Organic Online Discussions: Saving Time and Increasing Engagement

Students with blurb signs speak freely

This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies.

I used to dread online discussions as much as many students do. However, after implementing a simple change, I was as eager to join my online discussions as I was to talk with my students in classroom conversations. The modification is easy:  I adjusted the structure of my online discussions from students starting threads (you know the drill, post-and-reply-to-two) to the instructor starting them, which creates a more organic discussion structure similar to classroom conversations. This simple modification, along with asking open-ended questions from the deep end of Bloom’s Taxonomy, creates discussions that support student learning and engagement with the material and each other.

Threads vs Organic discussion

When students start their threads in traditional discussions, there are as many threads as there are students in the class. Reading each of these threads can be tedious. As an instructor, I want to connect with each student, yet this can add to the repetitive nature of these discussions. And, as it can be detrimental to provide evaluative feedback in the discussion, if a student misstates the material, the error can be multiplied as other students read the incorrect interpretation of the text and repeat it in their posts.  However, with a more organic discussion structure, I can reply to groups of students and share corrected versions of the material without pointing out anyone’s mistake.  With this structure, you can start as many threads/topics as you want to cover in a particular discussion, which also helps to decrease the repetitive nature of traditional online discussions.

While students do reply to posts in a traditional discussion in which students start the threads, there is little back and forth conversation as you might find face-to-face. However, when the instructor begins the discussion thread with multiple levels of open-ended questions, as is often done in the classroom, students can take the conversation in a variety of directions as they respond to what others have said, thus creating a more natural conversation. Any learning management system that allows the instructor to pin threads to a discussion supports this organic communication style.


The advantage for me is that I can make fewer posts while connecting with more students because I only need to make one comment to a group of students to summarize and encourage. I often begin a post with the names of four or five students, comment on their theme, note specific comments, and then (re) direct the class to areas that I would like them to cover or ask questions that might deepen or broaden the conversation. Because I save my initial and follow-up or scaffolding questions, I only need to edit them to fit them into the conversation. This allows me to spend my time connecting with students in my responses.

When I provide students with an anonymous forum in which they can comment on with this new online discussion structure, students say they enjoy discussions more (as also evidenced by the increased number of posts in my upper-level and graduate classes) and that they learn more from the discussions than in their other online courses. While there is some initial resistance to this new structure, students end up seeing the advantages and enjoying the discussions.


In addition to creating an announcement describing the change of this discussion and the purpose behind it, I include these instructions in the discussion area where I would usually place the questions.

Students, when you enter the discussions, you will see that I’ve already started a few discussion threads. Please respond to each other (after the first person responds to me) to engage with your peers in the threads I started to create great classroom conversations.

To keep the conversations going, follow these steps:

1) Read my initial questions and any peer responses.

2) Find an interesting comment by one of your classmates and click Respond.

3) Use your classmate’s name and briefly summarize what that person said.

4) Share new information from the assigned readings and apply it using your critical thinking skills. 5) Sign your name.

Remember, the goal of the discussion is to have a great conversation while you are learning about and applying the information you read about in the text, videos, or other readings (if you didn’t learn something when you wrote your post, dig deeper into the text). Notice that I ask many initial questions. These comments and questions are there to inspire great conversations, not limit them. Please don’t answer every part of the question–leave some for others to respond to. I will provide further prompts throughout the week, so jump down into the conversation if you’ve come in late–don’t struggle to add something new to the beginning conversation when everyone has already said something: Respond to my more recent prompts.

I find that this organic structure keeps my freshmen and graduate students more engaged and interested in our discussions. My only problem has been that I sometimes have to provide a maximum post limit (in addition to a minimum) for upper-level classes. Too much engagement is a problem I can live with!

Beth René Roepnack, PhD serves as an online faculty mentor for the University System of Georgia’s eCampus and teaches online classes part-time after 20 years as a college professor. She began teaching online in the late 1990s using dial-up IRC chats and self-coded HTML webpages. She now enjoys finding new ways to connect with students in the online environment. She looks forward to hearing about your adventures with online discussions and is willing to share her discussion materials: