Testing the Recipe: Researching Role-Play in Online Discussions

Concurrent Session 1
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

In 2019 and 2020, we presented several recipes for adding zest to online discussions at the OLC Innovate Conferences. In this session, we’ll look closer at one recipe to see if it really works - do we have the key ingredients for a meaningful discussion in this online course? We will present our qualitative research on the efficacy of the role-play discussion strategy used in an asynchronous biology course to foster critical thinking and student engagement.  A reflection and discussion with attendees will follow the presentation to look closer at the key ingredients that are needed to design a meaningful online asynchronous discussion.


Laurie Berry is passionate about ensuring that all students are able to access and engage in learning experiences. She is an instructional designer and has experience working with the UW Flexible Option competency-based degree program as well as the master’s degree in Health and Wellness Management and bachelor’s degree in Business Management at the University of Wisconsin Extended Campus. She holds a master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology (IDT) from Western Illinois University and enjoys presenting at local and national conferences.
Kristin Kowal is a Senior Instructional Designer for the Applied Computing Program at the University of Wisconsin Extended Campus. Kristin holds a Master of Science from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has thirteen years of experience in the instructional design field.

Extended Abstract

Key takeaways

  • Identify what critical thinking and student engagement looks like in an asynchronous online discussion.
  • Discuss the key ingredients needed to create engaging discussions that engage students and make meaningful connections.
  • Effectively use the role-play discussion strategy as a tool for student interaction, knowledge sharing, critical thinking, and the broadening of student viewpoints.


Discussions are one of the most widely used techniques in online courses to support learning and encourage engagement (Gao, 2014). When traditional discussions are overused (or designed solely to mimic the face-to-face environment), students begin to tire of the read, write, post pattern and their level of engagement begins to dwindle. Because of this, discussions rarely go beyond knowledge and information sharing to reach knowledge construction and application (Domakin, 2013).

In response to the read, write, post pattern we see so often in courses, we recommend designing alternatives to discussion, using “non-traditional” techniques we call “discussion twists”, presented as recipes to add a little “zest” to an online course (Berry and Kowal, 2019). One of the “recipes” we singled out  is the Role-Play Discussion - does it really foster critical thinking and student engagement? The aim of our research is to examine the discussion transcripts from two role-play discussions from an online biology course in order to answer this question.

Learners perform better in online discussions that are strategically planned (Darabi, 2013). Our “recipes” for discussions are strategic plans for fostering critical thinking and student engagement. To measure critical thinking, we used the Community of Inquiry model (Randle, 2013). To look for evidence of student engagement, we are using the Puntambekar model (Jarosewich et. al., 2010). Finally we are using the Gunawardena et. al’s model for online learning to look for evidence of knowledge construction (Domakin, 2013).

Session Description

Varying discussion formats—whether by incorporating debates, visuals, reflections, role play, or other strategies—can go a long way in making student discussions more enjoyable and more meaningful. Providing alternatives to the traditional discussion format enables adult students to form a deeper student-to-content connection and engage in more meaningful student-to-student interaction. Williams & Lahman (2009) stated that promoting active learning enhances learning outcomes. As evidenced by the Constructivist theory, when students interact with content in ways that allow them to construct new meaning, they continue to build upon prior knowledge. In addition, one of the four principles of Andragogy states that providing realistic learning experiences encourages adults to take control of their learning and apply it to situations in their own life.

The presenters will share evidence collected from their qualitative case-study research that measured the effect role-play has, when used as an instructional assessment strategy, on fostering critical thinking and student engagement. Attendees will learn the results of this research. Presenters will share why incorporating role-play into online discussions results in an increase in student engagement, knowledge sharing, critical thinking, and the broadening of student viewpoints.

At the end of the session, attendees will participate in quiet reflection. They will examine their own use of online discussions in relation to critical thinking and student engagement. Attendees will then discuss the pedagogical advantages to building and enhancing critical thinking skills using discussions and their overall impact on student engagement.

This session will benefit online instructors who are striving to incorporate engagement and critical thinking into their online courses as well as instructional designers who collaborate with faculty on course design.

Participant Engagement

Attendees will have the opportunity to reflect on their own use of online discussions in relation to critical thinking and student engagement while examining effective ways to use discussions to engage students and make meaningful connections. 

Self-reflection questions:

  • Why do you use discussions in your course(s)? 
  • How can we use discussions to explore/facilitate critical thinking, engagement, and connection?
  • What are the key ingredients needed to create an engaging discussion? 

Following the reflection, the presenters will lead attendees through a Q&A group discussion where everyone will explore and evaluate effective ways to use online discussions to implement critical thinking, engagement, and connection.


Berry, L., & Kowal, K. (2019, April 2). Discussion on the rocks? Add a fresh twist of alternatives! [Conference session]. Online Learning Consortium (OLC) Innovate Conference 2019, Denver, CO, United States. 

Darabi, A., Liang, X., Suryavanshi, R., & Yurekli, H. (2013). Effectiveness of online discussion strategies: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Distance Education, 27(4), 228–241.

Domakin, A. (2013). Can online discussions help student social workers learn when studying communication? Social Work Education, 32(1), 81-99.

Gao, F. (2014). Exploring the use of discussion strategies and labels in asynchronous online discussion. http://olc.onlinelearningconsortium.org/sites/default/files/460-2494-1-LE_0.pdf

Jarosewich, T., Vargo, L., Salzman, J., Lenhart, L., Krosnick, L., Vance, K., & Roskos, K. (2010). Say what? The quality of discussion board postings in online professional development. New Horizons in Education, 58(3), 118-132.

Randle, D. E. (2013). An analysis of interactions and outcomes associated with an online professional development course for science teachers (Publication No.3559509) [Doctoral Dissertation, Columbia University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Williams, L., & Lahman, M. (2009). Online discussion, student engagement, and critical thinking. APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper.