facilitating effective online discussions March 5

Seven Ways to Facilitate Effective Online Discussions


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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female professor in front of white board July 11, 2016

Five Time-Saving Strategies for the Flipped Classroom


A few months ago, I heard a podcast by Michael Hyatt, a best-selling author and speaker who helps clients excel in their personal and professional lives. This particular podcast focused on how to “create margins” in life to reduce stress and avoid burnout. Quoting Dr. Richard Swenson’s work, Hyatt defines a margin as “the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. . . . Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion. . . . Margin is the opposite of overload.”

stack of papers to grade September 29, 2015

How to Give Your Students Better Feedback in Less Time


Online instructors focus most of their teaching on curricular issues—what they will teach, how they will teach it, etc. But studies have found that differences in curriculum have little, if any, effect on student outcomes. John Hattie compared more than 100 factors related to student achievement from more than 180,000 studies and ranked the factors from most significant to least significant. Remarkably, “Programmed Instruction” came out at the bottom. While faculty toil over getting that perfect lecture, the variation in learning outcomes from different lectures is negligible.

February 2, 2015

Ten Tips for More Efficient and Effective Grading


Many instructors dread grading, not just because grading takes up a sizable amount of time and can prove itself a tedious task, but also because instructors struggle with grading effectively and efficiently. However, effective grading does not have to take inordinate amounts of time, nor does one need to sacrifice quality for speed. The following tips can help instructors grade more effectively while enhancing student learning.

March 14, 2011

Fostering Student Interaction in the Online Classroom


When you first start teaching online, there’s the temptation to put on your Superman cape and try be ultra responsive and ever-present. So intent on ensuring that each and every student has a successful learning experience in your class, you answer student emails at any hour of the day or night, respond to every discussion board post, and design elaborate assignments that take advantage of all the latest technology tools available.

January 24, 2011

Be Efficient, Not Busy: Time Management Strategies for Online Teaching


Online teaching redefines the faculty member’s schedule. The feeling of being a 24/7 professor can lead to frustration. Managing one’s time as an online teacher can be a challenge. As the popularity of online education continues to grow, teaching faculty need to develop effective time management behaviors to be efficient and not just busy. Here are ten strategies I like to use: