Engaging Discussions: Best Practices for Facilitating Online Discussion Threads that Increase Student Engagement

Concurrent Session 5

Brief Abstract

Discussions promote critical thinking by having students emphasize the elements of an argument, while also applying what they are learning. Participating in discussions is active learning, and will keep students engaged in the course, but only if facilitated correctly. This session will outline best practice techniques for facilitating engaging discussions. 


Dr. Barbara E. Rowan is the Director of Academic Research, Efficacy, and Evaluation for Course Design, Development, and Academic Research, a part of Higher Education Services at Pearson. In this role, she is responsible for aligning internal standards to third party standards, leading and managing efficacy culture and workflow efforts, and developing and implementing a research roadmap that focuses on instruction, assessment, and learning models and practices. Prior to joining Pearson in 2010, Dr. Rowan spent 20 years in higher education, holding a variety of administrative positions and teaching research methods and statistics courses, both on-ground and online. Dr. Rowan's research interests include computer-based testing, measurement equivalence between computer-based and paper-based measures, student motivation and engagement in the online environment, and online assessment evaluation. Publications and presentations focus on assessment in self-paced, online courses; creation and validation of a measure of quantitative literacy; competency-based education; the science behind learning design; and assessment and measurement-related topics. Dr. Rowan received her B.A. degree in Mathematics and English from Malone College, her M.S. degree in Psychology from Georgia College, and her Ph.D. in Assessment and Measurement from James Madison University.

Extended Abstract

Discussions are a very important component of a course, whether on-ground or online. Discussions promote critical thinking by having student emphasize the elements of an argument. Further, students are required to exchange ideas, and incorporate more reflection and less spontaneous discourse into the discussion. Discussions also allow students to apply what they are learning in the course, and offer students the opportunity to interact with one another and the instructor. Discussions should supplement the course content and augment the understanding of the ideas and issues discussed. Participating in discussions is active learning, and, if done correctly, will keep students engaged in the course. Also, participating in discussions allows students to learn from one another.

Online discussions add even more benefits to the list. Students participating in online discussions can have 24-hour access, seven days a week. Further, students can respond whenever they like, in whatever mode they wish. Most online courses have the option for students to respond from their smartphones or tablets, so students can respond while at work, commuting on a train, or while taking a quick break from studying. And because the discussions are text-based, they are conducive to the development of critical and reflective discourse. With online discussions, students can think about their responses before actually typing them. In the literature, students have reported liking the time they can spend looking for references or ideas to support their viewpoint. They also suggested that having time to think contributed to “outside the box” thinking. In an on-ground situation, students would have to respond immediately, with little time for pondering or finding support for their argument. Further, students can always return to the discussion thread for continual reflection or contribution to the posts. However, online discussions do not always succeed. They do not always lead to the expected learning results.

There are several myths out there related to facilitating online discussions. First of all, some instructors believe that the online discussion should just mimic on-ground discussions. But in reality, it is virtually impossible to mimic the on-ground discussion environment in the online world. During on-ground discussions, students can read non-verbal communication to assist with interpreting comments made. When responding to a text-based discussion online, students may not know when the respondent is joking or being sarcastic. Students can end up down a crazy discussion path if misinterpretation of responses occurs. For this reason, online discussions require more formal language in the responses, and students need to be informed that humor or sarcasm might not come across as they intend it to.

Second, there’s a myth that states that online discussions should be facilitated in the same way on-ground discussions are facilitated. While there is some overlap in facilitation methods, online discussions require different techniques. First of all, online discussions do not always have structure or instructional strategies in place during the online discussion, which might lead to a heavy extraneous cognitive load imposed on the students. When an instructor assumes a “hands-off” approach, students are left to find their own way. This happens more than you might think. In many cases, students are given a discussion prompt and left to their own devices to start responding and responding to others. Learners are expected to understand what the discussion prompt requires, read other students’ posts, process all related information, and apply the participation rules to contribute further to the discussion. Researchers argue that this lack of direction given to students results in significant cognitive load. Instead of taking a hands off approach, online instructors must provide the discussion prompt along with information to explain to students what is expected. The instructor must also chime in on the discussion thread in order to right wrongs, get students back on track, and provide feedback on theories or misconceptions. While on-ground facilitators must do this as well, it is far easier for the online instructor to be removed from the discussion thread.

Finally, many believe that students will be as engaged in online discussions as they are in on-ground discussions. This may or may not be a myth, but it certainly isn’t an assumption instructors should make. Students CAN be engaged in online discussions, but it requires certain things that on-ground discussions do not. For example, several researchers have found that increased participation in online discussions positively correlated with greater student satisfaction in the course. This indicates that students should be expected to participate more than once per discussion thread. Also, even though the process is conducive to critical thinking, many studies have reported the lack of higher level cognitive processing in the online discussion environment. This could be attributed to the fact that instructors don’t always have a presence in the discussion or that the responses are graded based on the fact that they were completed rather than the content. 

This presentation will present several practical research-based best practice techniques for facilitating engaging online discussions that will contribute to overall student success in the course. Students will not only perform better on course outcomes, they will also have the opportunity to engage with the instructor and other students in the course.


By the end of this presentation, attendees will be able to:

•             Understand the differences between on-ground and online discussion facilitation

•             Understand the benefits and best practices of using and facilitating discussions online

•             Identify ways to keep students engaged in online discussions and the course