Discussion activities invite students to engage in collaborative learning related to course objectives and content. If structured well, they facilitate deeper understanding, knowledge application and problem-solving, and improved communication skills. They also provide opportunities for leadership and consensus building, giving and receiving feedback, and community building.
Although discussion activities are extremely diverse, certain structural components have been shown to increase their effectiveness across contexts. These include:
- Netiquette: Provide students with clear expectations of how they should communicate and engage with one another in discussion spaces. Consider offering the opportunity to write these rules as a group.
- Technical support: Do not assume that students know how to use digital platforms or engage in online discussions. Consider using your initial activity as an opportunity for students to practice using the discussion platform.
- Small groups: Six to eight students per discussion group appears to be effective across contexts.
- Assessment: Research indicates that students are most likely to participate productively if classroom discussions count toward 10% to 20% of the final grade. There does not appear to be added benefit when discussions count for more than 20% of the final grade.
Research also indicates that students will engage more deeply if the discussion activity is structured beyond a series of prompts or questions. The following list offers examples of some discussion formats that are supported in the educational research literature:
- Application: Have students focus the discussion on an authentic case, problem, or other practical application. Students should be prompted to explain and defend their strategies.
- Debate: Have students or student teams engage on an issue or problem from different perspectives. Research indicates that this approach tends to encourage higher-order learning.
- KWL: Have students respond to “What do you know?” “What do you want to know?” and “What have you learned?” prompts to encourage them to bring prior knowledge to the discussion. Research indicates that this approach tends to keep discussions focused and progressing, and students perceive it as effective.
- Material focused: Have students answer prompts related to a current events article, reading, video, or other learning material. This works well on collaborative annotation platforms.
- Peer review: Have students share learning products and ask for peer feedback.
- Role play: Have students assume a fictional or nonfictional persona and speak from their point of view.
Many digital platforms are available to support class discussions beyond the learning management discussion forum. It is important to choose the platform that aligns best with your learning objectives, activity structure, and student resources. The following list provides a sampling of platforms and examples of how they can be used:
- Discussion forum: works well when contributions are relatively short, topics are limited, and not too many threads are required. Example: questions-and-answer forums.
- Blog: works well for engaging students in peer review or feedback on projects or reflection pieces. Since blogs are student- rather than course-centric, students can access their work more easily than if it is housed in a discussion forum.
- Twitter: works well as an informal back channel to extend the conversation beyond the time and space limitations of the classroom.
- Video: works well for demonstrations, enhancing the effects of role play, or building community quickly.
- Collaborative annotation: works well for focusing a discussion on a document, Web resource, or video.
Additional resources and examples
- Carleton University: Effective questions for leading discussions
- Faculty Focus: Alternatives to the question-and-answer format
- Faculty Focus: Encouraging student to engage with complex reading and each other
- University of Central Florida: Use role play to increase student engagement
- University of Minnesota: Engage students with online discussions