Teaching Online: Engaging Online Discussions
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Student at computer

A happy engaged student...reading academic material...I'm sure!

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the importance of Social Interaction within online learning
  • Identify strategies for developing effective, engaging, and worthy discussions in an online class
  • Identify how Online Discussions can be used to help students achieve Learning Outcomes


One of the most important components of effective online teaching and learning is the intellectual engagement of students who do not have the opportunity to see their instructor or fellow students face-to-face. The degree of engagement in online coursework has been strongly linked to retention and performance so it is vital to incorporate opportunities for meaningful connection with others within the course design itself.

One of the most commonly used tools for engaging students in an online course is the use of asynchronous discussion boards. The “asynchronous” quality of these discussion boards refers to the fact that individual students do not necessarily need to be online at the same time in order to engage in the discussion. Students can log in at different times and leave postings and responses to each other, which are then read at a different time by other students.

For instructional designers an important question lays in determining what constitutes a good topic for discussion. Here are some ideas to consider:

Policies Regarding Discussions

The expectations for performance and frequency of posting should be explicitly communicated, including how the discussion will be graded (if it is to be graded).

Time frames in which students can participate in the discussion board should also be explicitly communicated.

Online communication etiquette, writing style, spelling, and the provision of supporting evidence should be incorporated into the performance expectations.

Learning Outcomes

As with any instructional activity, the use of the discussion boards in a class should be constructed to meet specific learning outcomes identified in the lesson or syllabus.

The learning outcomes for discussion boards are different than individual learning outcomes.

The learning outcomes for discussions tend to be of higher order within Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Online discussions should not be used to measure information that would, or could, be measured on an exam or quiz (meaning, the questions presented in discussions should not be seeking specific, right or wrong answers, but must be questions that can be debated with contradictory evidence.

The Use of Discussion Boards

Discussion boards are effective in developing diverse points of view, debate, presentation of thoughts on a controversial subject, and for having students work collaboratively to produce a final product (paper, opinion, statement, etc.)

For many online courses the discussions is the central component of the course. It is truly where instruction takes place, so make them important and required.

Discussions can be used to engage students in online group work.

Discussions can be used to engage students in collective decision making about aspects of the course that require their involvement (as discussed in Learner-Centered Instruction).

Online discussions can be used to create, facilitate, extend, or complete a discussion that started in a face-to-face classroom.

Faculty Involvement

Faculty should be “present” in the discussion boards providing feedback and encouraging critical thinking.

If grading is part of the process it should be done in a timely fashion and the criteria for a grade must be justifiable, if not explicitly communicated (i.e. tell them what they did wrong!)

Here are some examples of Learning Outcomes that are appropriate for online discussions:

  • Create a resource guide outlining the advantages of preventive health care in teenagers.
  • Plan an intervention strategy to address truancy among young adult college students
  • Distinguish which theoretical frameworks are most applicable to the development of a learning module on Infant Cognitive Development
  • Discuss personal views and concerns on the issues related to Genetic Engineering
  • Criticize the current Congressional approach to Health Care in America

Here are some examples of Learning Outcomes that are NOT appropriate for online discussions:

  • Name and discuss the three components of personality according to Psychodynamic Theory
  • Explain the use of an electron microscope in our understanding of the microscopic world.
  • Summarize your experience at your Service-Learning site.