Let’s Discuss How We Can Have Better “Discussions”

Concurrent Session 7

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Most agree the current model for student “discussions” is broken. This presentation considers the actual conditions necessary for fostering online discussions and describes how Yellowdig’s design helps create them efficiently. It will also review lessons learned from professors and academic institutions, which will help you avoid common discussion assignment pitfalls.


Brian Verdine, Ph.D., is Yellowdig's Head of Customer Success. He received his doctorate in Psychology from Vanderbilt University's Peabody College and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the School of Education at the University of Delaware, where he was appointed and continues to be an Affiliated Assistant Professor. His research background involves learning from technology and informal-learning activities. In addition to overseeing student support, in his position at Yellowdig he mines data from instructors and Yellowdig's platform to understand how Yellowdig can be applied best and to make product recommendations that improve student and instructor outcomes.
Tyler Rohrbaugh is the Head of Client Partnerships for Yellowdig, a Philadelphia-based EdTech company that works with some of the top institutions in the world to improve student engagement and retention. Having joined the company in Summer 2017, he prides himself on building strong relationships with the administrators, professors, and course designers he works with, and in identifying new ways that they can use Yellowdig technologies to see improvements across the KPIs that they care about most. Tyler received his MBA with specialization in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management from Drexel University's Lebow College of Business, where he also completed his undergraduate studies and continues to guest lecture in undergraduate and graduate Marketing courses.

Extended Abstract

Many degree programs and courses include online discussion spaces to engage students, promote critical thinking, increase topic relevance, help students network, etc. In many of these spaces, instructors and course designers expend considerable effort doing administrative tasks, creating weekly assignments, enforcing posting rules to ensure they meet requirements, and meticulously grading the resulting “discussion” to motivate participation. In reality, these assignments rarely spur anything even remotely resembling real conversations. Moreover, the grades that are given may accurately reflect post quality according to an instructor’s rubric, but rarely capture whether a post actually created or sustained meaningful discussion. Consequently, though traditional discussion grading compels content generation, it does not propel content consumption or conversation.

Existing discussion frameworks lead to assignments with prescribed rules like “post once and comment twice this week.” The discussion forum, then, just becomes a way to collect an assignment that is peppered with a couple of forced and awkward student interactions. These assignments typically also fail to launch real discussions because students post just before the weekly deadline, after which the “discussion” moves to a new topic for the next week. These forums are not engaging, dynamic, or thought-provoking places and, therefore, do not actually produce most of the promised benefits of discussion (e.g., social learning, peer interaction, etc.). This model for incorporating discussion spaces simply doesn’t work and most of the existing technologies reinforce rather than solve for the bad habits that produce these poor outcomes.

This session is focused on creating a different model by rethinking the common approach to discussion assignments and implementing them in Yellowdig, a discussion technology that amplifies student engagement and interaction. The session is headed by Brian Verdine, Ph.D., Yellowdig’s Learning and Academic Support Manager and an affiliated Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Delaware and co-presented by Tyler Rohrbaugh, Yellowdig’s Head of Client Partnerships. They will blend knowledge gained from college teaching experiences, interactions with professors at Yellowdig’s 50+ partner institutions, and lessons gleaned by data from Yellowdig’s 200,000+ active users, to explore how to create true interactive online spaces.

The presentation will start by focusing on understanding the conditions that are actually necessary for creating a vibrant online discussion (hint: it isn’t more posts). The presentation will then shift into understanding how instructor prompts and assignments can help develop those components, regardless of the technology used to implement them. We will then present some of Yellowdig’s features that help instructors create the conditions that yield a good discussion and avoid “conversation killers,” while also saving time and frustration. Dr. Verdine will go into detail about the pedagogical philosophy and psychology behind many of these features, which will help attendees understand both why Yellowdig works and appreciate how they can improve their own approach to discussions. Given Dr. Verdine’s research background, the session will focus heavily on what Yellowdig’s data says about the opportunities and pitfalls in producing active discussions. Though the session will introduce attendees to Yellowdig, the expectation is that anyone with a discussion component for their course will find applications for much of the information presented, regardless of the platform used.