Discussion Practices in Online Courses: An Online Survey of Instructors

Concurrent Session 9

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This presentation reports on a survey of online instructors focused on their use of asynchronous discussion. Findings suggest that most instructors use discussion to promote interaction, reflection and formative evaluation. A variety of facilitation and assessment approaches are used. Student engagement remains an issue, and targeted professional development could help.


Dr. Vanessa Dennen is a Professor of Instructional Systems & Learning Technologies in the Department of Educational Psychology & Learning Systems. She joined the faculty at FSU in 2003. Vanessa's research investigates the cognitive, motivational, and social elements of computer-mediated communication. Specifically, she concentrates on three major issues: (1) learner engagement in online discussion activities; (2) identity development, knowledge management, and knowledge brokering within online networks and communities of practice; and (3) ethical issues related to computer-mediated learning. Her research is situated in both formal and informal learning environments and focuses on communication technologies ranging from discussion forums to social media to mobile technologies. She has authored more than 50 journal articles and book chapters, which have appeared in publications such as Instructional Science; Distance Education; Computers in Human Behavior; Educational Research Technology & Development, The Handbook of Distance Education; and The Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology among others. Additionally, in 2013 she co-edited (with Jennifer B. Myers) a book, Virtual Professional Development and Informal Learning in Online Environments. Vanessa currently serves as co-Editor in Chief of The Internet and Higher Education. Additionally, she is a an Associate Editor for Educational Researcher and has edited special issues for Distance Education and Technology, Instruction, Cognition & Learning. She is serving a 3-year term (2016-2019) on the board for the American Educational Research Association's Instructional Technology special interest group.

Additional Authors

Extended Abstract

Discussion Practices in Online Course: An Online Survey of Instructors

Online courses in higher education vary greatly in their format and design. Among courses that meet asynchronously, discussion boards are commonly used to promote learning interactions among instructors and their students (Cho & Tobias, 2016). Designing and facilitating highly interactive discussion activities is challenging, but valued, and instructor presence with a balanced tone (i.e., both professional and personal) is an important part of providing feedback to learners (Richardson et al. , 2016). Still, this body of research (not cited due to word limits; will be included in presentation) does not necessarily translate into classroom practice.

The purpose of this study was to investigate why and how instructors use asynchronous discussion in their classes and to learn more about their professional development needs in this area. The research questions that guided this study were:

  1. Why do online instructors use or not use discussion boards in their classes?
  2. How do online instructors design, facilitate, and assess student discussions?
  3. In what areas would online instructors benefit from assistance or professional development to strengthen their use of discussion boards?

By surveying instructors, we can learn more about both the extent to which actual asynchronous discussion practices represent ideal ones and the potential professional development needs of current online instructors who use discussion-based teaching methods.


Participants in this study were instructors of record who taught an online course at a large public university in the United States. This university offers 7 online degree programs at the undergraduate level and 19 at the graduate level. An online survey was distributed via email to instructors who taught online during the preceding school year, and 75 responded. The survey was divided into three sections. The first section focused on demographics and prior teaching experience. Then, instructors were asked to respond to a series of questions about how they teach a particular online course. Finally, instructors who taught more than one online course were asked to select another course and respond to the questions again with that course in mind. Both closed and open items were used. Data analysis focused on frequencies for numerical items and extracting common themes and examples on open-ended items. Additionally, data analysis explored differences based on type of course.


Note: During the presentation, we will more fully present findings and discuss breakouts by discipline, teaching level, and teaching experience, and will include more of the qualitative analysis. Highlights are presented here due to space constraints.

The participants represented a variety of appointments and ranks at the university. They also spanned eleven colleges and a wide range of online teaching experience.

Question 1: Why Use Discussion

Eight instructors (11%) were not using discussion boards, although 5 had done so in the past. Among them, four indicated that they were unable to foster sufficient participation to make it a worthwhile activity, and three suggested that they used other means to have students interact (e.g., wikis, webinars). One instructor retained optional discussion boards, and another used individual writing assignments instead.

Among the instructors actively using discussion boards, the most commonly cited reasons related to fostering interaction, engagement, and community. Pedagogically, discussion was viewed as an activity that supports reflection and allows formative evaluation. Common sentiments were succinctly summed up by one instructor, who wrote “Sharing interpretations/understandings of the material allows for the exchange of ideas and refining of concepts and arguments. In short it is part of the student learning process.” Instructors also noted that they were trying to make up for the loss of a face-to-face classroom. A minority used discussion solely for office hours and provision of help.

Question 2: Discussion Design, Facilitation, and Assessment

These instructors largely based their discussion design on what they had seen others doing and what seemed to be working well enough. If it was not working at all, they made changes, sometimes dismissing discussion altogether. Weekly discussions were most common, although some instructors use bi-weekly or unit-based discussions. Forty instructors (63%) reported participating in the discussion with their students; across those forty, 25 post as content experts and 18 as fellow learners. About half correct misconceptions or answer questions, and one-third summarize at the end.

In most classes (51; 74%), instructors require students to reply to each other, with the intent of stimulating a class discussion. Without this requirement, “all answers are the same,” and “they never read the other responses.” None of the dissenters gave a reason why they do not require replies, although the responses of the instructors who do require replies suggested that it is an attempt to “force the issue to generate discussion,” and not something that students are inclined to do naturally.

Most instructors (43; 68%) count discussion for 20% or less of the students’ overall grade, with an additional 12 (19%) counting it for 21-30% of the grade. To provide feedback, 51(74%) of the instructors offer a numerical grade, and 42 (%) use a rubric. Content and timing -- factors that directly affect peer interaction -- were the most highly considered items (89% and 81%, respectively). Although number of posts was not as highly selected, in an open item asking why they do not consider number of posts several instructors clarified that they do consider it. They did not select the item because they treat the minimum as a baseline assumption and do not give extra points for exceeding it, they give a separate grade for every post making a count moot, or they do not grade the discussion at all. Among the instructors requiring a minimum number of posts, between one and three posts was the standard (one initial reply and possibly one or two comments to peers).

Question 3: Professional Development Needs

When asked about the areas of online discussion with which they might like more assistance, 23 (33%) participants indicated designing discussion activities and 19 (28%) said encouraging student participation. About one-fifth (12; 17%) felt that they did not need any further assistance. One participant noted avoiding online classes. One participant wrote more about the importance of instructor preparation, stating “People blame technology for a lot of shortcomings in the online classroom. I’m not sure there is always adequate learning and practice on the part of the educator to learn how to use these tools effectively.”

In an open-ended item about general experiences teaching online, one participant wrote about struggling to learn how to teach online: “There was no course design assistance offered to adjuncts. I just had to wing it. The first attempt was pretty bad for both me and the class. Each semester gets better.” Another marveled that online learning training was not mandatory for teaching online, and a third stressed that much time had been spent preparing online TAs, who would benefit from centralized TA training focused on online classes. Some of the forms of help that were suggested in by the participants included templates and guidelines for both developing syllabi and building courses in the LMS as well as online, flexible instructor training. Course design assistance, templates, and online training are available at the university and can be used by teaching assistants and adjunct instructors in addition to full-time faculty. However, it is not mandatory that instructors attend training or use the university’s course design assistance. That so many instructors noted that they need this kind of help suggests that awareness of the available assistance may be low.


These findings confirm that discussion is a pedagogical tool that many online instructors value and consider an integral part of their online teaching repertoire. Discussion can serve many purposes within the same course, and variance across instructors based on level of students, discipline, and pedagogical beliefs. Much room exists to promote greater integration of empirically supported practices, but these practices must be balanced with contextual constraints.

The minimum discussion requirements in these classes is hardly enough to foster actual discourse among students, which many of the instructors seem to value, but the solution may not be so simple as to require more discussion posts. Factors such as class size and available time make it difficult for some instructors to interact with and provide feedback to students as fully as they may like. Professional development or some form of consulting-like assistance focused on balancing pedagogy and efficiency within discussion forums might help more instructors – and thus students – have successful learning experiences through online discussion.


Cho, M. H., & Tobias, S. (2016). Should Instructors Require Discussion in Online Courses? Effects of Online Discussion on Community of Inquiry, Learner Time, Satisfaction, and Achievement. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(2).

Richardson, J. C., Besser, E., Koehler, A., Lim, J., & Strait, M. (2016). Instructors’ Perceptions of Instructor Presence in Online Learning Environments. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(4).