facilitating effective online discussions March 5

Seven Ways to Facilitate Effective Online Discussions

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Unlike a lot of faculty teaching today, Brian Udermann learned about the potential of online discussion boards almost by accident. It all happened about 15 years ago when he noticed the online discussion forum feature in his institution’s new learning management system and decided to set one up for his face-to-face class in health and nutrition.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” said Udermann, now director of online education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “There were no grades affiliated with it. I didn’t even create a prompt, or a question, or an activity, nothing. I just told students, ‘Hey, this is available in our class, this discussion forum thing, and if you ever want to go out there and interact with each other, you certainly can.’”

Nothing happened for about a week or so, but then one day a student posted a comment about something he found interesting from the day’s lecture. Then another student chimed in, then another. And for the rest of the semester a small group of students would drift in and out of the discussion forum, chatting about the most recent class and the things that piqued their interest.

Fast forward to 2018 and Udermann is teaching others how to facilitate effective online discussions. He knows firsthand the challenges of engaging online students and hears from faculty about the frustrations of trying to find the right balance with their online presence as well as the age-old challenge of cultivating meaningful dialogue among students.

He offers the following seven strategies for creating robust discussion board activities that students will find interesting along with helpful tips for managing instructor workload related to reading and grading posts.

1. Identify your optimal number of discussion forums.

Oftentimes, an online instructor will determine the number of required forums based on the weeks in the semester. So, by default, a 15-week course has 15 forums. That can be too much, especially during weeks where students have midterms, papers, or other large projects due.

In surveys of online students at UW-La Crosse, Udermann says they started noticing a theme about five years ago whereby students said the discussion boards sometimes feel like busywork. It’s that kind of feedback that can help faculty reconsider the structure of their discussion board requirements and reflect on what they’re really hoping to achieve.

“We always have this conversation with new instructors before they teach their first online course,” said Udermann. “Why are you using discussion forums in your class? Is it just because it’s an online class, and you think that that’s what you’re supposed to be doing? What’s the purpose? What’s the meaning? What are the students going to learn? What do you want them to achieve based upon their participation in these forums? Are your discussion forum activities tied into the student learning outcomes for the class?”

Once you have the answers to those questions and a clear purpose to each assignment, share it with your students. The reason we’re having this discussion forum this week is because ________.

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engaging online discussions January 26

How to Deepen Online Dialogue

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Many faculty members express concern that discussion in their online courses is shallow or sparse. What is it that makes meaningful dialogue so elusive in online courses?  Some practices in online course design and discussion facilitation can actually encourage superficial dialogue. Faculty grading and feedback that require too much formality of language can scare students into virtual silence, sticking to exactly what the text says or saying what they think the professor wants to hear. Focusing on lower-level writing issues, such as grammar, APA style, or academic language, takes students away from content issues toward format issues. Although faculty might expect students to use formal academic language in their essays and research papers, it is not ideal for discussion.


Online learning November 16, 2017

Empowering Learners through Online Discussion Self-Grading

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Have you ever thought, “There has to be a better way!” while grading your online learners’ discussions? It is no secret that grading student discussions is time consuming, laborious, and tedious, considering the disproportionate amount of time required to give solid, quality feedback on a large volume of discussion. On the learner side, students often do not use the rubric to craft their discussions or read and use feedback to improve. This adds to the frustration and can make grading learners’ discussions feel like a waste of time. Fortunately, a better way exists: engage and empower your students by having them grade their own discussions!

Benefits
Discussion self-grading is an innovative, unconventional, and creative learning method. It empowers learners to improve by employing adult learning principles outlined in the theory of andragogy and reflective learning. These principles encourage learners to be self-directed and responsible for their own learning (Knowles, Holston, & Swanson, 2015), and that serves to motivate the learner. Learners engage in their own learning process with internal motivation and are allowed to maintain control.

Discussion self-grading also requires reflection on experiences, beliefs, knowledge, one’s self, and practices with the goal of improving (Kember, McKay, Sinclair, & Wong, 2008). Reflection is an important lifelong skill for life, career, learning, and problem solving. It helps people improve both performance and practice in all facets of life. In the case of discussion self-grading, as learners engage in grading their own discussions, they reflect upon their discussion performance. Learners discover their mistakes and accomplishments, learn what they can improve and how, and are motivated to do better in the future.

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student engagement June 7, 2017

Classroom Discussions: How to Apply the Right Amount of Structure

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While preparing for a Teaching Professor Conference session on facilitating classroom discussions (much of which applies to online exchanges), I’ve been reminded yet again of the complexity involved in leading a discussion with students new to the content and unfamiliar with academic discourse.

One of the most vexing complexities involves finding the balance between structure and the lack of it—between controlling the content and opening it up for exploration. Without structure, discussions tend to wander off in different directions, and what should have been talked about isn’t discussed. A single comment can take the discussion off track, and once it’s headed in the wrong direction, it’s tough to get it back. Open-ended explorations are potentially productive, but too often the wandering doesn’t go anywhere and little learning results.


How to Design and Facilitate Online Discussions that Boost Student Learning May 2, 2017

How to Design and Facilitate Online Discussions that Boost Student Learning

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In an online learning environment, the discussion board is the heart and soul of the course. The posts, queries, responses, and exchanges aren’t just about learning the course content—they also help to humanize the course. The trouble is, of course, that it’s not always easy to get students to participate in the kind of deep learning instructors envision when they design their online courses. Students tend to simply agree with each other to fulfill their required number of posts, and the discussion remains at a superficial level.

In Design and Facilitate Online Discussions That Enhance Student Learning and Engagement, Meixum Sinky Zheng, PhD, an assistant professor and instructional designer at the University of the Pacific, shared strategies to creating better online discussions. This article is based on the ideas she discussed in that 2016 program.

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writing on sticky note November 1, 2016

Course Netiquette Expectations

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All students pay tuition and deserve a positive and courteous learning environment. Students should be aware that their behavior impacts other people, even when interacting online. I hope that we will all strive to develop a positive and supportive environment and will be courteous to fellow students and your instructor. Due to the nature of the online environment, there are some things to remember.

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student on laptop June 12, 2015

How to Foster Critical Thinking, Student Engagement in Online Discussions

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Threaded discussions can provide excellent opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking. But critical thinking isn’t an automatic feature of these discussions. It needs to be nurtured through clear expectations, carefully crafted questions, timely and useful feedback, and creative facilitation.


April 13, 2015

Save the Last Word for Me: Encouraging Students to Engage with Complex Reading and Each Other

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Online discussions are often implemented in college classes to allow students to express their understanding and perceptions about the assigned readings. This can be challenging when the reading is particularly complex, as students are typically reluctant to share their interpretations because they are not confident in their understanding. This can inhibit meaningful interactions with peers within an online discussion.