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By now, as someone interested in becoming an online adjunct professor, you are aware of the many things that need to go into doing that job well. One of the things you’ll have to do is to lead discussions, and those discussions will be led entirely online, in cyberspace. So how do you do that? If you’re lucky, the college that employs you may provide you with ideas, or even some training! Still, a lot of it will be up to you.

brooke-cagle-WHWYBmtn3_0-unsplash (2)Facilitating successful asynchronous discussions depends on a number of factors, all of which you can master: establishing clear expectations, giving appropriate feedback, encouraging motivation, organizing effectively, and creating well-shaped questions.

Tall order? Well, of course, but who said teaching was easy? In the long run, I think you’ll find that the asynchronous discussion will do a lot of the work for you—and students will benefit. Read on to see how.

Facilitating Online Discussions 101

There are plenty of studies readily available that confirm the power of the online discussion, which even the students themselves will readily attest to. Let’s get into the nuts-and-bolts of it.

Olla Najah Al-Shachi, of the College of William and Mary, puts it simply: “Online discussions can be presented in different ways and serve students for different purposes. In order for them to be effective, instructors must make their expectations clear, provide feedback, and lead the class down the correct path.”

The “Correct Path” is what you’re looking for, naturally. Al-Shachi draws on research that you will have to consider in order to construct effective online discussions. “Facilitate” is the right word here because, if you handle the discussion well, it is the students who will really lead the way.

  1. Give clear directions. Make it clear up front that the class will be asynchronous. They will not have to show up at a certain time! That said, they will have to meet deadlines for their responses, so make those deadlines clear, as well.
  2. Give feedback. How is a student to know if they are answering a question correctly, meeting expectations, or even understanding the topic at hand? You will need to provide that feedback. Make yourself completely available to answer questions, clarify, and respond to great points a student will make.
  3. Motivate students. Some things come natural to teachers, like learning student interests so that those interests can be brought to bear on discussions. Others will take a bit more practice, like developing the proper way to assess the students. One of the main motivations will be the the grade. Make sure students know exactly what they will be graded on, like the depth or length of their responses, or the frequency of responses. Make a rubric that you can give to students so they know exactly how they will be assessed.
  4. Clear expectations. As the facilitator, you will have to decide on what is appropriate for a student to post. What if there is a disagreement, for example? Should you encourage students to disagree? If there is a disagreement, how do you handle it? These are questions that need to be answered up front and explained to students.
  5. Organize the discussion. After a while, asking a lot of questions can get things muddled, especially with lots of students leaving replies. Al-Shachi suggests establishing clear threads for discussion questions and keeping the threads separate from one another—that way, if you or the students have to return to a topic thread, there’s no wasted time searching through a lot of other questions. This will help students remember better, and they will know where to search for what they need easily.
  6. Vary the questions posted. There are lots of question types you can post in an asynchronous discussion. You can ask for opinions. You can have students relate personal experience to the topic at hand. You can ask them to take a side on an issue. You can even have students devise questions for other students to answer!

An essential question to ask here is, what is it exactly I’m trying to facilitate? The answer is, reflective thinking. And there are a number of ways to do that.

Make Your Asynchronous Online Discussions Student-Centered

When it comes to facilitating the asynchronous discussion, Ana Paula Correia and Evrim Baran of Iowa State University make a case for peer-facilitated discussions; that is, letting the students lead!

jeswin-thomas-wRdYnqXtyYk-unsplashMany discussions in college courses have relied on the professor, which unfortunately makes them the center of the discussion. But peer facilitation, far from tossing the teacher out, instead allows for the instructor to “jump into the discussions by addressing misconceptions and helping students with their difficulties as well as sharing their own points of view, questions and challenges.” It allows students full rein to develop their reflective thinking.

Looking at a number of previous research studies, Correia and Baran offer some methods to encourage student-led facilitation—though these can work for any number of ways to organize a discussion.

  1. Use small discussion groups. The students themselves, research finds, prefer small groups when it comes to discussions in asynchronous courses. An individual’s voice counts for more in a small group, and this format can encourage collaboration and relationship building.
  2. Play a part in the discussion. Just because the discussion is student-centered doesn’t leave you out! You have your own stories and insights to share, and you can offer advice and resources on a professional level, as well. You’ll still have to regulate the class discussion, evaluate responses, and offer feedback—you remain the instructor, after all.
  3. Get to know your students. The instructor must analyze student needs and the ways they learn. The design of an asynchronous discussion, even if it is student-led, must integrate those needs. Knowing your students helps you design a course that meets their expectations and helps them learn.
  4. Give them guidelines. You don’t have to throw students into peer-led discussions—you can model that facilitation first. Define the roles and responsibilities discussion leaders must adopt, and you can do that in the first week of a course. After that, continue to encourage and motivate the students, and guide the discussions along the right path.
  5. Use students’ areas of expertise. Developing topics that come directly from students’ professional lives—and you can see how this would work especially with adult students, which make up a vast number of online students—gets the students thinking on their real-life experiences and incorporating them into the class.
  6. Match discussion topics with other course assignments. By relating the rest of the online coursework to the discussion, the students will be more engaged and not think of discussion as something extraneous to the rest of the course.
  7. Most importantly, let students lead the discussion! What’s more, let them volunteer to do it. Research suggests that this is something students see the most value in. When students lead, all of the students begin to see the discussion with their peers as professionally invaluable. It creates community, too—and strongly so.

Student-centering is student empowering. Let them take the lead wherever possible.

Enrich the Discussion

Researchers have pointed out the need to address any class in terms of students’ learning styles. Some students learn well by reading; some by listening; some visually. An asynchronous class can do all of the above. To facilitate the deep learning students need, here are some steps.

  1. Scaffold the Learning. Topics in the discussion should not happen in isolation; keep linking the topics together, which encourages students to make connections between ideas and concepts.
  2. Use Multimedia. Discussion boards are great places for videos, memes, graphics, podcasts, you name it.
  3. Connect learning to specific student goals. Use discussions to help aid students in things like career goals—the added benefit here is that students will know you
  4. Encourage leadership opportunities. Get students to take initiative in creating conversations among themselves. They’ll be all the more empowered for that.

Solicit Student Feedback About Asynchronous Discussions

Imagine a student saying this: “Discussion boards allow the group to get together and engage in the subject matter. It is the pivotal feature in this class that made me more interested and active in learning the topics.” Who wouldn’t want to hear that about a class they taught?

Student feedback can point the way toward better facilitation of asynchronous discussions. There are common themes that run through student evaluations of a class, and they tend to match some of the points these research papers have pointed out.

Getting peer perspectives is important. So is getting feedback on their responses and further resources they could use from their professor. Interaction creates a sense of community. Here’s a big reason students like asynchronous discussions: no fear of judgment.

afif-kusuma-D1z3dwROc44-unsplashPerhaps the most important thing we can offer here in terms of facilitating online discussion is to make sure it is an absolutely integral part of the course. Remember, this is where students get to speak—and also where they get to listen and learn. Creating that conversation is to create a community, and for some students, that may be the most important thing they take with them from the class.

These ideas are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s
plenty more to delve into in the courses we offer at AdjunctWorld. Consider our OT101: Fundamentals of Online Teaching Course – in Week 4 of this 4-week, instructor-led certificate course, we cover asynchronous discussion facilitation in detail and participants also get practice leading their own discussion thread!


Al-Shachi, O. (2009). The effectiveness and eevelopment of online discussions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(1), 104-108.

Correia, A. & Baran, E. (2010). Lessons learned on facilitating asynchronous discussions for online learning. Education Publications.

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