How to Jumpstart Online Discussions

Online discussions are sometimes difficult to get going, and often the students (at least at first) seem to respond too superficially, punctuated by an occasional treatise by an overeager student. Here’s how I jumpstart discussions in my family relations online course.

I require each student to post at least one question to the entire class. Each question must be a question the student has always wanted to ask people of a specific gender, race, religion, etc. Anyone in the class is welcome to answer, but students who fit the demographic are especially encouraged to respond.

Students come up with a wide variety of questions, sometimes simple, sometimes complicated. What impresses me is how appropriate the questions are, and even when some of them seem a little on the “ignorant” side, the students who respond are kind and do not demean the person who asked. (“Do women really think men should know what they are thinking?” “How much did Obama’s race factor into your decision to vote for him?” “Is it true that Catholics pray to Mary? Why do they do that?”)

After the week is over, I am always amazed at the sheer number of questions students ask (many ask more than the minimum one) as well as the number of answers that are provided. Moreover, after this particular discussion the subsequent class discussions always seem to take on a much more intimate level than previous ones.

I use this particular activity in my family relations online class, particularly during the assigned chapter on developing relationships as a means of demonstrating how relationships grow through appropriate and honest self-disclosure.

However, this activity can be applied to other chapters in the class, and I have also altered it to jumpstart discussions and create more cohesion in other online classes.

I encourage other instructors to try this for an online discussion. Make sure you give your class a few weeks before you implement this activity. You will also want to specify your guidelines up front, to ensure students are clear the type of questions to ask (provide examples if necessary) as well as how to appropriately answer them. You will need to monitor this discussion tightly, especially if you need to edit/delete a potentially inappropriate or even offensive remark, as well as privately discuss the remark with that particular student.

I wish you well and I hope it helps your online discussions and class as much as it has helped mine.

Jim Guinee is a licensed psychologist in the state of Arkansas. He has served as staff psychologist and director of training at the University of Central Arkansas Counseling Center since 1994, and as an adjunct professor in the Department of Family & Consumer Sciences at UCA since 2001.

Reprinted from Tips From The Pros: Ask a Question, Get an Answer, July 2009, Online Classroom.