Getting Involved to Improve Online Discussion

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Preparing for presentation by Bill So, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseNow that the semester is over for me, I can put more energy into my work to improve discussions in my online classes. As I have discussed in earlier posts, I plan to spend more time preparing students for discussion, and I intend to increase low-stakes discussions in an effort to encourage more conversation. This week, I want to consider what I need to do myself to improve students’ discussion.


Each week, I asked students to discuss various topics. Sometimes, they responded to webpages or infographics. Other times, they shared drafts and gave one another feedback. Just as I would do in the face-to-face classroom, I checked on all of the groups. Since the class was 100% online, I skimmed through their discussions, paying attention to who contributed and noting any questions that came up. Occasionally, I answered a specific question or left some emoji thumbs-up feedback.


At the end of the week, students reported on their work by completing a weekly checklist that provided links to their Slack posts and replies. I used my spot checks of the discussions and the weekly checklists to gauge the success of the discussions. I hoped that feedback on the previous week’s contributions would improve the conversations during the next week. Unfortunately, discussion stayed rather flat, with students completing only the bare minimum to meet the requirements.


During the last weeks of the course, students were working on a large group project. There should have been a lot of discussion in Slack to coordinate drafting, feedback, and revision. I decided to ask them directly, using a version of this question in each team’s channel:

How are things going with your project? I see several of you have posted recently, but I know there are 11 people in the group. I'd like to hear from all of you so I can tell that you’re on track!

Students began responding almost immediately, telling me what they had accomplished, asking questions about their work, and sharing plans for finishing their project. The Slack channels were alive with conversation for a few days that week, and I suddenly realized my own failure in making our online discussions successful.


In the face-to-face classroom, students know you are there watching them. Although I was constantly reviewing what students were posting in my online classes, they had no idea that I was there. While I answered questions and added some happy-face feedback, I wasn’t doing enough. I needed to engage students with questions, feedback, and encouragement more frequently. In retrospect, it seems completely obvious. I wasn’t talking to students. Why would they talk to each other?


Going forward, I realize that I need to get much more involved. The best option is to add comments frequently that respond to students. Those comments will depend upon the context of the discussions, so it is hard to guess the exact comments to add in advance. To prepare, I have gathered some potential discussion starters that I can customize when the time comes:


  • Ask students to check in and tell me how their work is going
  • Respond to a specific student (e.g., What do the rest of you think of Pat’s analysis?)
  • Request details on current projects (e.g., What questions do you have about the assignment? Anyone need help?)
  • Ask for clarification and explanation (e.g., Can you explain this idea more?)
  • Call for examples (e.g., What are some examples from the document? Can you show me what you’re talking about?)
  • Request synthesis after students share ideas (e.g., Okay, how can we tie all these ideas together? What’s the take-away?)


There are more discussion starters in the article “50 Questions To Help Students Think About What They Think” While the article focuses on younger students, the questions can work for any level. To prepare even further, I want to take all these discussion starters and organize them into potential scenarios (like questions for peer feedback or questions for responding to an infographic). That project is on tap for another week. For now, I feel like I’m making good progress. I would love to know what you think. Please leave me a comment on how you engage students or what you use as discussion starters.



Credit: Preparing for presentation by Bill So, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

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.