If the pandemic taught us anything, it was that online learning is not just posting instructional materials and assignments. Many of the things that instructors want students to do online require explicit instruction to navigate and execute. Online discussions are no exception.
When I started using online discussions in my 10th-grade English classes, I figured that I would post a question and students would answer and engage with each other as they do in class. After all, they love talking in class, right? If only it were that easy. I quickly learned that the “Write an initial post and respond to two peers” approach, the go-to instructional model for discussions, wouldn’t work for me.
Written discourse is a skill that has to be taught, just like spelling rules and math formulas. Very few students have the ability to effectively communicate their thoughts and then engage in just as effective dialogue online, but this is an essential skill for students to master.
Eliciting Deeper Conversations in Online Discussions
1. Carefully word questions: In the classroom, a teacher has the ability to ask questions in discussions that have students use critical thinking and metacognition in a way that allows them to process the information first. This can be done in online discussions as well. Here are some question examples:
- After completing the problem listed above (with all required steps), explain your step-by-step process for solving the problem. What problems did you encounter?
- When reviewing the lab introduction document and overview, what do you think the most difficult step of the lab may be? Why do you think this (use evidence from the document to support your reasoning)?
- Find a current event article that you can connect to the Civil Rights Movement. Why does this current event connect, and what evidence from the article can support your reasoning?
Asking these questions on an online platform gives students time to process the information and thoroughly consider what they think and how to support it. And as a teacher, you have a physical trail of the conversations going on and can redirect when needed.
2. Teach students how to have authentic online conversations: I don’t think I was the only teacher who would excitedly scroll down my (well-thought-out and engaging) online discussion assignment and instantly be disappointed with the responses my students had submitted. I was thrown into a sea of one-word responses that lacked any real beginnings of a rich online conversation. I felt defeated. Even with repeated instructions and expectations, I always received the same result time and time again.
It was time to try something new, so I went back to the basics of teaching. Instead of just supplying my students with a question to answer, I took the time to teach them how to actually write a response that was effective for specific questions. We looked at examples from our past discussions and talked about what made them good, bad, or great. This can be done asynchronously by making prerecorded instructional videos for students to watch, or as a class discussion either face-to-face or online.
After I showed students the examples, we practiced. I started with a prompt like this one for a unit on Antigone: “By Act III we see the effects of many of the themes on the characters. What theme do you think is the most influential in the plot in this play: fate and free will, women and femininity, or familial and country obligation.”
To help students write a well-constructed answer, I would give them sentence stems like this one: “In Antigone, by Sophocles, the theme of _____ is the most influential to the plot of the play because _____. This is a scene in _____, where _____.”
I also used guided writing to model and walk students through the process of writing a well-constructed response. As the students became more comfortable, I pulled those supports back over time, and I introduced ways for the responses to not be as formulaic. You would not believe the difference in my online discussion forums! I finally got authentic input from students, which was the first step in creating rich discourse.
3. Do not let students just validate each other: It is easy for instructors to believe that by requiring a student to “respond” to a peer, we are getting that collaborative piece missing in online learning, but what do those peer interactions really accomplish? I was personally guilty of this as a student as well. In my own online learning career as a student, I posted my required number of responses and then never looked at that discussion board again.
As a teacher, I wanted my students to move beyond superficial discourse and to make peer interactions more authentic. We looked at different ways we could construct a response to a peer’s initial post. In real life, do we just agree with everything someone says to us? No way! It is OK to disagree, but you have to go further and establish the reasoning behind your differing opinion. Sometimes a person’s initial post can trigger a connection or continued thought. Throw that in! Maybe you are still thinking about or questioning something you read. Ask the question!
You can guess what happened: a deeper discussion of relevant topics and thoughts. It was absolutely beautiful, and students learned how to effectively communicate with their peers in an academic capacity online.
4. Encourage students to keep trying: There is a term that floats around in education all the time that I love: “fail forward.” Failure is an integral part of the learning process. Students need this encouragement as well. In the process of redesigning my online discussions, I often gave students opportunities to reflect and rework what they had written. By doing this, I established that the online space was safe for the expression of ideas and also a place to learn. In some discussions I would ask them just to post, and then I would reply individually to each student, providing constructive feedback on their responses.
Adults sometimes forget that even though our students were born with technology, this does not mean they know how to use that technology in a way that is productive or that it will help them later in life. Online discussions are powerful tools in the classroom. It is possible to get students “talking” in these spaces constructively—we just need to take the time to foster their continued growth.