Maintaining interaction is one of the most important parts of teaching virtually/online. It is good pedagogy, and it is part of the best practices to which Champlain is held as part of our accreditation. The ideas here will help you maintain high-quality interaction in your course.

We recommend you consider what counts as instructional time for educational contexts that are not in person as you are planning discussion activities.

Pedagogical Best Practices for Online Discussion

It may surprise you to learn that, compared to in-person discussions, online discussions can actually generate more consistent and higher quality participation that involves more of your students. Students respond well to clear instructions and specific requirements, as well as questions that help them make connections between materials, lectures, homework, assignments, and real-world applications.

Online discussions most commonly take place in a discussion forum tool like Canvas Discussions (see below), but you can use other platforms for different kinds of student interaction. Google Docs is a great tool for ongoing collaborations and organizing ideas that allows students to create something together while also conversing in comments. Collaborative social annotation tools like Hypothesis and Perusall are good options if you want to focus on reading skills and comprehension, and allow threaded replies.

Creating good discussion prompts

Good prompts pose a specific question or task, while inviting students to think critically or inquisitively about the material they’re discussing. They can also encourage interpersonal engagement, even in a distance-learning situation. Consider our resources for crafting discussion prompts and activities. Digital learning company Cengage also provides some suggestions on crafting discussion questions. The University of Central Florida’s Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository has a collection of resources around discussion prompts. Additional suggestions:

  • Avoid asking yes or no questions; instead, ask students to explain, synthesize, or find an example
  • Provide questions that help students make connections between content, themes, goals, and/or skills (as relevant to your class)
  • Encourage students to work together to figure out difficult content (and be prepared to follow up with redirection if needed)
  • Give opportunities for making real-life connections: for example, by having students provide a relevant case from the news, suggest an application for a skill, or apply their learning to a scenario you provide
  • Balance the questions’ complexity; productive questions ask for more than a summary, but do not skip straight to the most complicated ideas or applications

You might also consider how the discussion is framed. Online teaching allows you to create a strong structure around the discussion activity. For example, you can establish comprehension of the material or jump-start students’ thinking in a particular direction by having students complete a quiz, survey, or individual reflection before discussion. As students’ skills grow, it is often effective to have students take turns producing discussion questions (with guidance from you), because responding to a peer generates buy-in and students’ greatest interests may be different from what you expect.

Clarifying requirements for good discussion participation

Discussion works best when you make it clear that superficial posts are not enough. Provide parameters for length (word count), what ideas or texts to respond to, required number of posts, and whether students should make original posts and/or respond to fellow students. A good rule of thumb for a substantive post is 100-150 words. Requiring that students post multiple times in the same discussion, and that at least some of their posts respond to other students, helps sustain a conversation. Students also appreciate due/to-do dates.

Facilitating Online Discussions as the Instructor

As the instructor in an online course, you should spend time in the course in ways that are perceptible to students. One of the challenges of remote instruction is balancing the time you spend teaching. Here are some considerations:

  • Set a regular time to check into any asynchronous components like discussion forums or annotation activities. Monitor throughout the period when the discussion/activity is open for both productivity and bias or behavioral issues requiring moderation.
  • Participate in discussions on a regular basis.
  • Avoid responding to every student post as an individual comment; instead, encourage students to talk to each other by pointing out peers’ comments and nudging the discussion in productive directions.
  • Give feedback promptly and clearly. We note some strategies for being present in discussions below under Constructive Feedback.
  • Convey your presence in the course by responding to the discussion as a whole. Consider posting short regular check-in videos in which you respond to students’ work and questions for everyone. A weekly video posted as a Canvas announcement is a good strategy.
  • Be open to feedback about how the course is running, respond to it, and adapt when you can.

Clear communication channels outside the discussion environment are also essential.

Constructive Feedback

Instructors can deliver feedback on assignments (as you normally do) and in interactive activities. In many cases, this simply means being actively present in discussion forums, chat sessions, comment threads, or social media groups (if you use them). You do not need to comment on every post. You can use your comments to tie students’ posts to each other, ask follow-up questions, or redirect the conversation; this allows you to consolidate feedback and encourage interaction. The frequency of your feedback might vary based on how often and in what ways you ask students to participate. Try to be prompt.

You can also use discussions to provide non-evaluative feedback based on other assignments. For example, if students write a weekly reflection, take reading quizzes, or turn in other independent work, you can write a post, start a new discussion, or make a response video based on themes that emerge across the student submissions. If students have problem sets or other homework, you can follow up with review of concepts that students struggled with. These are all forms of feedback that increase interaction rather than simply being tied to evaluation.

Using the Canvas Discussions Feature

We provide specific guidance on how to use the Canvas Discussions feature and leverage it for great teaching. A basic tutorial on the Canvas Discussions feature by Instructure is also available.

You can also use the CLT’s full-featured Canvas template to add a discussion forum to each week of your course. You will need to edit the discussions to provide prompts and due/to-do dates.

One way of enhancing Canvas discussions is to include videos and images that students can talk about. We provide more information on how to embed media in discussion prompts (and other areas of Canvas, like assignments) in our article Adding Media to Canvas.

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