Accelerating Discussions: Engaging Learners in Critical Thinking and Building Learning Community in an Online Course

Concurrent Session 4
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This presentation examines innovative ways asynchronous discussions are used in two online courses to enhance connection to a learning community and engage students in critical thinking and application of course content. Using both qualitative and quantitative data, it will demonstrate improvement over previous uses of discussion boards in these courses.


Eric Orton is an instructional designer with BYU's Division of Continuing Education, working on BYU Online semester-based courses. He previously worked in instructional design and faculty development at both Boise State University and the University of Iowa. He holds a B.S. in Elementary Education from BYU and a Master’s in Instructional Technology from Utah State University. Outside of work, Eric can be found hitting softballs, hunting and fishing, or skiing, depending on the season.

Extended Abstract

When discussion boards are poorly designed and executed, students often see them as boring busy-work, rather than meaningful learning experiences. Many online teachers have heard these complaints and shy away from using discussion boards even though, when designed and executed well, they can be a powerful tool for student engagement, reflection, and learning. With online education becoming more widespread, it is imperative that educators learn to use discussion boards effectively for the benefit of students. In this presentation, attendees will learn six effective techniques for using online asynchronous discussion boards.

During the Winter 2018 semester, new discussion board prompts were introduced in two online Exercise Science courses. Previously, these courses had generic prompts that resulted in uninspiring discussions, with students often just restating course content and responding to each other with variations of “I agree” and “I found that interesting, too,” rather than expressing truly original thought and engaging with each other for meaningful purposes. In contrast, the new discussion prompts ask students to connect course content to their own experiences and collaborate with each other in very specific, inspiring, and often innovative ways. For example, students debate issues, share personal experiences, analyze social media messages, find additional resources to bring to the course, provide peer feedback, collaborate on creating shared resources and solving problems, and form activity groups to extend the online course into in-person interactions.

This presentation will show examples of effective discussion prompts and the student responses they elicit, drawing from actual experience with these two courses. It will demonstrate the effects of these prompts on student learning and sense of community using data from mid- and end-of-course student surveys (compared with baseline data from previous semesters) and feedback from the facilitators of these discussion groups and the students who participated in them. Finally, it will review principles instructors and course designers can follow to create similarly effective online discussions.

Attendees will participate in critiquing the discussion prompt examples shown and discussing what is demonstrated in the student responses to these discussions. They will take away several examples of each of the six techniques covered to use as models in crafting their own asynchronous online discussions for their own courses.

Level of Participation:

Attendees will participate in critiquing the discussion prompt examples shown and discussing what is demonstrated in the student responses to these discussions.

Session Goals:

  1. Create effective asynchronous online discussion prompts using six techniques that:

    1. enhance students’ sense of connection to a learning community

    2. engage students in critical thinking about and application of course content

  2. Explain data that demonstrates the effectiveness of the discussion techniques presented in making online discussions meaningful learning experiences for students