Enhancing Discussion in the Online Classroom: Don’t Give Up!

Len AssanteSpecial Guest Blogger, Len Assante, Department of Communication

Several faculty members in the communication department spent last spring working on a small project to improve the use of discussion boards in online classrooms. We were seeing issues that many of you have likely seen:

  • Rudimentary or minimalist initial posts
  • Limited or no connections between the post and the material in the course
  • Even more rudimentary (“great post!”) replies


In other words, we were not seeing much actual “discussion.” Students were meeting the letter of the assignment, but many were not meeting the spirit of the assignment. Online discussions were simply not as good as in-class discussions.

We decided to do some outside reading. My assignment was to read Jay Howard’s “Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Peron and Online, and while it was mostly very elementary, there were a few nuggets we found interesting and we also came up with ideas of our own.

  1. Quality vs. Quantity: Fewer, but more active and engaging discussions requiring more initial work and more in-depth response posts. Posts must include support, from the textbook, from outside sources or both. These assignments would also count for a larger portion of the student’s overall grade. Most of our courses have one discussion per week. How about cutting that in half?
  1. Breaking the class into rotating (or permanent) small discussion groups to promote team-building and bonding. In-class small group discussion can help students develop relationships with their comrades and with the instructor, which we know can promote student success. Focusing a discussion among a small group of known peers may improve quality of posts and increase overall student engagement in online classes.
  1. Student-on-student evaluation of discussions using a faculty-developed rubric. From teaching public speaking, I know students can be their own harshest critics. And from teaching online courses, I know that reading week after week of discussions can be tedious and time-consuming. So, how about we have students do some of the evaluating? This works great in communication courses where self-reflection and critical analysis of others’ messages is part of the course, but I bet it would also work in many other courses. Faculty would develop the grading rubric for students to use when critiquing their peers and of course would have final say over grades. 
  1. Setting eLearn so that students cannot see other student discussion posts until they make their first post. This is an easy one. Have you ever seen discussions with 20 students where most of the initial posts are very similar to each other? Students will sometimes simply parrot the first post, especially if you give it positive feedback before the assignment is due. Elearn can be set so that a student must post before he/she can see other posts. This helps ensure the originality of their posts. (And maybe a variety of opinions!)
  2. Have two due dates for each discussion. This is also simple to execute. The course instructor simply sets a due date for the students’ first post. This would usually be in the middle of the assignment window. If a discussion opens on Monday and closes Friday, have the first post due by Wednesday. This will eliminate the tendency of some students to wait to the last minute to make all required posts. This gives all students more possible posts to respond to and spreads the discussion out over the whole assignment period –in other words making it more like an actual discussion.

There are other many other strategies. Some of these may work for your classes, some may not. The basic idea, however, is universal –the more online discussions resemble actual interpersonal conversation, the better the learning outcomes should be. And the students might even develop relationships that enhance retention and success. (And they might even be more interesting to read!)

We’re trying some of these in our courses. Stay tuned to see how they work out.