January 14th, 2015

Effective Ways to Structure Discussion

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The use of online discussion in both blended and fully online courses has made clear that those exchanges are more productive if they are structured, if there’s a protocol that guides the interaction. This kind of structure is more important in the online environment because those discussions are usually asynchronous and minus all the nonverbal cues that facilitate face-to-face exchanges. But I’m wondering if more structure might benefit our in-class discussions as well.

Students struggle with academic discourse. They have conversations (or is it chats?) with each other, but not discussions like those we aspire to have in our courses. And although students understand there’s a difference between the two, they don’t always know exactly how they’re supposed to talk about academic content when discussing it with teachers and classmates. Would providing more structure provide that clarity and make the value of discussions more obvious to students?

Starter and Wrapper

Besides their uncertainty of how to discuss, students are also confused about what they should take from a discussion. Do they take notes? If so, what do they write down? Something as simple as a discussion “starter” and “wrapper” (descriptors I’ve seen in several online discussion articles) can provide a concrete beginning and end to these exchanges. Why not assign students the “starter” and “wrapper” roles? Say the assignment involves a reading that will be discussed for the first 10 minutes of class or a 24-hour period online. The “starter” launches the exchange with a question, a quotation, a comment about an example in the text, or by suggesting possible links between text material and previously discussed content. The “wrapper” identifies themes, pulls out key ideas, or lists the questions that next need exploration. Maybe two or three students put “wrappers” around the discussion.

Save the Last Word for Me

Instead of requiring a specified number of comments and responses, as is so common in many discussion board assignments, what about using Save the Last Word for Me? With this discussion strategy, half the students find a quotation from the reading, say one they don’t think they really understand or would like to understand more fully. They post that quotation and then the other half of the students offer their ideas, interpretations, and understandings of the quote. Every quote must have at least two responses from two different students. After a designated amount of time, the student who posted the quote explains what he or she learned from the “discussion” of their quote. Then the students switch roles.
You could structure an in-class discussion along these lines. Before class, students post quotations from the reading. The instructor brings these to class, and each quotation is discussed, with students offering the explanations and the instructor facilitating the discussion. Then perhaps everyone picks one of the quotations the class has been discussing and writes briefly about their understanding of it now.

Time for reflection

Sometimes discussions are too structured. Often that happens unintentionally when the instructor slides into a dominating role—talking too often, making comments that are too long, or presenting ideas in ways that sound like right answers. The line between lecture and discussion is easily crossed when experts exchange with novices. Finding a good a balance between leading and guiding without controlling and directing discussion requires ongoing calibration.

I wonder if students might feel more settled about discussions if we encouraged them to reflect on the discussions. Usually, a discussion ends when class does. or the online time window expires. When class starts again, it’s a whole new discussion. But what if we concluded our discussions with silence? Even just a couple of minutes in class (longer online) during which students think about key ideas, new insights, thoughts they like to explore further, or questions promoted by the exchange. Maybe one or two of those thoughts are voiced or shared electronically and used to launch the next discussion. In other words, discussions can also be structured with prompts that tie them together. “Here’s a question we discussed last time and here’s how some of you answered it. Given this new reading or the content talked about yesterday, would you change your answer? How?”

Discussions shouldn’t be islands in a course. They should be regions within a country with borders that touch or overlap – where students can navigate from familiar to unfamiliar content areas, and back again.


For more on this topic, see Structuring Discussions: Online and Face-to-Face. This post from September 2013 features a list of discussion activities you might want to try in your courses.



  • Perry Shaw

    Thank you Maryellen. These suggestions are very timely, as we are about to launch a full on-line programme at our school.
    In preparing our materials we found that we needed to give quite explicit instructions to our students – step 1, step 2, step 3 – in order for them to post meaningful discussion. Your suggestions take this concept one stage further.

  • uhdlanej

    Excellent suggestions. Very timely as we approach our new Spring semester.

  • Benjamin

    Great information, Maryellen. I have been seeking an effective approach to encouraging group discussions in my classes. Will give these suggestions a try this semester.

  • Tracey

    I like the "Save the Last Word for Me" idea, but I use my discussion (in online courses) to meet specific course objectives. So if I don't know what students will focus on in the discussions, I can't be sure that we'll hit on certain topics. I think it would be a nice addition to the more structured forums, but not a replacement.

  • Really great suggestions Maryellen. I think I can use these prompts to help guide students e-portfolio reflections to the assigned reading and hopefully guide students responses to each others' e-portfolio entries. A great way to structure students' reflective engagement between classes. Thanks so much!

  • Kathleen

    Thanks for these very interesting and useful suggestions for both in-class and online discussions. In class, however, it can be like pulling teeth to get incoming students to offer comments at all. I solved that problem by writing an open question on my blackboard and requiring every last student in the class to go up to the board and jot down their responses, which we then discussed. Both shy and gregarious students liked that because, they reported, they could see what everyone else was thinking. It also gave everyone an opportunity to be heard in our limited classroom time.

    • Nicole

      Great suggestion, Kathleen – Can you provide an example of what your open question would look like? I'm trying to picture students writing responses to a question on the board, and how much time that might take (and the legibility, lol). I do something very similar, where I ask them to respond to a question on the board on their own paper during the first 5-10 minutes of class, and we discuss their responses; however, as you know, half the students just pretend like they are writing something or some don't write at all. So, I still have the same 6 eager students doing all the talking. Your option still pushes them to think about the question and be an active participant, but they don't have to speak in front of everyone. I like it! Thank you.

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  • Aibangbee j. b

    it will make it more obvious because it leaves room for personal expression and observations by the learner. It leads to better concentration. I believe they would learn better if they take notes together with personal observations and contribution.

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  • bridgetarend

    Thanks for the interesting ideas. I have students write a reflection paper each week (no more than one page) that includes some of their takeaways and insights from the class discussions. They often pose new questions or offer some way that something said in class related to their lives or conversations outside of class later in the week. I love to see how the discussions continue on after the class ends!

  • Anice

    Great ideas! I personally like the "save the last word for me" suggestion. I will definitely try it in my next on line course.