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Center for Teaching Excellence

East Tennessee State University

Online Discussions

Online Discussions
Creative Uses for Online Discussions

Often, online discussions follow a format where the instructor poses a question or introduces a topic, and the students all provide commentary. This can be a useful format to ensure specific topics or angles surrounding a topic are addressed. 

However, if you are willing to be a little more flexible, consider some of the following methods to increase your students' engagement in discussions:

Require your students to be the discussion facilitators

With this method, the students who are leading the discussion must remain engaged as they moderate what is being said. They are almost certain to better learn the topic that they are responsible for leading a discussion about.

There are multiple ways to do this. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Assign discussion groups (e.g., 4-5 students per group), and have each member lead their group in a discussion about a specific topic during the semester.

    In D2L (Groups), assign students into discussion groups. Create a schedule for the entire class that indicates which student in each group will be the discussion leader, and what each topic or question for discussion will be (including open/close dates). Then create a discussion forum for each Group (limit accessibility only to that Group), and under each Group's forum, a topic for each assigned topic (with open/close dates adjusted).

  2. Have every student create and lead his/her own thread for each discussion.

    For example, you provide a range of possible topics (e.g., the chapters you are currently addressing) from which students can find a unique topic of interest around which they create a question. Each student must address a different topic/subject. They post their threads and facilitate their threads, while participating in others' discussions as well.

    In D2L (Discussions), create a discussion forum for each open discussion. Instruct students clearly to only click on "Compose" once - when they post their own thread. All other posts must be "Replies" to other students' threads. Warn them that repeat topics will be removed and they won't receive credit if they post the same topic that someone else has already addressed.

  3. Assign students into groups, and rotate each group's responsibility for facilitating whole-class discussions.

    For this approach, you may suggest a topic that is to be discussed, and each group member posts his or her own thread that addresses a unique angle regarding that topic, which he/she then facilitates. (The entire class participates in the discussion.) Alternatively, you can pose the topic/question to get the class started, and the group members are collectively responsible for managing the discussion's facilitation.

Use discussions as follow-up validation for coursework

Oftentimes, students complete work for a course that is seen only by themselves and the instructor. Why not let others see and comment on the work that was done? By using this method, students' work can be used as a beginning discussion prompt, and by reading and discussing each others' work, students learn more material and might even see excellent examples of what students can and should be doing.

  • When students complete an assignment, have them post it both in the dropbox (for your grading purposes) AND as a new thread in a discussion. For the new thread, require them to add one or two questions to begin the discussion. Students then facilitate their own thread and participate in others' threads.

    Variation: Rotate which students must post their work for discussion and facilitation; all students must participate in all discussions.

    Note: This type of approach will work best when each student's topic has an element that is unique (i.e., everyone is not doing the exact same project or addressing the same topic); it allows for greater breadth of discussion.
  • Examples of assignments that can be good prompts for discussions:
      • Website Reviews: Within a set of acceptable topics, have students select a topic, and then find and review a relevant, related website (include link!).
      • Article Reviews: Within a set of acceptable topics, have students select a topic, find a unique related article, and review or summarize it (include citation).
      • Information Extension: Within a set of acceptable topics, have students select a topic, then find related information - either web-based or print-based - that they include in their summary about the topic. This exercise is particularly useful for including elements of critical thought, as the source should be considered and discussed for its reliability, bias, etc.
      • Application: Within a set of acceptable topics, have students select a topic, then formulate a method for testing its presence in "real life." This is written up for posting and discussion (a comparison of what was seen vs what was expected is good to include in these). For example, Do children develop gender identity roles in the way the textbook states? (Test using interviews, observations, interactions.) Do people typically wash their hands long enough to ensure cleanliness? (Test using observations). Etc.

Use discussions for peer support in other coursework

You may find that you can increase student engagement and accountability on individual course assignments by requiring them to interact and support each other as they work. Here are some examples of how this could be done:

  1. For assignments where students create unique products (e.g., write papers on their own selected topic, create an original work), have all students post their selected topics or concepts as individual new threads within a discussion for this purpose, and then provide other students with ideas, resources, references, and so forth.
  2. Have students post a draft of their work as a new thread in a discussion, facilitate this thread (i.e., acknowledge the feedback they receive), and participate/provide feedback to others' posted work/threads.

    Feedback in this case could be open-ended, or could consist of a rubric that students copy and paste into their replies, and then complete before posting.


Pelz, B. (2010). (My) three principles of effective online pedagogy. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 14, 103-116.

Swan, K., Shea, P., Fredericksen, E. E., Pickett, A. M., & Pelz, W. E. (2000). Course design factors influencing the success of online learning. ERIC Reports, Report ED448760, 7pp. Link.

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