Students have varying levels of comfort when it comes to sharing ideas with a larger group. This can be related to language proficiency, confidence levels, personality traits or several other factors. Online discussion formats cater to some of these limitations in that they allow students time to process their thoughts and articulate them at their own pace. Despite that, student engagement may drop to the bare minimum number of posts and lack the substance you hope for. Here are our top five strategies to improve engagement during online discussions: 

  1. Provide clear instructions: Include details about your expectations for this activity. Think about answering these questions: What should learners include in their posts? What should they include in their responses to their peers? How many words/paragraphs should they write? This helps remove inhibitions about your expectations from students. They are more likely to participate when they have a clear understanding of what they need to do. 
  2. Create effective discussion prompts: Frame questions/prompts in a way that connects learners’ previous knowledge with new course content and elicits an original and informed response. Also, consider using multimedia such as images, audio, or video to enhance your discussion prompt. When the prompt tickles their cognitive muscles, students are more likely to put some thought into their responses and engage in conversation with their peers.  
  3. Divide students into discussion groups: This can be done in a few different ways. Students can have small groups where each group discusses the same prompt, allowing for more back and forth interaction within each group. Another way groups can work is setting up the discussion as a debate. Groups are assigned a position on the topic, and they are asked to defend that position as well as present counter arguments to the other group. A third option is to alternate the days students from each group can post. This is likely to build a dialogue rather than having a set of isolated responses to a post.  
  4. Model: This strategy can be used at the beginning of every discussion, by being the first to post, allowing students to see what kind of content you expect them to share. It also helps increase their comfort level to add personal aspects to your posts, depending on the topic and your own desire to share. As the discussion progresses, you can participate by pointing out similarities or connections between students’ posts. Students are encouraged when their posts receive validation and are more motivated to take the conversation further. Even though instructor participation can increase involvement from students, be careful not to overdo this. High instructor engagement can also be overwhelming, causing learners to take the backseat in fear of saying something “wrong”. 
  5. Provide feedback: After discussion activities, it helps to provide comments instead of simply assigning a grade. This lets students know that you were “listening” and that their opinions/thoughts hold value for you. As a result, it motivates students to continue meaningful engagement in future discussions. Begin the feedback with an appreciative comment, followed by a suggestion for improvement or something you would like to add to their point. This allows the chain of thought to continue for students even after the discussion activity is over. 

To learn more about how online discussion activities can help your learners, check out our previous blog Effective Discussions: An Overview of the General Principles

Contributor: Behi Abdi, Instructional Designer

Editor: Amina Khan, Instructional Designer