21 Ways to Structure an Online Discussion, Part Four

Chalkboard with light bulbs drawn on and colored paper as the bulbs

*This is a five-part series.

Five Online Discussion Ideas to Foster Metacognition

In this post, the fourth in a series of five articles describing ideas for structuring an online discussion, we will explore ways to foster metacognition through online discussion.

In Kimberly Tanner’s excellent article, “Promoting Student Metacognition” (Tanner, 2012) Tanner describes the importance of teaching students to think about how they learn so they can become independent learners. The article is a goldmine of concrete strategies and specific questions that instructors can integrate into learning activities to assist learners in developing this skill. Tanner recommends including metacognitive activities before tackling a new topic (giving learners an opportunity to recall what they already know about a topic), during the unit (giving learners the opportunity to reflect on muddiest points and what they still need to learn), and after the content has been taught (to reflect on how learning has changed).

One challenge in integrating metacognitive activities into a discussion is that we do not want the posts to become a reflective journal. A journal is not an appropriate grounds for class discussion because the public nature of a discussion will prohibit candid reflections (learners will be afraid of being judged), and there isn’t ground for debate, disagreement, or otherwise dialoguing with others.

That said, there are ways to integrate reflections about how ideas are being formed and fleshed out that can be included in a discussion activity. Here are suggestions for ways of integrating metacognition into an online discussion:


Description: In a fishbowl exercise, some learners are invited to participate in the discussion, and others are instructed to stand back and observe. Then, at the end of the activity, the people who observed provide commentaries on what took place. They summarize how the discussion unfolded and they can also provide observations about the way in which the group functioned in the discussion. For example, did they observe a particularly effective way to voice dissent that did not shut down the conversation? It’s a great activity to practice active listening skills.

Tips: As it can be challenging for learners to critique their peers publicly, one strategy is to ask observers to share one insight gained from watching the discussion unfold and how they plan to use that insight to inform their own participation in a discussion going forward. This sharing of a “lesson learned” about how to participate effectively in a discussion will be of interest to other learners and is less “risky” for the observer to share than a critique (but just as effective).

Example: (Anthropology course). What are some of the ethical considerations when excavating a site for the purpose of understanding an extinct culture? How might these ethical considerations be mitigated? Do these mitigation strategies take care of all ethical obligations? Learners in Group 1 will spend the week discussing these issues. You must each make one original post and respond to at least three of your peers. Learners in Group 2 will not contribute to the discussion. Rather, they will follow it closely, paying attention to both its content and how the discussion unfolds. At the end of the week, Group 2 learners must post a one-paragraph summary of the main points in the discussion as well as one insight they gained from watching the discussion unfold. What strategy did you learn about participating in a discussion that you plan to apply to your own participation going forward?

Variations: Here are some ideas that play on the theme of active listening and reflective observations to structure the discussion.

  • Spiderweb. This visual mapping activity, developed by Shai Klima and shared by Minero (August 21, 2020), tasks a learner (or the instructor) to create a visual map of the participation and interactions in the discussion. In it, each learner’s name is written around a circle, and the observer links two people whenever one person responds to another’s posts. This creates a spiderweb that shows which learner helped which peer develop their ideas. Using this diagram, learners can reflect on “what they learned about who talked, who listened, and who built on the ideas of others” (Minero, August 21, 2020). This can help them acknowledge peers who contributed to forming their own thinking about a topic.
  • Rant. This variant takes place in pairs and helps learners develop the ability for deep and empathic listening. Learners begin in pairs, either live or in a private asynchronous discussion board. They are given a prompt to which learners are likely to have strong feelings, strong opinions, or a strong response. Each person is allowed the space to “rant” about it–to express their feelings, unfiltered. There is a time or word limit for the complaint, usually 60 seconds or one paragraph. The other learner must read or listen to the rant and infer what the person cares about, what is important to them, and what they value. They then report back what they heard in the form of “You care about…. And you value …” The ranter provides feedback and corrects any misinterpretation. Note that any negative comment has been abstracted out of the statement, yet the ranter will feel heard by the person who captured the essence of their rant. This can be followed by a whole group discussion (live or asynchronously) where each person introduces their paired learner by saying “This is … and she/he cares about …”
  • Report on a Live Discussion. Note that this way of structuring an online discussion, presented in Part Three of this series, could be modified to incorporate an element of metacognition, by asking learners to observe how the group’s live interactions unfolded and to offer insights about that process.

More Information: Barkley et al. (2005); Berry and Kowal (2019); ION Professional eLearning Programs (n.d.); Marx (n.d.); Minero (August 21, 2020)

Role Swap

Description: In a typical online discussion, all learners play the same role. Why not spice things up by assigning distinct roles to each learner? By doing this, learners will take ownership of one aspect of the discussion’s progress since it is uniquely assigned to them. Possible roles include Facilitator (someone who monitors each person’s contribution to the discussion, encourages submissions, and moderates), Fact Checker (who comments on the accuracy or strengths of others’ posts), Skeptic (who plays devil’s advocate), Runner (the “go between” who reports on their small group discussion to the whole-class; or who finds links between the posts of different small groups; or finds relevant posts in previous discussion threads for the group to consider), or Summarizer (whose task is to write a summary of the discussion at the end, giving them an incentive to follow the discussion closely). Another way to do it is to follow the role assignment as described in the POGIL approach (POGIL Project, 2017).

Tips: Learners should have the opportunity to take on multiple roles during a course or semester. A reflective assignment at the end of this discussion, where each learner reflects on their contribution towards to team’s overall progress, or where learners do peer assessment, can assist learners in improving their collaborative abilities.   

Example: (Psychology course). In your group, discuss whether you think that psychologists should be analyzing intellectual abilities by socio-economic status, race, gender, culture, and other such demographic data. Assign one person to be the Facilitator to moderate the discussion and keep everyone engaged. One person will be the Innovator tasked with generating arguments for either side of the discussion. One person to be the Critic of any argument advanced, highlighting possible counterarguments and commenting on the strength of arguments. One person will serve as Cheerleader, backing up arguments advanced by the Innovator and adding evidence (e.g., research in the literature, case studies, etc.). At the end of the week, the Summarizer will write a one paragraph synopsis of your team’s position and share it with the rest of the class.

More Information: Swayze and Jakeman (July 31, 2020)

Muddiest Points

Description: An online discussion generally starts with an instructor prompt. But, it could just as easily begin by asking learners to think about the content they learned and generate questions about issues that remain unclear (“muddiest points”). This sort of introspection is a lifelong learning skill, where learners assess what they know, what they need to know, and what is still to be learned to reach their goal. It’s also an opportunity to open the conversation to learners’ curiosity sparked by the class topic. The challenge for the instructor is how to hone the conversation once learners generate questions. How can we select those questions that are likely to generate the most engaging conversations?

Ritchhart and Church (2020) recommends doing a Question Sort, in which the class places each question on an X-Y plot. One scale (the X axis) assesses each question for its generativity–its potential to generate engagement, creative insights and possibilities, and deeper understanding. The other scale (the Y axis) is called genuineness and provides a quantitative rating of how much the group cares about investigating it. Each question’s rating on each axis (i.e., its position on the graph) can be assessed in multiple ways. Learners may vote on each question, using such tools as Zoom Polling, Google Slides (where each question is written on a slide and learners vote in the Speaker Notes section below), or through the dotmocracy app called Dotstorming (a cloud-based tool where users vote for questions on sticky cards). Once the class has rated each question on the two axes, they are positioned on the graph, and those with the highest score on both measures are the ones tackled by the class in the discussion board.

Another method of tackling the pool of questions is inspired by the project management method Kanban (Wikipedia, n.d.). In this approach, a team writes all the tasks required to complete a project on a sticky note (one task per sticky note). Then, on a whiteboard, they draw a table with three columns: To Do, Doing, Done. The team starts by placing all the tasks (all the sticky notes) in the “To Do” column. Then, when a worker takes ownership for doing a task, she places the sticky note in the “Doing” column, and once it is completed, she moves it to the “Done” column. In this way, the team knows, in real-time, about the status of the project’s progression. Here a similar approach is used with questions as “tasks.” Each learner writes their question on one sticky note. Online, it is possible to use a virtual pinboard such as Google’s Jamboard, Padlet, Lino, Wakelet, Pinside, or Scrumblr. Learners work in small teams to answer a subset of questions. Each team selects a question from the class’s “To Do” column, moves it to the “Doing” column, and breaks out into their live breakout room or asynchronous discussion forum or virtual collaborative tool such as Google Doc to tackle the question. They should leave some evidence of their conclusion, so that learners in other groups have access to their response (e.g., leave a summary of how they answered that question on the discussion forum). Once they are done, they move the question’s sticky note from the “Doing” column to the “Done” column and move on to another question. If there are five learners per group, the team should repeat the process five times. In this way, all the class’s questions will be answered. Considerations should be made for questions that a team could not answer, to be solved with the assistance of the instructor. The team should also monitor their posts and respond to follow up questions from their peers.

Example: (Physics course). As we wrap up this module on fluid dynamics, what remains unclear to you? Review your notes and post your most pressing question on a sticky note on the Question Padlet. Put your sticky note under the heading “To Do.”  Once everyone has posted their question, agree on one with your team. Place the sticky note in the “Doing” column so that other groups know that a team is tackling it. Then try to respond to the question with your team. Once you have agreed on a response, post it to the discussion board (using the question as the thread name) and move your sticky note under the heading “Done.” Repeat two more times for a total of three questions. Once all teams are finished, review the posted answer to your question. You can ask a follow up question if the answer is unclear. Also review the response to other questions and propose corrections, clarification, or additions to improve the responses of at least two questions.

More Information: Ritchhart and Church (2020); Wikipedia (n.d.); WonderCards (n.d.)

Karma Points

Description: This idea was advanced by learners who were surveyed in the study of Schultz et al. (2020) on online discussion forums. Learners expressed the desire for flexible means of participation in a discussion, reproducing the options they experience in a live classroom discussion (e.g., showing support by cheering or nodding, raising a hand to add to a peer’s comments, or being the first to comment on the prompt), depending on the extent to which a topic inspires them. In particular, learners in Schultz et al.’s study wanted the ability to award “kudos” to a peer, without the necessity of further commenting or advancing an idea. It would be the equivalent of “liking” a post to show support on social media. Whenever learners want to recognize an idea that is noteworthy for inspiring and advancing their thinking, they can award “Karma Points” to the learner who made that post. These Karma points are recognized in the grading of the learner earning them. Karma points can be integrated into a more flexible expectation of learner engagement in a discussion forum by providing one additional recognized means of participation.

Tips: Some LMS will make the collection and awarding of Karma Points easy to implement. Even traditional discussion boards can do this (if in a more clunky way), by having a learner respond to a peer’s post with the comment: “I support this with a Karma Point.”

Example: (Syllabus instructions for the discussion forum component of a course). In this course, there are five discussion forums. You must accumulate 25 points over all of them. There are a few rules:

  • An original post in response to a prompt is worth 5 points;
    • A response to a peer is worth 3 points;
    • Awarding a Karma Point to a peer is worth 1 point and you may award at most 5 such Karma points;
    • Receiving a Karma point is worth 1 point towards your total score for a maximum of 5 points;
    • You must participate in any of the above methods (original post, response, or awarding Karma Points) in at least 3 different discussion forums.

More Information: Schultz et al. (2020)

Mood Board

Description: Mood boards are commonly used in the creative arts but are underused in other fields. It consists of a collage of images, words and quotes, fonts, colors, textures, and visual metaphors, usually taken from clipping from magazines, that captures a person’s emotional connection or feelings (i.e., “mood”) about the topic. Chapman (n.d.) provides step by step instructions for creating an artistic mood board. Adapted to other disciplines, this sort of collage is a wonderful way for learners to review their learning, establish links between that content and their lives, and capture the unique meanings, interpretations, and emotional connection of the learner to that content. Each learner will have a unique mood board that will help learners get to know one another and foster a sense of community. While learners find it engaging to view others’ mood board, it is important to direct them to specific analysis in this “poster walk,” to ensure their responses advance the discussion.

Tips: In a face-to-face classroom, a mood board would likely limit itself to a physical poster, but online, learners can create multimedia mood boards (including sound and video to capture the mood) using a virtual pinboard such as Padlet, Prezi, Wakelet, or Canva.

Example: (Field Trip to Rome course). Review your learning about the history of Rome. Consider the theoretical aspects of this module as well as your hands-on experiences. Create a mood board that captures the essence of what you learned and how you will remember it (i.e., it can include your feelings about it). Think of it as a time capsule of this course. What would you want to remember about it, 10 years from now? Your board should include multimedia and each item should be appropriately cited in APA style. Be sure to include a minimum of the following: 10 images or videos that capture your learning (can be your own pictures, drawings or sketches, theory diagrams, or images from your textbook), five memorable quotes (from your readings, lectures, tour guides, or other learners), one audio file (can be music, spoken words, ambient sounds, or anything that you associate with Rome). Select colors, textures, and fonts that capture your feelings and memories about Rome. Make a post where you introduce your mood board and provide the link. Then view and respond to three of your peers’ posts by commenting on how one specific element they chose to emphasize in their mood board was also a memorable element of your own experience in Rome as part of this course and explain why.

More Information: Canva (n.d.); Chapman (n.d.); Digital Society School (n.d.)

This concludes the tour of 21 proposed structures for online discussions. In the next post, the last in this series, we will look at multimedia tools for conducting a discussion, as well as review some resources to inspire even more online discussion structures.

Part 1: Five Online Discussion Ideas to Apply Learning
Part 2: Four Online Discussion Ideas to Explore Concepts Through Divergent Thinking
Part 3: Seven Online Discussion Ideas to Explore Concepts through Convergent Thinking
Part 4: Five Online Discussion Ideas to Foster Metacognition
Part 5: Online Discussion Ideas – Multimedia and Resources

Dr. Annie Prud’homme-Généreux is the director of continuing studies at Capilano University. She is a past recipient of the National Association of Biology Teachers’ Four-Year College/University Teaching Innovation Award. She has been teaching in a blended format for over 15 years and is currently completing a master of education in open, digital and distance education.


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Berry, L., & Kowal, K. (2019, May 1). Five new twists for online discussions. Instructional Design. https://ce.uwex.edu/five-new-twists-for-online-discussions/

Canva. (n.d.). Create Inspiring Mood Boards Online with Canva. https://www.canva.com/create/mood-boards/

Chapman, C. (n.d.). Use Your Inspiration: A Guide to Mood Boards. https://www.toptal.com/designers/visual-identity/guide-to-mood-boards

Digital Society School. (n.d.). Moodboard. Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Retrieved January 30, 2021 from https://toolkits.dss.cloud/design/method-card/moodboard-2/

ION Professional eLearning Programs. (n.d.). Fishbowl. University of Illinois Springfield. https://www.uis.edu/ion/resources/instructional-activities-index/fishbowl/

Marx, E. (n.d.). Rant. https://www.sessionlab.com/methods/rant

Minero, E. (August 21, 2020). 8 Strategies to improve participation in your virtual classroom. EduTopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/8-strategies-improve-participation-your-virtual-classroom

POGIL Project. (2017). POGIL Implementation Guide. https://pogil.org/uploads/attachments/cjay281cc08qzw0x4ha9nt7wd-implementationguide.pdf

Ritchhart, R., & Church, M. (2020). The Power of Making Thinking Visible. Jossey-Bass.

Schultz, B., Nielsen, C., & Sandidge, C. (2020). How to do discussion boards according to students. OLC Accelerate, Online. https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/olc-accelerate-2020-session-page/?session=9088&kwds=discussion

Swayze, S., & Jakeman, R. (July 31, 2020). Enhancing online course discussion through conference roles and blogs. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/enhancing-online-course-discussions-through-conference-roles-and-blogs/

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 11, 113-120. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.12-03-0033

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Kanban (development). Wikipedia. Retrieved March 5, 2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanban_(development)

WonderCards. (n.d.). Lean Coffee. Retrieved January 30, 2021 from https://www.sessionlab.com/methods/lean-coffee