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5.3. Facilitating Discussions

Promoting Participation

To help students get engaged in an online discussion, you must be engaged and present in the discussion yourself. Students will respond more if they know that someone is actively reading and responding to their posts. It is also helpful to explain the purpose of discussions. This may be done as part of an instructor introduction in a module or as part of your initial post to a forum. If possible, respond to as many students' first postings as possible. Use their name to make them feel welcome and supported. If you have a large number of students, to make it more manageable you may respond to some students one week and others the following week. Send messages to those students who aren't participating to find out what is causing their limited participation. You may find that they are having technical difficulties or perhaps are feeling unsure about what to post. Finally, consider posting a summary of the overall group discussion at the end of a module. This may come in the form of a discussion post or as part of a course announcement, to sum up, what was covered and done in the just-completed module.

Promoting Interaction

Research shows that students get the most out of a course when they engage with the instructor, other students, the content, and themselves through reflection. Each of these forms of interaction is important for effective learning. As an instructor, you can help to encourage these kinds of interactions through participation and prompting in discussions and through your responses to discussion posts and assignments. It is critical that you be active and engaged in the discussions, but be careful not to dominate the conversation. Remember, you are there to be a "guide on the side". If you see the flow of the conversation veering off track, you may need to intervene, perhaps asking questions to get students thinking in the right direction.

"Student" is in a circle in the center while "instructor", "self", "students", and "content" are in circles around it. Bidirectional arrows show the back-and-forth relationship between the circles.

Promoting Critical Thinking

A good prompt will provoke an original response and provide a “jumping off point” for students. Prompts should help students to make connections between their personal experience, prior learning, and new knowledge. Providing a jumping off point gives students a point to start from. As you respond to and engage with your students in discussions, you can draw more out of them, helping them to dive more deeply into the topic.

A penguin standing at the end of diving board, looking at the water below.

Sometimes students will not know how to respond to a discussion prompt. You may need to probe to draw more information out of them. One strategy is to use Curry and Cook's (2014) MANIC strategy. Answering these questions can help to teach students how to draw supporting evidence from their readings to make a detailed, thoughtful response. 

Ask students:

Setting Clear Expectations

A carnival midway basketball hoop with a sign that says $2 and with rules. No cross throwing. Direct shots only. Must see shot.

You should set clear expectations for what students should post and when. What is the timeline for initial posts and responses? Students are more likely to participate if they get responses. Require that initial posts be made early in the week, making responses to peers due by the end of the course week. Your course developer may have already set a schedule. If not, whatever schedule you choose, you should stick to the same routine throughout the course. Also, in your own posts, you should model the kind and format of responses you expect from students. You should also model how students should give feedback to one another. Rather than using emoticons, students should be encouraged to acknowledge others' contributions in writing, e.g. "I agree with your point" or "I am wondering about your last point. Could you tell me more?". Similarly, encourage students to start their responses with something positive before they add their critique or feedback. 

Curry, J.H. & Cook, J. (2014). Facilitating online discussions at a manic pace: A new strategy for an old problem. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(3), 1-11.

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