Effective Online Discussions

Let learning objectives be a guide 

Use your learning objectives to frame the goals and outcomes of participating in meaningful online discussion. Connect that participation directly to your goals by assessing competencies like: creating sound arguments, using evidence, comparing opposing viewpoints, using discipline-specific terminology. 

Make expectations clear, and focus on quality (not quantity)

  • Clearly establish the “ground rules” for online discussion. For discussion boards, this could be at the top of every discussion board page.  For other online discussions, a reminder can be shared at the start of the activity. These should model (in tone, style, word-choice, etc…) how you want students to speak to each other. Let students know how often you will “check-in” and how they will be graded on their participation.
  • Give students a sense of how often they should post or reply, but remind students that depth of engagement is more important than the number of posts. Saying, “I agree,” or “Me too,” does not qualify as discussion.

Types of questions that generate meaningful discussion

If you wish for students to engage with each other, ask questions that encourage students to refine their own comments and ask their peers further questions. The more you model for students how to ask questions that spark discussion the easier it will be for them to do the same for their peers.


      • “Jane, can you summarize, in your own words, what Richard said?” 
      • “How does Concept X relate to Concept Q?”


      • “Why might someone make this assumption? What else might we assume instead?”
      • “What assumptions underlie what Liàn is arguing?”

Reasons and Evidence

      • “Sayeed, can you provide an example?”
      • “Talia, what evidence would change your mind?”

Viewpoints or Perspectives

      • “Eugene, can you provide an alternative explanation?”

Implications and Consequences

      • “Why is this a significant study?”
      • “Is the question we started out this discussion with the most important question?”

Wrap-up and Dealing with Misconceptions

Because you are no longer in a face-to-face environment, it can be challenging to respond to misconceptions or inaccuracies as they arise in discussions. Students, especially in the early part of a course, will expect some feedback from the instructor about their progress. After you have read or listened to the student comments, consider posting a brief summary of what the students have said, and take that opportunity to make any clarifications or corrections. Your summaries and corrections can become briefer after a rapport has been established.

References and Further Reading

  • Cheri A. Toledo, “Does Your Dog Bite? Creating Good Questions for Online Discussion,” International Journal for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 18.2 (2006) 150-154. Toledo presents her experiment with using a Socractic style of questioning in an online class, and shows significant gains in student participation.
  • Cheri A. Toledo, “Dog Bite Reflections- Socratic Questioning Revisited,” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 27.2 (2015) 275-279. Toledo looks back on her popular article, 8 years later, and refines her techniques to incorporate more interpersonal communication tactics.
  • Anthony G. Picciano, “Beyond Student Perceptions: Issues of Interaction, Presence, and Performance in an Online Course,” JALN 6.1 (2002): 21-40. This study compared student outcomes and perceptions of presence in an online graduate education course. High-levels of participation correlated to an almost 20 point improvement on the course’s major final written assignment, but did not demonstrate improvement in a standard exam.
  • https://www.brown.edu/about/administration/sheridan-center/teaching-learning/course-design/learning-technology/designing-online-discussions-key-questions