5 ways to make online discussions work in your teaching

Have you ever tried to complement your teaching with an online discussion and found that the student engagement is sporadic or non-existent? If you have you may stand with many tutors who have given up on online discussions, but did you know:

  • Ensuring our students engage in discussions is a matter of inclusivity and equality. The main stream cohort of your students will engage in disciplinary discussions with each other outside of teaching time because they are in the same or similar social groups, but those on the periphery often do not get the opportunity to discuss disciplinary topics in the same way.
  • Discussions are a process where students receive immediate feedback – feedback from their tutor, feedback from their peers and self-reflective feedback as they prepare to contribute to the discourse and respond to the questions raised.
  • The depth and richness of your students’ learning is increased by topic-related discussions.

Online discussions do not replace face-to-face discussions, but they can supplement them and they have a number of advantages, including the ability for students to participate in them in their own time and wherever they are.

So how do we get online discussions to work?

1. Start using the discussion forum at the start of the module

Setting the expectation that your students will be engaging in online academic discussion early in the term helps them to continue the practice for the duration of the module. In this period it is useful to set out to your students how engagement in online discussions will help them learn the academic theories at a deeper level than they would otherwise.

It is harder to get students to participate in online academic discussions if you begin to use them midterm, because the students will think of them as optional and an unnecessary addition to their studies.

2. Reference the discussion regularly in face-to-face teaching

When you mention the discussions in your teaching the students begin to understand participation in the forum as being integral to their development in the module. In order to kick off a discussion it is useful to tell students, during teaching time, that you have set a question on the online forum and you expect them to respond. Once an online discussion has taken place, reference it in your teaching, and summarise the responses and the learning that the discussion has evidenced.

There are advantages when you post an academic question on the forum just before your teaching session. Many of the students will go to straight to their VLE site after the face-to-face session and will want to respond to the questions you’ve set immediately.

3. Pose open questions that do not have right or wrong answers

It’s important to ask the right questions to provoke reflective and critical discussion. Discussion is more likely to ensue if your questions are open and ask for the students’ experiences and their opinions. Questions that have right or wrong answers do not tend to provoke much discussion and can leave students who leave the wrong answer feeling exposed and demotivated.

4. Ask questions that are relevant to the student assessments

The focus of the students’ attention tends to be on what will be assessed. It is therefore important that the students understand that their participation in the discussion will align with learning that ultimately meets the assessment criteria.

The number and quality of the responses improve when the questions you ask clearly align to the assessment criteria, and you can be quite explicit how they do so when you introduce the discussion topic.

If the module is assessed by essay, the number and quality of the responses improve when the questions are generic enough that they will be useful to all students whatever their essay title, for example, focusing the questions on theories that can be applied to any essay in the topic area.

5. Pose a new question every week

There are advantages in designing your curriculum with regular learning activities. Activities that are one-off or irregular feel piecemeal and students feel free to not engage.

The regularity of activities means that more students are likely to do them, so you may see more participation in online discussions if you set them every week and keep referring to them in your face-to-face teaching throughout the term.

In summary, disciplinary discussion is an important part of your students’ learning. Some of your students will get the opportunity to discuss the topics by dint of the fact they have friends in the cohort, but some will not unless you set up opportunities for them to do so. Online discussion is one way to give them this opportunity, but it is often hard to get your students to engage so I hope this post has provided some strategies to help facilitate online discussion to support your teaching.

If you’re interested in using online discussion in your teaching feel free to contact the Technology Enhanced Learning team on tel@sussex.ac.uk. Please also have a look at our recent blog post highlighting the Discussions feature in Canvas – the new Sussex VLE.

Canvas Training

Places are filling up fast on our Canvas Fundamentals training workshops. We strongly encourage all Sussex academic staff to sign up for a place. Attending the workshop will familiarise you with Canvas and your options for teaching with the new VLE. It also gives you access to your migrated modules from 17/18.

Professional Services staff are also welcome to book a place on this workshop.

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  1. […] you haven’t run a discussion forum before, TEL’s Paolo Oprandi has some excellent tips on how to make online discussions work in your teaching. You can find out more  in this TEL Guide to Discussions in […]

  2. […] share knowledge with each other. This can be through student presentations, seminar conversations, online discussions in your VLE or using a collaborative online tool that allows students to share links and ideas such as […]

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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