21 Ways to Structure an Online Discussion, Part Three

Discussion bubble with profiles of people behind it

*This is a five-part series.  

Seven Online Discussion Ideas to Explore Concepts through Convergent Thinking

In this five-part article series, we look at ideas for structuring an online discussion. These inspirations were chosen because they address concerns that discussion forums need to give learners options in the way they participate, in the way they give each learner the opportunity to contribute something unique that is worth reading (i.e. the responses are not repetitive), and learners have an opportunity to express themselves and form communities (Schultz et al., 2020).

In the first article, we looked at ideas for structuring an online discussion that can help learners apply concepts. In the second article, we surveyed structures that can help learners explore concepts through divergent thinking, opening up new ideas and possibilities. In this third article, we will explore structures to help learners explore concepts when the goal is convergent thinking, so each learner gains a deeper, richer understanding of a concept and aligns with a common understanding.

In this article, the ideas for structuring an online discussion when the goal is for learners to explore a concept through convergent thinking are:

Report on Live Discussion

Description: Sometimes, the best way to have a discussion is in a “live” format where peers can respond to one another in real time. This format addresses learner concerns about the challenges of reading emotion cues in a text-based discussion. It starts in small groups where learners meet virtually for a live discussion. This works well when each learner has something personal to share, for example, past experiences that might inform and enrich the discussion. It builds community with team members learning about and from one another. This live step is followed by each learner writing their take-away lesson from the conversation and posting it on the text-based discussion board. Learners can review the post of another person in their group and reflect on how their take-home message differs from their peer’s, or they can be instructed to compare and contrast the themes explored by theirs and another group.

Tips: The benefit of this format is that learners can read one another’s expressions in addressing the topic. It is what builds community. However, this is also the drawback of this format. Instructors should be mindful to select topics that are not too controversial or sensitive, because learners are not protected by the relative anonymity of the text-based discussion board.

Example: (Project Management course). Think of situations where you have experienced a project being managed effectively and one where the project was not so well managed. What were elements of communication that contributed to the project management being done well or not well? Discuss your experiences in your small group and write up a short, one-paragraph post where you capture the “lessons learned” about what is important to do in maintaining effective communication in a project management context. Review the posts of peers in other groups and find two additional characteristics of effective communication to add to your own take-away in a follow-up post.

More Information: Berry and Kowal (2019, June 19, 2020)

Give One, Take One

Description: This format is helpful when the goal is for learners to explore their understanding of a topic or their values. The activity starts with a prompt. Each learner can be assigned three to five statements that could be a response to that prompt (representing different perspectives), or they may generate three to five of their own statements. The learner takes time to reflect on the degree to which they agree with each one. Then, learners pair up, expressing the degree to which they support each statement and why. Learners should then exchange one statement. The goal is for each learner to improve their hand, ending up with statements with which they strongly agree. The process is repeated three times. Then, learners get together in groups of four, share the statements they have accumulated, and agree on five statements that the whole team holds to be true. The team posts their response and reviews the conclusions reached by each team.

Tips: One way to keep the statements of each learner visible and exchangeable is to use a collaborative document such as a Google Slides or a Google Jamboard. Each “slide” or “pinboard” shows each learner’s five statements. Learners can begin the process by composing five statements, or they may use Google’s Random Number Generator to obtain five numbers which they match to a document where 40+ statements have been numbered and prepared by the instructor. Another (fun) way to randomly assign statements to each learner is to enter the statements in the free Wheel of Names website, and learners “spin the wheel” five times to obtain a randomly assigned set of five statements. Instructors will need to organize the paired workgroups, for example, numbering each learner and asking them to reach out to their pair to discuss and exchange their statements.

Example: (Science 101 course). What is science? Use Google’s Random Number generator to obtain five numbers between 1 and 40. Then, go to the shared document “40 Statements on the Nature of Science” to collect the five statements that match your numbers. Copy and paste them to your assigned pinboard on Google Jamboard. Each learner will now have a different set of five statements on their pinboard. Evaluate your five statements. Which ones do you agree with? Which ones do not ring true? Why? On Day 2, reach out to your paired teammate (look up the Wiki for your assigned teammate). Use the chat function of the LMS to discuss which of your five statements you might be willing to exchange. You must exchange one statement. The goal is to obtain five statements on your pinboard that you agree with. On Day 3, meet with your second paired teammate and repeat the process. On Day 4, repeat the process again with your third assigned paired teammate. Finally, on Days 5 and 6, meet with your Quad team, combine your 20 statements, and choose your team’s top 5 statements. Write a post that describes your team’s definition of science, based on your five statements. Review two other teams’ definitions and post and respond to questions about their final definition (Activity inspired by Cobern and Loving (1998)).

Variations: What’s powerful about this activity is that it forces learners to rank their beliefs and understanding about a concept. There are other ways to achieve this outcome.

  • Card Sort. In this activity, learners are given a list of statements, diagrams, names of concepts, problem sets, or questions (i.e., the “cards”) and are asked to categorize them. They are not told the categories—they must define them. They may print each “card” and physically sort them into piles using an organizing framework of their choice. Or, they may do it digitally, moving sticky notes with “cards” on a pinboard. Once each learner has completed this task independently, they write a post where they share the categories they created to sort the statements and list each “card” that fell under each category. Learners then notice differences between their sorting strategy and/or categorization of specific “cards” and discuss the underlying rationale for their decision, furthering their understanding of the concepts.
    One way to intuitively understand this activity (used by Kimberly Tanner in her workshops, personal communication) is to use cards with pictures of superheroes. People with no knowledge of superheroes may classify them based on superficial characteristics such as whether they have a cape or whether they are human- or animal-looking. Superhero aficionados, meanwhile, may use underlying knowledge of whether the superhero belongs in the Marvel or DC Comic Universe to classify the cards. Smith et al. (2013) used this activity to draw out learners’ superficial or deep understanding of biological concepts by asking them to classify questions from problem sets extracted from textbooks. Novice learners used cues from the question wording to identify the strategy they should use to solve the problem; meanwhile, more expert learners used deeper understanding of the concepts underlying the problem to choose a strategy.

More Information: Cobern (1991); Cobern and Loving (2020); Cobern and Loving (1998); IDEO.org (n.d.); Ritchhart and Church (2020); Smith et al. (2013)

Role Play

Description: Real-world scenarios are often complex and require analysis from multiple perspectives. That’s when a role play can be effective. In this type of discussion, each learner is assigned, or proposes and then takes on, the role of a stakeholder in a scenario. Learners research the person’s motives, values, goals, the impact of different choices, position, arguments, and respond to the prompt in that voice. Because the arguments advanced are those of the character and not the learner, learners may feel more comfortable exploring and debating controversial ideas in this format. Learners should “stay in role” when responding to their peers’ posts to recreate a real-world scenario as much as possible.

Tips: Instructors must choose whether to assign roles or let learners choose their own. The advantage of assigning the roles is that it ensures each perspective that the instructor wants analyzed is covered and it also authorizes learners to argue more forcefully for that role’s position without fear of judgement from their peer. The advantage of allowing learners to select their role is that it can lead to greater engagement and may introduce voices and perspectives the instructors had not thought to include.

Example: (Politics course). Do governments have a responsibility to safeguard the health of their population? Apply your view to the government’s response to the obesity epidemic. Select someone who might have a say on this issue (e.g., an elected representative, a health care practitioner, a religious leader, a stock market analyst, a CEO of a company, an academic who is a constitutional expert, a lawyer, etc.), research their perspective, and craft a post that mirrors how this person would see the role of government in the health of populations. Be sure to state your position and make your arguments in support of that position clear. Also respond to two stakeholder’s posts, in the voice of your chosen role.


  • Debate. A debate is a form of role play where there are two main roles: a group of individuals in favor of something and a group of individuals opposed to it.
  • Six Thinking Hats. Based on a well-known business book, the six thinking hats is a method of investigating a situation from different perspectives. In this discussion, learners are grouped in teams of six and are each person is assigned a “thinking hat.” This is the persona or perspective they will take on in analyzing the scenario.
    • Blue Hat (Leader). This person is the leader of the group and must take into consideration all perspectives to come to a decision.
    • White Hat (Thinking).  This is the role of the person who is analyzing the problem from a rational or intellectual perspective. Think: “What would Spock, of Star trek, say or do?”
    • Red Hat (Feeling). This person must present the emotional perspective on the problem. What are some of the fears or passions that people are likely to experience in this situation?
    • Green Hat (Creativity). This person is tasked with coming up with innovative ways to tackle the situation.
    • Yellow Hat (Positivity). This person is a Pollyanna, always focusing on the benefits and merits of ideas suggested by others.
    • Black Hat (Cautious). The role of this person is to identify the potential drawbacks or challenges of proceeding with a course of action or decision.
  • Hot Seat. In this variation, learners take turns adopting the persona of a famous person studied in class and answering questions posted by their peers from that person’s perspective. For example, in a literature class, three learners each week might be assigned to be the author of the book read in class and to answer peer questions about the book, its intentions, context, characters, and inspirations from the point of view of the author. These learners may need to research before answering questions. Learners rotate “in the hot seat” throughout a course.
  • Superheroes. Proposed by Noffs and Guerra-Martinez (April 10, 2020) in a Faculty Focus article, this method requires learners to take on the persona of a well known hero or villain and apply that lens in responding to the prompt (e.g., what would Iron Man think of this proposal and what sort of memo would he send to the Avengers?) This can lead to humorous, in-character responses that motivate learner engagement.
  • Love Letters / Break Up letters. A twist on the debate, this format asks learners to write a love letter to a concept they embrace or a break-up letter to a concept they oppose. Then, the group reads these letters and tries to find commonalities in the ways people respond to each concept.

More Information: Barkley et al. (2005); Berry and Kowal (2019); De Bono (1985); deNoyelles et al. (2014); Digital Society School (n.d.); Ho (February 19, 2020); ION Professional eLearning Programs (n.d.); Kelly (March 7, 2014); Noffs and Guerra-Martinez (April 10, 2020); Ritchhart and Church (2020); Zeiger (n.d.)


Description: A jigsaw is an effective way to structure teamwork because it gives each learner distinctive expertise that is needed by a team to solve a problem. The activity begins by assigning learners to groups that are tasked with becoming “experts” in a specific aspect of the problem. If the instructor wants to ensure that learners consider specific factors in their analysis of the problem, they may assign resources that tackle them and give learners guiding questions to help them consider, as a group, how these factors might affect the problem to be solved.

The second step is to form new teams that are composed of members of each of the expert teams formed in the first step of this activity. Each learner shares what they learned in the first group that might be pertinent to solving the problem, considers the tensions between the solutions proposed by each expert, and solves the problem. Since teams depend on each learner’s expertise, peer pressure encourages learners to be accountable. This method works best for solving complex problems for which there is not a “right answer” and teams often select different solutions.

Tips: Instructors will want to consider which spheres of knowledge are important in solving the problem. This informs the creation of the first “expert” teams. Typically, four or five domains of knowledge are best, since this will form teams of four or five learners in the second teams to solve the problem—an optimal number for teamwork of this sort.

Example: (Engineering course). What would a lifetime cost/benefit analysis of gasoline-powered cars, compared to electric cars, reveal? Which car would you recommend to the public if they considered all the evidence? First, you will be assigned to a small expert group that must research one aspect of this question—one group will investigate the carbon footprint of manufacturing each model of car, the other group will investigate the carbon footprint of using these two car models over 10 years of operation, another group will investigate other environmental costs of manufacturing each model (e.g., mining, water resources), and the last group will investigate political, commercial, economic, and workforce implications and pressures affecting the manufacturing of each type of car. Each team should refer to the resources provided on the assignment sheet and work together to answer the guiding questions. Then, you will form new teams composed of one expert from each of the initial teams. Share what you learned in your expert group and together decide which type of car you would recommend and why. Write a short op ed piece for a newspaper and post to the discussion board. As a team, respond to one other team’s op ed as a letter to the editor, commenting on the other team’s decisions and why you agree or disagree with their analysis and conclusion.


  • Library Roulette. You may recall that one of the critiques that learners made of online discussion forums is that if each learner reads the same information, they are likely to come to the same conclusions in the discussion (Schultz et al., 2020). To breathe a bit of variety in the conversation, and to practice research literacy and critical thinking skills, learners can be tasked with finding resources to research a topic and then bring that information to the discussion (rather than assigning the same readings to everyone). This isn’t a jigsaw per se, because the different expertise are not deliberately organized by the instructor, but it requires each learner to become informed from different sources, which will result in slightly different understandings and perspectives, and therefore different responses to the prompt.

More Information: Barkley et al. (2005); Schultz et al. (2020)

Case Study

Description: Case studies are narratives about challenges encountered in the real world that learners tackle and attempt to solve. A discussion board can be used for collaborative exchange of ideas and negotiation about how best to proceed or it can be used for small groups to post their chosen solution and discuss the rationale that led to each team proceeding in a different direction.

Tips: Instructors can write a case study using information from the community (for example, interviewing a local business or using a story from the local newspaper and linking it to concepts learned in class). There are also several free or open-sourced case databases for the use of educators. These include the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (over 700 science cases), The PBL Clearinghouse (with Problem-Based Learning cases in topics ranging from accounting to education to aviation science), MERLOT Business Cases, The MIT Management Sloan School Case Studies, The UBC Open Case Studies (growing collection with cases in topics ranging from social justice to civil engineering), Case It! (cases solved using a free virtual molecular biology laboratory), Health Care Case Studies, and World’s Best Case Studies (video-based cases in topics including consumer goods, technology and services), to name but a few. Science instructors may also write a case study by providing a real-world scenario and tying the underlying phenomenon to an interactive simulation as a way for learners to play with the data, such as those available through PhET and The King’s Centre for Visualization in Science.

Example: (Environmental Sciences course). More and more carbon-sequestration companies are popping up around the world. The goal of these companies is to capture the CO2 released in the air by industrial processes. A Squamish, British Columbia start-up company has recently attracted a lot of attention for its way of doing it. In your group, investigate the technique that it uses, analyze its effectiveness and the scale of its impact on CO2 in the air, compare it to the impact of other techniques that aim to have a similar effect, and study the unintended by-products or consequences of this techniques. Then, draft a memo that advises the BC Minister of the Environment on whether she should support tax-breaks for this and/other companies that claim to remove carbon from the air. How big should the tax-breaks be, if supported, and why? Be sure to provide the rationale in support of your position, since the Minister will have to defend the decision publicly, if she chooses to follow your recommendations. Finally, read the memo from two other teams and critique their arguments.

More Information: Koehler et al. (2020); Seethamraju (2014)

Round Robin

Description: This is a collaborative activity to be done in small groups. Learners take turns moving the discussion along but never provide a complete response. Rather, each member of the group provides a part of the response, leaving the next learner to continue. It may work best for a prompt that involves problem solving or the design of a product. The unpredictability of a learner’s response infuses an element of improvisation, flexibility, and reactivity into the activity.

Tips: Learners who post early in the discussion should have a reason to continue to monitor the forum. Perhaps they can critique the final solution or provide alternative directions in which the conversation could have gone.

Example: (Education Course). Using backwards design, create a course syllabus on designing effective online discussion prompts. The first learner should post the learning outcomes. The second learner should develop a set of assessments aligned with learning outcomes for the course proposed by the first learner. Finally, the third learner should propose activities aligned with the previous work. All learners should provide an evaluation of the final work, suggesting at least two improvements.

More Information: Barkley et al. (2005); Berry and Kowal (June 19, 2020); Ho (February 19, 2020)

3CQ Model

Description: The 3CQ Model of discussion (Compliment-Connect-Comment-Question) was developed by Jennifer Stewart-Mitchell, a high school teacher who sought to train her students in effective communication in an online discussion forum. The model provides a structure by which learners may respond to peer posts. It consists of four parts to each response:

  • Compliment. To acknowledge the contributions of others, Stewart-Mitchell encourages learners to start by praising a specific aspect of the post. A template might direct learners to begin their post with the phrase, “I like that your post…”
  • Connect. This step is also about building community and connection. It’s about relating, on a person level, with what the person said. For example, the learner might write, “I had the same thing happen to me when…” or “I read a similar story in X which…”
  • Comment. The next step adds to what was said in the post by providing a response to it. It may be a statement of agreement or disagreement. The response may begin with, “What I would add to your post is that…” or “I might come to a different conclusion because…”
  • Question. The last step is about keeping the conversation going by asking a specific question about the topic under discussion. Ways to state this is to write, “I wonder why…” or “What effect might X have on…”

Tips: This structure can train learners who are new to online discussions about ways to respond effectively. It lends itself to evaluation by means of a rubric and provides learners with clear expectations for their contributions. What it does not provide is a template for the initial post to each prompt—this model provides a template for the response to each original post.

Example: (Statistics course). Mark Twain famously wrote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Do you agree? Take a position and provide a concrete example to back up your position. Respond to two peers’ posts using the 3CQ Model and be sure to respond (also using the 3CQ Model) to anyone who responds to your original post.

More Information: Forster (July 21, 2016); Stewart-Mitchell (n.d.)

In the next article in this series, we will explore ways to structure an online discussion that favor reflection and metacognition.

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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Noffs, D., & Guerra-Martinez, J. (April 10, 2020). How superheroes can bring your online discussion board to life. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-student-engagement/how-superheroes-can-bring-your-online-discussion-board-to-life/

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