The Logistics of Online Discussions

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Gardner_Feb23_213.jpgLast week, I heard from a colleague in South Carolina who had visited one of my technical writing course websites and wanted more information on the discussion forum activities that I ask students to complete. As I replied to her email message, I realized that there was a lot that I do with online forum discussions that I haven’t ever written down. I didn’t have any links to point her to!

Today I plan to fix that problem by sharing the details on how I set up online discussions as a participation activity, how I manage students, and how I assess their work in these discussions. Next week, I’ll share the three kinds of discussion that I ask students to participate in.

Setting Up the Discussions

I require participation in the discussion forums as a part of my course, mentioning the requirement on the syllabus and on the course’s assignment overview page. Since the course I am teaching is 100% online, there is no classroom discussion. I use the Discussions tool in Canvas, our CMS, as a substitute for the interaction and conversations that would typically take place in a face-to-face class.

I don’t bother with much discussion of netiquette. All work and participation in the course is already governed by the Undergraduate Honor System and the Virginia Tech Principles of Community, so troubling behavior is already covered.

Along with those two documents, I use relevant information from Chapter 3 of the textbook I use, Practical Strategies for Technical Communication by Mike Markel. This chapter discusses how social media and other electronic tools such as messaging technologies, wikis, and shared document workspaces can be useful for collaboration in the workplace. I ask students to read that chapter in the first week of the course to address other issues of appropriateness and professionalism in online communication. Further, this overview of digital collaboration gives the class’s online discussion additional relevance as preparation for the workplace.

Arranging Students into Groups

In the face-to-face classroom, many of the discussion questions I use work well in a full-class discussion. Online, however, students have a harder time engaging with 21 other students in a full-class discussion. The long, scrolling list of replies creates a giant screen of text, with 22 students repeating one another’s points either because they haven’t read what has already been posted or because posts have been added while they are writing.

The best solution I have found is to arrange students into small groups of five to six students each. Canvas allows me to limit students to discussing with the members of their group only. It’s much easier for a student to have an engaged discussion of ideas with four other people than it is with 21 others.

There are ways to set up a similar situation with other CMS or discussion forum tools. Before I used Canvas, I set up copies of the same prompt with the group name in the subject line (e.g., Group One Biography Discussion, Group Two Biography Discussion). I assigned students to groups in a post on the course website, and then students were able to discuss the ideas by simply choosing the right subject line.

Assessing Online Discussions

Admittedly, all the discussion questions I use require a lot of reading and grading on my part. I typically grade discussion participation based on whether the student did the work and the amount of effort that went into the task. I consider the forum posts as first draft writing, so I do not mark errors in spelling or grammar. I do ask students to focus on a professional presentation of ideas, and I contact anyone who is being too informal privately to correct the situation.

At the end of the term, I ask students to write a Completion Report that reviews their participation in the forums by looking at the frequency of posts, reviewing the best posts, and providing an overall assessment of their work during the term. Their self-assessment in this final project gives me all the details I need to determine their participation grades for the course.


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. How do you manage the discussion? What assessment strategies do you use? I want to hear from you! And be sure to come back next week for my post on the prompts I use for online discussions.

[Photo: Detail from University Life 143 by Francisco Osorio, 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.