will have a
chance to participate—smaller discussion groups of between 5 and 10 learners can
make room for everyone to contribute.
25. Assign people specific roles in the discussion: facilitator, questioner, summarizer,
devil's advocate, and so on. Then, provide clear directions about what you do
specifically when you are assigned that role.
26. Involve learners in a debate, again with very specific role assignments for each
27. Put a limit on the number of posts (and length) that any one individual is allowed
28. Assign a response order/sequence and require each subsequent responder to post
something that extends the previous posts.
29. Use discussion protocols to guide participation, and make sure everyone in the
class has an opportunity to contribute. (See the resource - Protocols for online
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