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Teaching and Learning

Engaging Students in Online Discussion – In Any Course!

Image in the public domain.

People who have never taught or taken a course online often say they can’t imagine teaching or learning online, and that they would especially miss the level of interaction they get in a face-to-face class. But online learning can be a great, interactive experience if the discussions are interesting! Students can learn from interacting with each other and with the professor, and can post at any time, day or night, ideal for students who are working or have children. Both of us (Kathleen and Glenn) have had the experience of knowing our online students better than our face-to-face ones, at least at the start of the semester, because of communicating with each one in writing.

If done well, a discussion board has some advantages over discussions in face-to-face classrooms: the quickest or loudest response does not take precedence so we can reward students who are more reflective. A good prompt can also allow each individual to apply a concept to their own life or experience, which oftentimes cannot happen during a class with limited duration.

Yet many professors in disciplines such as math, science, and accounting, would identify strongly with this statement: “I struggle every semester to find proper discussion prompts. Many students simply don’t want to complete them.”

The instructor above was writing in response to a survey which asked online math faculty to describe their best and worst discussion prompts. The two of us developed it as preparation for a book chapter we wrote on creating online discussion prompts. It is clear from this response, and from conversations with colleagues over the years, that finding ways to encourage online discussion is not always easy. In particular, there are some fields where it might seem that writing is not an integral part of the discipline, so faculty might have a particularly hard time identifying ways to get students to communicate.

To help faculty brainstorm discussion prompts that work, we used the results of our survey to identify five categories of discussion prompts that can help faculty create online discussions that students want to participate in. The categories are as follow (paraphrased from the chapter we wrote, in press):

  1. Synthesis and Analysis – key concepts that students should be able to compare and contrast or to communicate in non-technical terms.
  1. Solving Content Problems – key skills that could be practiced online in a collaborative format, with students using other students’ work as a model for their own.
  1. Applications – how the subject can be applied and what would personalize the concepts for students.
  1. Social and Emotional Interaction – a way for students to share their feelings about the subject with other students, without ending on a negative note – what would encourage a growth mindset around learning?
  1. Study Skills and Tips – students share their strengths and ideas with other students, and help each other to understand that working hard is what helps them become better.

In our chapter, we give examples of successful posts in each of these categories, but specifically in mathematics courses.

Interested in how to apply this to your own online class in any field? Come join us for a conversation at the Online Teaching Exchange, November 13th at 12 pm in CETLS.

 

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