Meaningful online discussions that promote learning and build community usually do not happen spontaneously. They require planning, good use of questioning techniques, and incentives for student participation.
Before the course begins, the instructor should consider the purpose of each discussion, how it relates to the learning objectives, and how it can promote deeper thinking, says Elaine Bennington, director of instructional technology, distance education, and adjunct faculty development at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.
Here are two key questions to ask when planning a discussion:
- What do I want students to be able to do?
- In what ways do I want students to understand this material?
Answering these questions can help determine the types of questions to ask, says Laurie Kirkner, Internet technician at Ivy Tech.
A course can include different types of online discussions. In addition to an introduction, discussions can be used for reflection, debate, or exploring case studies, among other things. And as a course progresses, the online discussions can help move students to the higher end of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Domain (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation).
Types of questions
The asynchronous nature of the discussion board makes it more important to plan specific questions because it’s not as easy as in a face-to-face class to ask a follow-up question when your initial question fails to elicit the level of dialogue you had hoped for. This is not to say that all questions in online discussions need to be scripted. Another important role for the instructor is to participate in these discussions and help students explore relevant but unplanned discussion topics and to get them back on topic when they stray too far.
Initial questions in an online discussion might ask closed questions, which can help establish a set of principles to build upon. But for the most part, threaded discussions should feature open-ended questions that elicit divergent thinking from the students.
Too often, however, instructors simply ask students to state their independent thinking on a subject and perhaps comment on two classmates’ postings. Bennington and Kirkner recommend using the following six Socratic questioning techniques as delineated by Richard Paul (see reference below) to get students involved in discussions that go beyond simply their opinions:
- Conceptual clarification questions—questions that get students to think about concepts behind their arguments, for example, Why are you saying that? What exactly does this mean? How does this relate to what we have been talking about? Can you give me an example?
- Probing assumptions—questions that get students to think about the beliefs that they base their arguments on, for example, What else could we assume? How did you choose those assumptions? How can you verify or disprove that assumption? What would happen if …?
- Probing rationale, reasons, and evidence—questions that get students to think about the support for their arguments, for example, Why is that happening? How do you know this? Can you give me an example? What do you think causes …? On what authority are you basing your argument?
- Questioning viewpoints and perspectives—questions that get students to consider other viewpoints, for example, What are some alternate ways of looking at this? Who benefits from this? How are x and y similar?
- Probe implications and consequences—questions that get students to think about the what follows from their arguments, for example, Then what would happen? What are the consequences of that assumption?
- Questions about the question—questions that turn the question in on itself, for example, What was the point of asking that question? Why do you think I asked this question?
Discussion board rubrics
Bennington and Kirkner recommend grading online discussions according to a rubric that instructors share with students at the outset of the course that considers the quality and quantity of students’ postings. “These discussion boards have to be a graded situation so that the students will take them seriously,” Bennington says.
There are many online-discussion-grading rubrics out there. Here are two examples:
Paul, Richard, Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World, 1993.
Adapted from A Plan for Effective Discussion Boards, Online Classroom, May 2007.