Structuring Effective Online Discussions

Online discussions can be a great way to support active learning in your online course. But there are some things to consider that, in particular, are different than supporting discussion in a face-to-face teaching context.

These are some ideas to think about if you decide to make use of online discussions in your course:

1. Consider making use of small groups. Whether you are organizing a synchronous discussion (e.g., video conference in Zoom) or an asynchronous one (e.g., threaded discussion posts in Pepper), it’s important to think about group size. In the case of video conferencing, having students working in smaller “breakout groups” plays a similar function to small groups in a physical classroom; it allows an opportunity for more people to be actively engaged. This works because not as many people are competing for the same time and air space, but it can also encourage students who may be less inclined to speak in front of a larger audience, to share their ideas. In terms of threaded discussion, smaller groups have less to do with these things (although maybe to some degree it helps with reducing the feeling of a larger audience), and more to do with helping to manage the volume of notes and the time that it takes for students to read them in order to be fully engaged in the conversation. In threaded discussions, reading is essentially the equivalent of listening. If students are cognitively taxed with the listening part, they may not be as able to engage with the talking part (i.e., posting). Group size can be a bit larger in threaded discussion than in real-time classroom scenarios but somewhere around 6-10 students has tended to work best in my own courses, depending on the specific task. 

2. Focus on quality not just quantity. Think about the last really great conversation you had with a colleague. The fact that it was great probably had less to do with the amount you or your colleague said, than it did with the substance of what was said. Relying on quantitative measures of online discussion (e.g., number of notes posted, how many hours spent online), while perhaps tempting for their efficiency to collect through online tools, may not be the best way to show your students what you are valuing in terms “good discussion”. That’s not to say that quantitative measures of online activity can’t serve a useful purpose under some circumstances (which I’ll talk more about in my upcoming blog about online assessment), but in the case of supporting effective online discussion it can set your students’ attention on the wrong things. Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s always worth measuring.

3. Be present but don’t hover. Research suggests that teacher presence is a critical factor in supporting effective text-based online discussion (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 1999), but there is also evidence to suggest that there is a delicate balance between ‘being there’ and being there too much. While research done by Mandernach, Gonzales & Garrett (2006) offers that there is little agreement about the ideal frequency of instructor involvement in online discussion, it’s also been shown that too much interaction (generally) can cause students to feel overburdened (Northrup, as cited in Mandernach, Gonzales & Garrett, 2006). Therefore, in our eagerness to show our students that we are paying attention to them, a high volume of instructor posts in the discussion could potentially be having a negative effect (e.g., overwhelming students, or perhaps serving as a kind of overbearing surveillance on the part of the instructor); rather ironically, amplifying the sense of attention in a negative way. It is also very time consuming as the instructor to be heavily involved in the discussions (in addition to other teaching responsibilities), with little evidence to suggest that there is a clear return on investment in terms of the quality of online discussion and impact on student learning. I would suggest that it is more likely that the type of instructor interactivity has more to do with supporting effective online discussion, than simply the level of interactivity alone. For example, spending time working with student discussion leaders to come up with well-structured, meaningful questions to initiate online conversation has been a very useful strategy in my own courses. In a physical classroom context, there simply isn’t the same opportunity as there is in online threads for instructors to reply to every possible student comment. But just because being online makes this technically possible, doesn’t automatically make it pedagogically sensible.

4. Turning over some agency to students. Building on my previous point, allowing students to have the opportunity to direct some of the discussion that happens online can be a good strategy to encourage authentic engagement, and sustain attention. However, students can also benefit from instructor guidance on how to structure good discussion questions in order to meet course learning objectives, and how to work towards the continuous advancement of ideas over an extended period of time in the case of asynchronous discussion (which may carry on over a number of days, which is very different than a real-time seminar that tends to happen over 2 or 3 consecutive hours).


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 2 (2-3), 87-105.Mandernach, B. J., Gonzales, R. M. & Garrett, A. L. (2006). An examination of online instructor presence via threaded discussion participation. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 2(4), 248-260.

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