By now, you have a good idea of what an asynchronous discussion is. You’ve read about the benefits of these online discussions, and you probably have an idea as to how to facilitate them. So far, so good. Now comes the next question: what does the asynchronous discussion actually look like? Or, to put it simply, what do you ASK in an online discussion?
There are elements to an asynchronous discussion to be familiar with, and there are considerations when you’re shaping your own discussions. There are some steps that will help familiarize the students with the discussion forum, and there are questions to ask that will generate the responses that will help shape learning and make the class a positive experience for both student and professor.
We’ll start with being clear on the role of the discussion board, and then get into how to craft a great discussion prompt.
First Step: Writing an Effective Discussion Prompt
Iowa State University uses Canvas as its learning management system, and it’s there that its discussion tools are located. The ISU Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching has provided a handy page with some general information that can get the ball rolling: first, what should the asynchronous discussion activity do?
“A discussion activity often works best,” they write, “when students need to articulate their understanding of course concepts, unpack a complex idea, research and debate some information, think through a problem more intensely, or focus on a particular reading in greater depth.” Critical inquiry, reflection, and dialogue: these are the components of any discussion in any fashion, online or in-person. So how to do it?
First, says ISU, you need to write effective discussion questions. They should be short, and it would be best to answer only one question at a time. Make it visually clear by using a large font and bold type. Keep question prompts clear and specific—so that the objective is equally clear and specific. Don’t ask leading questions, meaning don’t bring any personal biases to the discussion.
So what might the questions look like? Here are some question starters that ISU provides:
Analysis questions can begin with, “How would you explain…?” or “Why is this significant for…?”
Compare-and-contrast questions such as, “How does this compare to that…?” and “What is the difference between a and b?”
Cause-and-effect questions are an old standby, such as “What are the causes of x on y?” or “What are the effects of x on y?”
Finally, clarification questions such as “How do we know that…?” or “What does it mean for this to be true?”
Remember that factual questions—questions with single answers, or even “yes” or “no” answers—will not stir debate or critical thought. Make the questions more open ended.
Alexander et al. (2010) offer another interesting and easy-to-remember system for developing effective discussion board prompts. Read our article on their Four Questions Approach for more information.
Next Steps: The Process – How Asynchronous Discussion Work
When you’re introducing a discussion topic, remember to put it into context—how does it relate to the course objectives? Be equally clear with your instructions: how should students answer the question? How should they offer responses? Be explicit—there should be no confusion for the students.
Keep students engaged by encouraging them to respond to each other’s perspectives. Be present: show your interest in student’s ideas by responding and, if the response is particularly insightful, say so! Likewise, if a response is inaccurate or undeveloped, offer your advice. Be timely. Setting clear expectations as to how student responses will be assessed, what the deadlines are, and how long student responses should be is critical.
Breaking the Ice in the Asynchronous Discussion Forum
I would be hard-pressed to think of a teacher who didn’t use some sort of icebreaker. In a face-to-face class, you can easily see why this would work well. In an online course, it’s enormously helpful!
An icebreaker will create connections, and not only between you and the students but between the students themselves. Depending on the class or the question, the teacher can answer, as well! Students want to know about their teachers, their attitudes and opinions, their experience and stories. Share them.
ISU offers fourteen icebreakers—and you can undoubtedly find many more. They do not have to be content specific, either. At the top of their list is the “Bucket List” question. What does the student want to accomplish in life? Let them offer a “Top Five,” explaining why each one is on the list.
In the case of the “Dream Job,” you can draw them even more into the class by asking not only what their dream job might be, but how this particular course will get them there. Down at the bottom of the list is the question, “What is your most beautiful moment in life?” In both of these cases, imagine how this would stir the imagination of the student. They are “warm-up’s” in the best possible way—they help students warm to each other, and to you.
You can offer several questions and have students choose one, having them respond at length (at least two paragraphs, say) and even have them comment on each other’s responses—and why not? Note how this simple device can get the students warmed up to the expectations of the class, too.
We offer more ideas for icebreakers in our articles titled 5 Creative Icebreaker Assignments for the Online Classroom and 5 (More) Creative Icebreakers for the Online Classroom.
Online Discussion Questions – The Essentials
Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe published a book in 2013 titled, fittingly, Essential Questions—and it is these questions you can shape your discussion threads around. To get at true discussions, shape your assignments to these essential questions, which are:
- Open-ended questions, those without a single, definitive answer
- Thought-provoking questions, which stir reflection
- Questions demanding of higher order thinking, like analysis and synthesis
- Questions related to course concepts
- Questions able to raise even more questions for the students
- Questions that require evidence and justification
- Questions that recur over time
The ISU page cites the University of Wisconsin with offering a number of examples of actual questions you could pose. Let’s look at a few.
A question to promote discussion may look like this: ask the students to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of just about anything. Social media, say, which given the time we live in is an ever-present topic anyway, and so likely one that students think about. Online shopping—which could stir discussion into everything from corporate giants to small businesses to how different the malls on holidays might look if we did that—and so the nature of employment becomes a topic.
To get students to engage with readings, have them relate a specified concept in their reading to an illustration that can come from their personal experience. If the class was psychology, and the topic was clinical depression, then the student can discuss their experience—either from their own lives or even from the news or other media—to create meaning. This makes the class material personal.
Engage students with the library, and remember that this includes digital and virtual aspects of the library as well. Have students seek out an article that relates to a concept being studied, then discuss its relevance to both the topic at hand and even their own lives.
Have students refer to other sources—post an article and have students evaluate it, critically, drawing support from the article to craft an argument, and then have them find sources that support their stance. Be sure to teach them what a credible source looks like!
Another will stimulate student collaboration. In this case, say you’ve assigned students to come up with a research topic—and many classes, especially composition courses, will do this. You can direct students to respond to each other’s proposals, comment on them, and help each other find appropriate, thoughtful topics.
Finally, you might have students post assignment drafts on the discussion board and do peer reviews. This is something that works on paper—that is, in actual classrooms, where students can trade papers and read each other’s work—so naturally this will work well online, as well.
Facilitating Online Discussions – Being the Guide on the Side
The asynchronous discussion board is clearly not the place for the “sage on the stage.” Instead, you can act as the “guide on the side” and guide student reflection.
One area in which to guide students are the areas where they can share: their struggles, their questions, their discoveries, and so on. “What is one thing you struggled with this week? How have you overcome it, or how will you?” That is a good question, and one that may ultimately help other students, as well, were they to read each other’s responses.
Having students think about their own thinking—metacognitive strategies—as well as how their thinking has developed over time will give them a clear sense of measurement of their own capabilities. Ask students to make inferences about what they have read, and then ask students to think about why they might make these inferences and, finally, how their thinking on the topic has changed over time.
The “Levels of Reflection” that ISU references comes in four steps:
- Reporting and responding, where a student can observe, ask questions, and form opinions, but also provide evidence to support their conclusions
- Relating, where students draw connections between content and other content, or content with their prior learning and even personal experience
- Reasoning, where students engage in analysis
- Reconstructing, where students imagine how the content and their learning can be used in the future
These are methods that enable students to articulate their understanding—and the fact that they are writing these responses will help them when it comes time to write more extensively, as in research papers. They can understand complex ideas by relating it to prior learning, using evidence in their responses, and even compare to other students’ ideas. They can research and then debate entirely on the online forum. They can think problems out more thoroughly because they have more time and even space—it’s not always easy to drop two paragraphs out loud in a classroom setting, given the time constraint—to construct their written responses. They can focus on readings intensely and draw deeper conclusions because the online discussion allows for more depth.
Crafting Writing Prompts
To cite another authority, Dr. Nicole Wallack of Columbia University, there are six categories of prompts that encourage deep engagement.
- Have students simply describe their responses to an assigned reading; what was the experience of reading it like? What came up for them?
- Ask students to think about contradictions in the reading, any ambiguities or nuances
- Have students approach the reading through a very specific lens, or have them focus on an issue that the reading can be applied to
- Have students reread an article, even if only a section: what new insights can be drawn form it?
- Ask students to consider the context of the reading, who its intended audience might be, and how that shapes the information
- Finally, make connections of this reading to other readings, other information
Studies have long shown that memorization is not especially effective—but processing what one learns is. It is the way a student organizes their ideas, their ability to draw conclusions and to identify important information, and to see clearly what they don’t know and still need to learn that makes for educational success.
Provide students with a reading, or something they can respond to. Next, have them reflect on it—your questions will aid this. Then encourage them to create their own understanding, their conceptualizations of the ideas you are teaching them. Finally, give them feedback and point to how they might push their understanding and test their ideas.
These things need not be singular student responses; they can also be done as a group.
Small Group Work
Bard College offers some ideas for collaborative work—and small group will be best. Groups of three, for example, which would be an excellent size.
Groups can work together with a reading to do several assignments. They can craft a question that the rest of the class can attend to, based on what they see in the readings, and then, in the discussion forum, pose the questions. The point, as Bard notes, is to encourage students to think analytically and then to work together to answer the questions.
Groups can do close readings together of a posted text. The instructor can model this in a single lesson, and then put students to work in small groups to draw out meaning. The idea of small groups, here and everywhere, is to maintain everyone’s contribution—no one can disappear in a small group! Everyone must contribute.
These ideas have been tested by various colleges, and they are rooted in research. This is a start toward your creation of a discussion forum. With practice, and with clarity as to what you want students to know—and what you want them to remember years down the road—you can encourage your students to think deeply and work together efficiently.
Alexander, M., Commander, N., Greenberg, D., & Ward, T. (2010). Using the four-questions technique to enhance critical thinking in online discussions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6(2), 409-415. https://jolt.merlot.org/vol6no2/alexander_0610.pdf
Bard College, Institute for Writing and Thinking. Writing-Rich Ideas for Teaching at a Distance. https://tools.bard.edu/wwwmedia/files/4467673/1/IWT%20Practices%20Online%20Revised%20Paginated.pdf
Correia, A., & Baran, E. (2010). Lessons learned on facilitating asynchronous discussions for online learning. Educação, Formação & Tecnologias, 3(1), 59-67.
Iowa State University, Center for Excellence in Online Teaching (2021). Discussions. https://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/teaching-with-technology/instructional-strategies/discussions/
Iowa State University, Center for Excellence in Online Teaching (2021). Create an Online Icebreaker Discussion. https://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/teaching-with-technology/instructional-strategies/discussions/icebreaker/
Wallack, N. (2009). Focused freewriting: How to do things with writing prompts. In T. Vilardi & M. Chang (Eds.), Writing-Based Teaching: Essential Practices and Enduring Questions (pp. 25–52). SUNY Press.
McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. Alexandria, Virginia, USA: ASCD.