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How Can I Create Engaging Discussions?

New! Creating Effective Discussions Workshop

Discussions are a common way to achieve student-to-student interaction and active learning in online courses. Join a group of your peers for a 60-min workshop led by the Faculty Online Learning Liaison Kristen Swithers on creating effective discussions for your online course.

We will explore different types of discussions and examine different strategies for deploying discussions in your course. Whether you are looking to revamp your discussions or build new ones you will leave this workshop with ideas for generating meaningful discussions that encourage student engagement.



  • Mar 21, 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm, KN5579 or Zoom
  • Apr 11, 10:00 am - 11:00 am, KN5579 or Zoom


Engaging students in rich dialog in online asynchronous courses supports the same purpose as in-class discussions.  It also supports student success. Students who feel isolated in online courses have a great chacne of dropping the course. Help students stay motivated and engaged by adding bi-weekly Blackboard discussions.

Why Use Discussions?

Students succeed in asynchronous online courses when they are engaged in reflective discourse and mean-making. Use the Discussion Board to create forums where students can engage with peers and yourself to construct knowledge and connect concepts. Discussions are most suited to higher-level outcomes, like analyze and evaluate, where students can demonstrate critical-thinking skills, evaluation and reflection.

Discussions are one of the best types of formative assessments for distance courses. It's a great place for students to brainstorm and practice new skills. While sharing many similarities with methods for fostering in-class interactions, distance tools offer different opportunities, and limitations, in creating meaningful interactions between students and instructors.

Provide Open-Ended Guiding Questions

If there is only one answer there won’t be much discussion. To keep a discussion going, provide open-ended, ethical or situational guided questions.  Provide meaty questions where students will need to understand and apply multiple levels of constructed knowledge in order to present a convincing argument. Learn more about probing discussion questions.

Don’t Get Bogged Down in the Details

Discussions that require a certain amount of words, replies or strict citation tend to stop the flow of dialog.  Use the forums as a casual place to form logical arguments and opinions. Use low-stakes discussions as a safe place to practice citations without penalty. Connect real-world application to the discussion to connect the conversation to the field or industry.

Give Students the Lead

Community-Building Boards

Online discussions can be a great way to help build a learning community among your students. Social learning is key for many students to learn and excel in a course. You can encourage social learning by giving the students space to interact, even if it is not directly related to the course. As with all online discussions you will need to set clear guidelines and expectations. However, allowing students some ownership or autonomy in a discussion space is a good way to encourage them to take ownership over their educational experience while building meaningful relationships with instructors and students.

Every Course Needs Introductions

The icebreaker forum provides the first student-student and student-instructor asynchronous interactions in a course.  Its focus is usually not cognitive but community-building and social engagement. There are an infinite number of ways to structure an introduction forum, here are a few common forums.

  • Ask students to set achievable performance goals for the course. This can include asking students to identify areas where they could improve study habits.
  • Students post introductory information and share demographic information Provide students with the basic expectations for the course.
  • Ask students to build their own course contract which outlines netiquette and expected behavior. Learn more from Facing History.
  • Have students define their ideas about the field, overarching big questions and topics or focus of the course. This can help stimulate curiosity and connect your course to their great learning goals.

Allow Students to Lead

Designate a leader for each discussion. Ask the leader to post guiding questions from the week’s content, lecture or assessments. Having a leader discussion provides students the opportunity to use their diverse perspectives and to gain skills as a self-regulated learner. Learn more about student-led discussions.

Ranking and the Blame Game

Ask students to rank or assign credit/blame on a scale of 1-10 using central ideas, concepts, people or events. Ranking encourages students take the lead in assigning value and backing up their choices through opinions and argument. This type of discussion encourage participation and support deeper critical-thinking. Learn more about the Ranking Game from Teaching Professor.

Activity Discussions

Visible Assignments

Online discussions are a great way to have students contribute and view more formal writing or thinking assignments. Having students post their assignments to a discussion board allows other students to see and interact with other students’ writing assignments. Instructors can also use the format to leave example feedback for students to see.

Conduct a Peer Review

Students can post drafts of papers, presentations or projects to a forum. Provide a short rubric or checklist to guide a peer review.  Ask students to review more than one student to create a rich textual exchange between peers.  This is also a great way to cut down on your grading workload, as a peer review can help eliminate low level draft issues. Learn more about peer review discussions.

Provide a Problem Set

Collaborative problem-solving is a successful way to help remove content bottlenecks. Peer interactions are used widely in large format class and work well in discussion forums.  Give students a problem set that is just beyond their current capabilities.  Ask them to solve it together. Learn more about peer interactions from Eric Mazur. Learn more about peer instruction.

Try a Fishbowl

A Fishbowl Discussion is a great stand-by in the classroom. Fishbowl discussions support small group work and encourage students to take the lead.

Small Group Work

Facilitate Group Work

Setting up individual discussion spaces based on groups is an effective way to spark interaction. Breaking students into smaller groups builds accountability and encourages student interactions as smaller groups make it harder for students to “hide” online. You can use Group Discussion Boards to conduct collaborative lab reports, presentations, projects, and team papers. Learn more about group work in discussions.

Try a Jigsaw Discussion

Jigsaw works well for introducing small group work to online students. Jigsaw discussions create interaction in and across small groups which builds student confidence as contributors and active listeners. View the Jigsaw infographic to learn more.