January 18th, 2012

How Many Faculty Discussion Posts Each Week? A Simply Delicious Answer


One of the most frequently asked questions from veteran and novice online faculty alike is, “How many weekly discussion posts should I contribute?” The reality is, there is an intricate balancing act to achieve the coveted “guide on the side” role in discussion forum facilitation.

At the onset of weekly discussion, outstanding online instructors wait cautiously to ensure that peer interactions and student self-discovery have the time to flourish. Then, at precisely the right point, they add several probing responses, invoking relevance and scholarship into the discussion. Concomitantly, they vigilantly strive to avoid omniscient, overbearing, or evaluative posts that inhibit future participation. This professional dialogue continues in this way throughout the length of the discussion, where sustained interaction becomes a rich environment for critical thinking to flourish.

This weekly unrehearsed exchange of timely, purposefully worded interaction is an art that faculty leadership needs to teach and develop in instructors, particularly if they are new to teaching. There is a distinct competency in creating and sustaining student to instructor and peer to peer discourse. We are remiss if we assume all faculty members are cognizant of the many educational values of online discussion and how to facilitate those forums in such a way to elevate discussion to a superlative learning tool. When we consider that discussion forums are one of the few unique places in an online course where all three pertinent levels of interaction occur: student to student, student to content, and student to instructor, we know we must promote their success.

Unquestionably, successful online forum facilitation is a daunting and complicated equilibrium that, if unbalanced, can inhibit learning. In today’s highly regulated postsecondary environments, we hold faculty accountable for substantive interaction that promotes learning. However, we do not often give them straightforward instructions on how to create and foster the setting for this to occur. Online adjuncts are often professionals in their fields and are entering education as a secondary or supplementary occupation. They do not have the foundational educational, behavioral, or other developmental knowledge to always intuitively handle forums appropriately. Leadership needs to aid faculty in answering their frequently posed question, “How many discussion forum posts?” Now, we can simply tell them with confidence, “The answer is as simple as a dinner party.”

But how? By using a centuries-old teaching tool: schema and analogy.

Discussion forums are like dinner parties, and the instructor is the host. Personally welcoming each student into this new and unfamiliar place and making them feel like they belong in that environment is a necessity to help integrate them socially and academically into the course; key elements in all retention research. We know that retention is heavily reliant on that integration and students’ related satisfaction.

Using the dinner party analogy simplifies the complex nature of discussion forum facilitation into a much simpler, relevant analogy because everyone has experienced it either as guest or host. When we give faculty this connection, it removes the guesswork by activating their own schema to understand how to facilitate in a way that promotes learning through substantive interaction.

The Dinner Party: The Host’s Actions….

  • Welcome EVERYONE personally at the door. (Online forum)
  • Make sure every person feels comfortable in the new environment. (Tone)
  • Don’t ignore anyone. (Reply to each student throughout the course)
  • Disagreements are phrased professionally.
  • No one should be silent, including the host! (Be present in forums)
  • Serve them something delicious. (Content!)
  • Invite them back! (To weekly forums, to the next assignment even if they’ve faltered on the previous one, to the university if they’ve finished your course)
  • Proportionate time with every guest. (Don’t reply to the same students every time)
  • Spend extra time with needy guests. (Struggling students)
  • Don’t talk all at once, spread the conversation throughout the party. (Post on various days, keeping the volume consistent)
  • Start up a new conversation when one is stale! (Add a relevant link to a current event to discuss)
  • Hosts are visible, immediately attend to guests’ needs, personable, and proactively plan for a great evening!

Faculty leadership should use the same strategies to teach professors as we preach to use with students: Activate schema, provide an analogy as a teachable tool, and motivate throughout. Discussion forum dialogue has the potential to be the most valuable learning opportunity in online environments. Let’s help faculty to make every course deliciously successful.

Dr. Cheryl Hayek is the associate provost at Grantham University.

  • Jeffrey P. Rush

    I would generally agree with this. When then of the schools, especially the for-profits that mandate how many times and how many posts the faculty member should engage in?

    Clearly this seems to be an accountability (and trust) issue, however it seems to me that too many posts by the faculty member stifles conversation, too few perhaps as well.

    Mandating a number though, it seems to me, creates a tension that's unnecessary.

    • Cheryl Hayek

      Mandating a number is not something I believe to be valuable. There are times, as a facilitator, when I notice a pattern in thought from 4 or more students. As a response to that common sentiment, I often post a new thread called "Food For Thought". I begin with, "After reading the well-thought out posts from Kathy, Tommy, Michael, and John, we have a trend in "xyz". What about if we look at it from the lens of "pdq"? Can we think critically on that view and dialogue?" Sometimes, this is more meaningful than posting "5 separate" posts just because the facilitator is mandated to hit a number.

  • Pat Tymchatyn

    What I agree with all this what I really need is some good examples of discussion questions and student responses and how the facilitator guides the discussion. Anyone have some good sources?

    • Dixie Elise Hickman

      Exactly what I was thinking! I'd especially like an example of a good discussion exchange from start to finish (soup to nuts?) and commentary on what makes it work.

  • Debra Ferdinand

    Excellent "Dinner Party" analogy for conducting discussions online. I'd just add to your list the "Appetizer" before the "Main Course." The "Appertizer" would allow students to wet their appetites with guided practice on one or two discussion questions in which the instructor gives feedback to let students know what is expected. Such an "Appetizer" would build student readiness and confidence for the first graded discussion question, especially if this would be their "maiden" taste of it.

    Many thanks,
    Debra Ferdinand, PhD

    • Cheryl Hayek, EdD


      Very true! I really believe we can take this analogy so far to help those who facilitate. After I wrote this, I was thinking about "food we burned in the kitchen", "wait staff: to hire or not to hire", the "linens", the ambiance….there is so much to compare here.

  • Frank Mulgrew

    Dr. Hayek,

    Your analogy is particularly helpful and I intend to share it with all our faculty. As online learning grows at our institution we continue to have a dialogue about best practices, how to improve learning, and how to improve our effectiveness as teachers, mentors, and guides in the online environment. I believe our faculty will find this a very useful analogy.

    I would also add Dr. Ferdinand's "Appetizer" to our discussion – nice addition.

    Asynchronous discussion boards have become such a key component in online learning that getting it right and doing it well can mean the difference between a good learning experience a great one (or a poor learning experience a great one). It was natural for some institutions to move to minimum post requirements in order to encourage lively and frequent faculty and student interaction. In my experience, I believe we are seeing the level of sophistication of many intermediate and experienced online educators increasing dramatically and quickly. Analogies – such as the Dinner Party – become much more important and developmentally useful in encouraging appropriate and effective amounts of interaction while allowing a reasonable freedom and creativity for each faculty member to engage in discussions with their students.

    Again, thank you for this useful analogy.

    Frank Mulgrew
    Online Education Institute
    Post University

    • Cheryl Hayek, EdD

      Dr. Mulgrew,

      Thank you for your kind words. I use many analogies and parables when I work with faculty. Online adjunct faculty are so diverse in their backgrounds that I find the centuries of tradition in teaching in parable reaches everyone and stays with them. I use many at Grantham. I look forward to sharing more with you and Faculty Focus as the year goes on.
      Cheryl Hayek, EdD

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  • Anita Ward

    As a fairly new online educator (2 years), I have found it very helpful to place word limitations on original formal discussion posts. Students are given a scenario and asked to research the themes (disease processes, ethics, behaviorial, mental) that are present. Research is conducted and students must think critically about the findings before writing. Writing should be succinct within confines. I have found students are more intrigued and conduct further research before reponding to the original post. If a discussion moves toward staleness, I may ask a probitive question to stimulate further thought.

    Using the dinner party analogy, if the 'partiers' are moving in the right direction, they are left alone. However, if a discussion starts to wane, I will pass the tray which includes a new tempting morsel!

    Anita Ward, MSN, RN
    Adjunct Faculty
    University of Memphis

  • OKthennext

    This analogy flows both ways. The student can be seen a the 'guest' and the guest has some responsibilities too, to ensure that the dinner party is a success. One: don't argue about sex, religion or politics — unless it is an aspect of the course, of course. Joking aside, it could be useful to students to discuss their participation in terms of a dinner party. Such as: 'Bring something' i.e., your best thinking, useful links – instead of dessert or a bottle of wine. And: 'Pay attention to all the other guests' i.e. don't just huddle with your one best friend. Etc.

    Win – win!

  • I like the idea of letting the discussion flourish between students and interjecting probing questions at just the right time,however, many of my students wait until the last day of discussion to complete response posts.

  • Kathy Dennick-Brecht

    I think this is a very useful analogy, especially for faculty who are just getting used to teaching in the online format. It is a nonthreatening and familiar model, so I it is a valuable on.
    I strongly agree that creating arbitrary rules that mandate responding to a specific number of posts each week are not beneficial. Instructors need to show eveidence that they are monitoring the discussion regularly, but that can be done by a few or even a single meaningful post every day or so. I think it's the quality of the post (not "Everyone seems to be doing a great job with this topic!) rather than the quantity, which needs to be the focus.

  • Geormu12

    The analogy is most appropriate. Hosting has the connotation of "one who receives guests in a social or official setting." The role of the host certainly is to make all guests feel not only welcome but also participatory in terms of communication with a sense of belonging.

  • czander

    My MBA course on Organization Change had discussions that were over 100 comments to a single posted thread which I found remarkable considering I had only seven students enrolled in the class. The students were so enthralled that they did not want the course to end. It was the best class I ever taught. What is the key for successful online learning? It requires that the mentor or instructor get to know the students, where they work what they do at work, how long they are in their degree and what they what to be doing in 5 years. I typically take the readings and expand upon them in the discussions and do it daily. This particular thread concerned the difference between a company perk and stealing.

  • Hello Dr. Cheryl Hayek:

    Thank you for providing a thoughtful perspective of online faculty participation within the discussion boards.

    I would like to discuss three points from your post:

    First: “This weekly unrehearsed exchange of timely, purposefully worded interaction is an art that faculty leadership needs to teach and develop in instructors, particularly if they are new to teaching.”

    Do you teach only for Grantham University? The reason that I ask is that I am on staff with five major online universities and I can assure you that adjunct faculty members do receive extensive training. One of the methods that is taught is the ABC method. Have you heard of it? It stands for: Acknowledge something the student has stated in their response,
    Build on that by adding experience and/or references to the course materials,
    Conclude with a question to stimulate further discussion.

    I understand the conversational nature of a dinner party analogy; however, we should be more concerned with stimulating a scholarly discussion first. Would you agree?

    Next: “They do not have the foundational educational, behavioral, or other developmental knowledge to always intuitively handle forums appropriately.”

    That may be true to an extent. What you are stating is that subject matter expertise does not equate to knowledge of adult learning principles. I agree to a point. However, many of these adjuncts are managers and leaders who have experience with training and facilitating team meetings. We cannot discount that experience.

    Finally: “Faculty leadership should use the same strategies to teach professors as we preach to use with students: Activate schema, provide an analogy as a teachable tool, and motivate throughout.”

    One of the methods that’s taught with the nation’s largest online university is the Socratic method. This is probably one of the most effective methods of stimulating teachable moments and thoughtful discussions.

    As to the number of discussion posts, most online universities have specific requirements – either with a specified number of days and/or posts.
    Dr. J

  • Foresttrailacade

    Good Topic to discuss. I guess too much and too less both can have problems. Something within limits could be better. Students when explained on any scenario understand things better. Likewise, one should check the content in such a way which can be easily taken by everyone.

    ForestTrailAcademy.com http://www.foresttrailacademy.com

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  • Nupur

    I use questions, case studies and videos related to the discussion topic to encourage communication. I do not really have a set goal of posts per week. Each class and session is very different, sometimes, some topics are of great interest to the class and some of minimal interest. I use the topic of great interest to trickle down enthusiasm and encouragement to the not-so-interesting topics. I find that interesting topics helps students bond together too. However, I will try to merge your 'Dinner Host' analogy to how I teach my students!

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  • Fen Chen

    Hello Dr. Hayek:
    Your Discussion Forums are like dinner parties, if it is like in the same classroom and same location. That is a perfect setting. But, online learning, Instructor and students are different location in the different time zone. The working time and sleeping time are different. An instructor must be to design the discussion topics or questions on blackboard, then, set-up the due date for discussion. Each student must be participated the forum and posted his /her comments. If each can follow the roles in the communication, then, the learning achievement will be reach the objectives of the course online learning.

  • Kathryn Russ, Ed.D.

    Dr. Hayek,
    As a novice at online teaching I find the information in your article – and the comments by faculty – extremely beneficial. You have given me some great ideas. Thank you

  • Winston R. Canady

    Dr. Hayek,

    Your atricle is spot-on, informative, and empowering! Your dinner party analogy used to illustrate the strategy for adjunct instructors pertains to both brick and mortar,and especially online. This is exactly what makes an effective instructor and a successful student. Thank you for sharing; I will place this in my knowledge-bank. Again, "Spot-on!"

    Winston RC

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  • robert

    How large a dinner party can an instructor host?

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