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October 27, 2006 (Refreshed September 24, 2012)

eCoaching Tip 26:  Preparing Discussion Posts that Invite Reflection and Response

Tip 25: Discussion Wraps — A Useful “Cognitive Pattern” or  “Collection of Discrete Thought Threads? described a strategy of explicitly summarizing or bringing a discussion to a close by using discussion wraps. Discussion wraps add impact to a forum by integrating and summarizing the content generated by students.
A related question frequently asked by faculty centers around the challenge of creating a discussion post that really gets students thinking and talking. The question might sound like this, “How do you create a discussion post or problem scenario that students can’t wait to contribute to?”
While it might be a stretch to hope to create that kind of learning excitement, it really is something to strive for.

Examples of instructional goals for discussion forums

To get started, let’s consider the different purposes that you may have for your learners for your discussions. You might want to design discussions for one of the following purposes: (Note: Suggestions are cited in Grogan, 2005 and include suggestions from Painter, et al., 2003 and Goodyear et al., 2003.)

  • Encourage critical or creative thinking
  • Reinforce domain or procedural processes
  • Provide a space for open question and answers on a position
  • Achieve social interaction and support community building; have the students get to know each other personally and intellectually
  • Validate learning progress and experiences
  • Support students in their own reflections and inquiries

When designing discussion forums it is helpful to first determine your learning goal or objective for the discussion and then decide what type of question, activity or contribution from the students will best achieve that goal.  In particular, if one of the course goals is to use problem-solving skills in a leadership context, a discussion forum is a good place to demonstrate and model such skills.

Here are a few hints for effective discussion postings distilled from many conversations with experienced online faculty.  

1. Create open-ended questions that learners can use to explore and apply the concepts that they are learning

This is a good strategy when your purpose is to encourage critical or creative thinking or to encourage students to reflect on their current knowledge and current mental models. Open-ended questions invite exploration, analysis, reflection and research by students.  Open-ended questions begin with phrases such as “Find another example of  (Concept) in your personal experiences.” Or,  “If a natural disaster such as (name your disaster) happened in your (city, state, county, etc.) what organizations or leaders would rise to lead a recovery response?” Other similar open-ended activities would be to invite students to research their own company, state, or region or to identify additional experts and resources in a particular niche context.

Another strategy for open-ended questions encourages learners to examine and describe their existing mental models. Here are a couple of example questions. “What do you think of one of these XXX (national initiatives) and why and how would you support it or not?” Or, "Describe why you think what you do and provide support for your thinking.”
You may want to focus your students on the course readings and ask for them to identify a question that needs clarification or have them identify confusing or complex ideas.

The purposes of these types of questions is to probe what students do know or understand from the content and what they may only think they know. It is a way of finding out how well-formed and useful their concepts are.

2. Provide choices and options for students

Providing choices for students follows the principle of providing options for personalized and customized learning for students. Working professionals are often grappling with many work and life issues.  Providing choices makes it possible for them to link their learning more directly with their experiences and needs. One of the things I enjoy most in life is those occasions when two problems hold the seed of solution in the other.

A good example of this is the need to support faculty in instructional design support.  Most institutions do not have sufficient full time staff to support faculty in this way. When I was at Penn State and Florida State there were times that I needed to contact faculty and tell them that their project proposal did not make the cut for design support. After a few such disappointing meetings, our group was able to make arrangements with the faculty teaching instructional design and create two-person teams to support faculty.  These teams were then monitored by the faculty member.  This was a real win-win. Students got hands-on practice with authentic projects working with real clients; and faculty received experts-in-training support. Similarly, when students can accomplish work and learning at the same time, it makes for less stress and generally more positive and lasting learning outcomes.

Learners in online classes have many built-in opportunities to apply concepts in real life.  Structuring questions that enable learners to examine and reflect on real problems helps learners to manage their time and to interpret learning tasks in light of their own needs.

How many choices? Often a choice of three questions or areas works well.

3. Encourage Positive and Significant Peer to Peer Support

Why don’t students often make significant contributions and reflections to their fellow learners’ discussion postings? One reason is that learners are busy and often leave the work of the discussion forums to the last possible minute. If you have a question that will take time to develop be sure that students know this in advance and can plan for it, and provide them with reminders and organizational hints, if appropriate.
We also know that students will only participate in discussion forums if participation is part of the grading and assessment plan. Depending on the maturity of the students, you may also want to model the type of significant and thoughtful contributions and responses in your discussion summaries.

Other Quick Hints

  • If you want students to focus on individual exploration and contributions, then response to peers can be optional.
  • Encourage the sense of community and provide informal ways of getting to know each other. Encourage other student-to-student conversation —either on the discussion forum or in the open café or union forum.
  • Model good Socratic-type probing and follow-up questions. Why do you think that? What is your reasoning? Is there an alternative strategy?
  • Stagger due dates of significant discussion responses and consider mid-point observations and encouraging comments
  • Provide guidelines on responding to other students. For example, suggest a two-part response: (1) what you liked or agreed with or what resonated with you, and (2) a follow-up question such as what you are wondering about or curious about.
  • Ask students to contribute to the course resource bibliography base. Find a valuable resource, comment on it and why it is useful now or potentially useful.
  • Don’t post questions soliciting basic facts, or questions for which there is an obvious yes/no response. The reason for this is obvious. Once one student responds, there is not much more to say. Very specific fact-based questions that you want to be sure that your students know are best used in practice quizzes.
  • Log in to your course daily — answer questions, monitor discussions, post reminders, and hold online office hours.

 Great Discussion Dynamos or Discussion Disasters

Predicting just how discussions will flow and develop is generally impossible. So despite your efforts it is good to be prepared for either a discussion disaster or more hopefully, a dynamic discussion that surpasses all expectations.  If this happens and it will, take the opportunity to talk with your students about it. Over time you will find great discussions for your content.


Goodyear, P. (2002) Psychological Foundations for Networked Learning. In Steeples, C., and Jones, C. (2002). (Eds.) Networked Learning: Perspectives and Issues. London: Springer.

Grogan, G. (2005). The Design of Online Discussions to Achieve Good Learning Results.  elearningeuropa.info.  Retrieved September 24 2012 from http://www.elearningeuropa.info/en/article/The-Design-of-Online-Discussions-to-achieve-good-learning-results.

Jokisalo, E. (2005) Can asynchronous online discussions be designed to produce meaningful learning? elearningeuropa.info. Retrieved September 24 2012 from http://www.elearningeuropa.info/en/article/Can-asynchronous-online-discussions-be-designed-to-produce-meaningful-learning%3F

Painter, C., Coffin C. & Hewings, A.  (2003). Impacts of directed tutorial activities in computer conferencing: a case study. Distance Education 24(2): 159-174.


E-Coaching Tip 26: Preparing Discussion Posts that Invite Reflection and Response



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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013