LEARN Center

Leading Online Discussions


  • Indicate in syllabus multiple ways for the students to reach you beyond email (e.g., telephone, fax, mail).
  • Indicate in syllabus telephone # of technical person to call for help.
  • In syllabus, clearly state expectations (e.g., "students will post discussion remarks, at least, twice a week"), timelines for discussions (e.g., "all entries must be posted by Friday, 4:00pm of each week"), and evaluation guidelines (e.g., use performance rubric- see appendix #3).
  • Pre-survey students to get a sense of their familiarity with online learning generally, and online discussions specifically (veterans can serve as contacts for students experiencing problems).
  • Establish online discussion partners (e.g., "are you having problems getting in, too?").
  • Pre-assign students to smaller discussion groups (4-7 members)-groups are easier to track and less intimidating for student to participate in.
  • Encourage students to link their remarks to the readings and/or the remarks of others.
  • Have a contingency plan in case on-line discussion fails.


  • Open the discussion with a welcoming remark.
  • Make the first discussion a non-evaluated ice-breaker activity (e.g., discussion of syllabus).
  • Use a "prompt" (e.g., reading assignments, case studies, visuals or audio) to drive student response.
  • Initiate an online discussion with a sentence completion exercise:
    • "What most strikes me about the text we read to prepare for discussion today is..."
    • "The question that I'd most like to ask the author of the text is..."
    • "The idea I most take issue with in the text is..."
    • "The most crucial point from last week's lecture was..."
  • Initiate an online discussion with a contentious opening statement by an authority figure (e.g., "People aren't important to the University. ")
  • If using the online discussion to enhance a traditional course, link information during class meetings to online discussions:
    • Provide context-end the class introducing question(s) that will be a part of the online discussion.
    • Reference (sub-reference) discussion points during class meetings-let students know that the issues and observations from online discussions are valued.
  • Give constant feedback on postings-let students know you're following the discussion (i.e., 2-10 hours a week reported by instructors).
  • Realize need for multiple instructional roles (e.g., coordinator, facilitator, technology professional, guardian of space, administrator, model, mentor, coach, cheerleader).
  • Read student discussion points with an eye toward unanswered questions or points of confusion.
  • Use directives and first-person in a friendly conversational-tone.
  • Avoid the tendency to write simply in bullet-phrases.
  • Spell-check your work (e.g., word process your responses and download).
  • Create an environment where students feel socially involved.


  • Use "one minute assessments" to assess the value of the discussions.
    • What is one thing that still needs clarification?
    • What question has been raised as a result of the discussion?
    • How can the online discussions be made more effective?
    • What point that was made by another individual in your discussion group did you find most thought-provoking?
  • Evaluate the discussion of students in terms of what you value. Typical (potential) criteria:
    • Clarity
    • Insightful
    • Relevance
    • Respectful of others
    • Timeliness
    • Awareness of discussion points of others
    • Identifies themes, patterns, discrepancies
    • Integrates, synthesizes and/or evaluates the remarks in the discussion
    • Awareness of reading, case study, etc.


Caffarella, R.S., B. Duning and S. Patrick. (1992). Delivering off-campus instruction:

Chaning roles and responsibilities of professors in higher education. Continuing Higher Education Review, 56, (3), 155-167.

Driscoll, M. (1998). Web-based training. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fredericksen, E., A. Pickett, W. Pelz, Swan, K., & P. Shea. (1999, August).

Student satisfaction and perceived learning with online courses: Principles and examples from the SUNY learning network. Report issued by The State University of New York.

Hanna, D.E., M. Glowacki-Dudka & S. Conceicao-Runlee (2000).

147 practical tips for teaching online groups. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

McIsaac. M.S., J.M. Blocher, V. Mahes, & C. Vrasidas. (1999).

Student and teacherperceptions of interaction in online computer-mediated communication. Education Media International, 36,(2), 121-131.

Meisel, S., and B. Marx. (1999). Screen-to-screen versus face-to-face:

Experiencing the differences in management education. Journal of Management Education, 23, (6), 719-731.

Merisotis, J.P. & R. A. Phipps. (1999). What's the difference? Change, 31 (3), 12-17.

Palloff, R. & K. Pratt. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace:

Effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Zhang, P. (1998). A case study on technology use in distance learning.

Journal of Research on Computing Education, 30, 4, 398-420.

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