September 25th, 2013

Structuring Discussions: Online and Face-to-Face


I found a nice set of online discussion activities that strike me as good in-class discussion activities as well. One of the reasons discussion so often fails or doesn’t realize much of its potential is the absence of structure. The discussion is too open-ended. It wanders around and is easily sidetracked. I’m not discounting the value of an occasional unstructured exchange, but when students are still learning what academic discourse entails, a structure can keep the discussion focused and on track.

The list of discussion activities are by Laurel Warren Trufant, in the article “Move Over Socrates: Online Discussion is Here.” I’ve added some comments and elaborations (in italics) after the author’s suggestions.

  • Assign a reading in which an expert disagrees with the conventional wisdom. Have students defend or disagree with the expert’s position. I wouldn’t underestimate the value of comparatively short readings, such as a paragraph or two that students can read quickly in class or online. With shorter readings, it’s easier to keep the discussion on topic.
  • Share contrasting quotations and have students respond—agreeing, disagreeing, or finding some place in the middle. The collection of student responses needs to be organized and summarized. Can the students identify the most common response? Can they pick out what they think is the strongest argument for or against a position?
  • Set up a scenario, assign individuals or groups a role and have them respond to the scenario from that position. Ask some students to listen and then respond to the whole discussion. Which group made the best case for its position? Based on the discussion, how do they think the situation in the scenario should be resolved?
  • Form three groups. Two of the groups debate and the third group mediates. Beginning students are often uncomfortable disagreeing with each other so you might want to begin with a controversial but low-stakes proposition. “Parking lots on campus should be open to everyone with a valid parking permit.” The mediators should work to find common ground and propose compromises.
  • Start the dialog with a case study and while it’s under discussion, add new details and revelations to which students must respond. The goal here is for students to react to changing, fluid situations. The learning will be enhanced if this activity concludes with a debrief where students must analyze and discuss group reactions to the changes. That analysis will likely be richer if developed in response to a series of teacher prompts.
  • Let students moderate discussions. If they are inexperienced, two of them might fill this role as partners. Clarify for students what moderators do, maybe with a handout or discussion of the role and then start them out moderating a short discussion. In the beginning provide formative feedback. Hold back on grading until they have some experience.
  • Use discussions to “bookend” weekly class meetings. Students do initial explorations of a topic in the first discussion and an analytical discussion at the end. You could also schedule these discussions at the beginning and ending of each content unit.
  • Use “buzz groups” where just a few students chat about a topic (in a private chat online or in person in class) and then have that group report to the rest of the class. Have the class critique each group’s conclusion. It can be deadly having lots of groups report out orally in class. Posting conclusions is probably more efficient and an easier way to get commentary on group contributions.
  • Assign portions of a topic to small groups, then post the aggregate solutions/conclusions for critique and discussion. Have students look at the assumptions made by the various groups and how those affect the solution. Start simply if students have no experience doing this—it’s not an easy task.
  • Invite a guest speaker to host a discussion, preferably someone who takes a controversial approach to the topic. The discourse must be a civil exchange. Both the guest and the students may need clarification and reminders.

If you’ve devised or use other structures that focus and direct discussion activities in your classes — whether face-to-face or online — please share your strategy below.

  • russellahunt

    A couple of years ago I published an article called "It's in the Cards," which ended with this:
    "One idea I’ve been working with for
    some years seems to me helpful in creating such
    discussions; among other things, it seems to help
    me to engage a wider proportion of the class in
    the conversation. To structure that discussion,
    or to get it started, I use a deck of 3X5 cards,
    each with a class member’s name on it. I usually
    have them fill out the cards at the beginning of
    the course, and use them regularly. To start, I say
    that we’re going to do a round (if there are more
    students in the class than I’m likely to have time
    for in a session, I say we’re going to do a round
    until we run out of time).
    I shuffle the cards, and deal them out
    one at a time. Students whose name comes up
    have the floor—just as in a usual “round,” they
    can pass if they like with no opprobrium, or they
    can say what they think relevant. As in a round,
    the speaker has the floor, and then we pass on
    to the next one (I often remind students that if
    someone says something they want to respond
    to, they should make a note). When the round
    is done, the floor is open for discussion.
    There are, of course, variations; sometimes
    one can allow or encourage in-process responses;
    sometimes a student can, rather than simply
    passing, ask to have her card put back in the
    deck. I often hand the deck to a student in the
    class to call the names, as a way of making me
    less the focus of discussion."
    It's on the Web, at:

  • Michael Porte

    Each week, I give students two or three choices for what we will do in class. Each student votes to determine the outcome.

    • Barbara

      I would be interesting in the choices you provide!

  • Flora Morris Brown

    Textbooks are often behind the times, especially on topics of technology and its use in the classroom. In my graduate course for teachers I create discussion prompts that require them to extend a discussion from our text that was published several years ago. This works especially well since I ask them to apply it to their current teaching situations. Their lively responses benefit us all.

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  • Lexi Riley

    I love this idea of using group dicussions and posting conclusions online. Technology is such a wonderful tool, and it should really be used more in the classroom, especially since our students are so technologicially minded. Forum posts are something that I love to do because everyone can see each others thoughts on a particular topic. It's no longer just student-to-teacher, but student-to-student.

    • Linda Quick

      I agree. It is sometimes challenging to keep up with my students technical know how.

  • Nirupa

    Structuring Discussions: Online and Face-to-Face

    Online discussion is non- existent due to my school’s internet usage policy. Students do not have access to the internet and learning is expected to take place via traditional methods. Even teachers do not have access to sites which may empower learning among students. Another problem is that students do not have access to computer or internet at home and the school should be a place where they access technology.
    Face to Face discussion is conducted by:
    Students are given the topic.
    Allow students to form groups whereby they assign a leader.
    The leader is responsible for structuring member’s ideas.
    The instructor and the leader will identify guidelines for the discussion.
    The leader will express the views of the members.
    At the end of the discussion all students are given an opportunity to ask questions or clarify ideas. This is monitored by both the leader and the instructor.
    The main purpose of the online discussion is to empower students to learn and build critical thinking skills.

  • Shiva Maharaj

    Unstructured discussions in class or online do end up as a lot of chatter / noise …this article highlights some really good suggestions to minimize the chatter and keep the activity focused. We do see a number of them being employed at UWI…I would definitely use some of them in my my classroom and online as well.

  • rbastien

    Very useful tips. I can use these tips in my classroom. One of the main challenges of doing these activities however is getting people to realize that "topics or issues" are up for discussion and not the individuals who are contributing to the discussion

  • Gillian Dick

    Group work can be immensely valuable for a variety of reasons. They are ideal during lectures and seminars to discuss issues and tackle specific problems.It is in these group sessions , especially at seminars that persons from diverse backgrounds, are provided with the opportunity to be heard , shared experiences and participate in unique ways , providing new perspectives.

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  • Shareeda

    One method which was utilized very successfully in one of my classes was this: each student was assigned a topic from the course and acted as moderator in an online discussion forum for that topic for a particular week. All students were required to participate in the discussion and marks were awarded. In addition, the moderator received a mark for his/her contribution/role as moderator and for stimulating the discussion. This allowed the entire class to participate in the discussions as well as have a chance at the role of moderator.

    • Jeanette

      Hi Shareeda,

      Sharing your online discussion experience has inspired me to want to try online discussions. The setback is many of my students do not have internet access or internet via phone. But certainly it can be used during the face-to- face sessions. A more familiar face to face discussion on argumentative topic involves the pros and cons points being recorded under the respective columns. Then further discussions with more teacher involvement providing feedback.

  • Lungelwa

    I love the ideas presented here, they have sparked another way I can teach the argumentative essay using bullet points four and five.

  • Jeanette

    Sharing your online discussion experience has inspired me to want to try online discussions. The setback is many of my students do not have internet access or internet via phone. But certainly it can be used during the face-to- face sessions. A more familiar face to face discussion on argumentative topic involves the pros and cons points being recorded under the respective columns. Then further discussions with more teacher involvement providing feedback.

  • Jeanette

    Kathleen Lowey has pointed out; weaker students “ free riding” on stronger students a common occurrence during open forum on line discussion and recommended Private Journal . Students use prewrites to respond to a concept assignment. The responses are private. The teacher uses the responses anonymously to prepare a power point to share common ideas, common mistakes, good examples .This promotes greater involvement, and improved test grades The drawback is there is no peer, interaction on line

  • Annie

    Technology is a great tool to use in class and this world is becomeing very techology orianted. I would definatly give an assignment in the class and have the students reply to the question online.

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  • Aibangbee j. b

    as a student who is currently going through a masters program in education, one of my professor lecturer introduced a discussion a discussion method learning process whereby students where allowed to air their views. it was quite informativeand beneficial. the strategy used which involved allowing the student to exhause their ideas is commendable in my opinion. this helped the professor to draw a conclusion that was acceptable by all. As a teacher i will recommend such learning process.