Encouraging Community and Interaction with Online Discussions

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Yuppie? by JeffK, on FlickrLast week, I discussed The Logistics of Online Discussions, how I set up discussions and why I use the techniques that I do, in response to a question from a colleague in South Carolina. Even the most perfect technology and logistics fail if you do not ask the right questions, though. That’s why this week I turn my focus to the prompts I use for online discussions.

Using the Discussions for Introductions

I usually begin each course with an assignment that asks students to write biographical profiles. Students post their work in the online forum so that everyone in the class can read everyone else’s profile. One of my underlying goals for the Professional Bio Assignment Professional Bio Assignmentis to help students build community. Without this activity, students only see one another’s names in the discussion forum. I hope they will learn a bit more about each other, and they can look back to read more details later as they discuss other topics.

Using the Discussions for Peer Review

I ask students to post their rough drafts for their major projects in the discussion forum as well. Canvas has a slick feature that assigns partners for peer review, so I can automatically arrange peer review with little effort on my part. Before Virginia Tech adopted Canvas, I used a strategy that Bedford/St. Martin's Nick Carbone Nick Carbonetaught me: I instruct students to look through the forum and provide feedback to one student whom no one has replied to and a reply to another student who has received only one response. Responses from me don’t count. This process works smoothly, too.

The additional benefit of having the peer review work done in the online forum is that all the students in the course have access to all of the drafts that have been turned in. Seeing how 21 other people have completed an assignment helps students think about new strategies they can try and new content they can add.

Further, I can point students to one another’s drafts to demonstrate strengths. If one student is struggling with using specific details, I can ask her to read the draft of another and look for how details are used. This practice allows me to share an authentic model while also praising the author of the model. In cases where several students in the class are working on the same issue, I have shared a student sample with everyone in the class by pointing to the draft in the online forum.

Using Discussions to Explore Issues and Ethics

Finally, I use the discussion forum to carry on the discussion of issues and strategies that are typical for the writing classroom. For the forum prompts, I borrow from the textbook when I can. I'll take an exercise from the end of a chapter and turn it into a discussion prompt that students will respond to. While I copy over the question from the e-text (and usually edit it), I do not copy over the sample work that sometimes accompanies it. Instead I ask students to look it up in their copy of the textbook.

I also have forum questions that share links to related writing advice and examples of texts that are similar to what they are writing, and I ask them to discuss what they see and what they can take away. For instance, for the bio assignment I mentioned above, I give students links to the biography pages of local businesses and various campus groups to analyze:

In addition to discussion of examples and writing strategies, I ask students to consider a series of ethics situations, which I wrote about last year (). I ask students first to indicate how they would respond to the situation and then to explain their position. The situations lead to some lively conversations, since every student has an opinion and there is no clear right or wrong answer.


If you use online forums in your class, whether it’s face-to-face, hybrid, or online, please tell me about the strategies that you use in the comments below. What discussion prompts have worked best for you? Have you had prompts that bombed? Let me hear from you!

[Photo: Yuppie? by JeffK, on Flickr]

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.