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March 6, 2013


Making Online Discussion More Relevant for Students (MIL)


7 Habits of Highly Effective Online Discussion Participants

Most students hate online discussion. It’s true. Ask them. I don’t blame them. I hate it too. Ha! Yep, I just admitted that. It’s not the idea behind asynchronous discussion that I dislike. It’s how it is implemented in most online courses. It’s almost as if it’s an after thought. Oh wait, I need some student to student interaction, so I’ll throw a few questions in a discussion forum and be done with it. There’s no clear purpose. Then 24 students all jump in and try to manage what can quickly become unruly or worse boring and meaningless. First, my horror story. How do 24 students “discuss” this question: What was the theme of the story? Yes, I’ve seen that discussion question in an online course. Well, after the first student nails the answer, and it didn’t take long in this case. Everyone waiting 4 days until the one brave soul responded with the correct answer. Done. What was everyone else supposed to say after that? Not much and the discussion was a flop. Twenty-four students echoing the same response. And I’ve seen worse.

There’s a lot that goes into creating successful asynchronous discussion in online courses. I talk a little about some of it in the video at the end of this post. Instead of elaborating on that further, I’d rather share with you a very rewarding asynchronous discussion going on right now in my ENG102 online course. Discussions don’t have to take place in a traditional discussion forum. That’s the first lesson. In this case, my real goal, aside from getting students to interact with each other, was to have students help each other out with their writing by offering some valuable feedback. This discussion begins in Connect Composition where students submit their latest essays. I set up a peer review assignment and put students in groups of 3. Their goal at this stage is to review the other two papers in their group and offer feedback based on the 6 questions I set up for them to answer.

The objective is twofold: challenge students’ knowledge and understanding on the concepts required to write the paper and help each other discover strengths and weaknesses in the paper based on those general concepts. For instance, one of the questions students respond to is based on one of the competencies on the rubric for the paper: Does the paper clearly define the issue or problem only and not state a position or proposed solution? Does the writer remain objective or can you tell which side of the argument he/she is on? It’s more like a check list, but students are encourage to comment as well. They are not asked to grade the paper or edit the paper – just answer the questions.

In the second phase of this discussion activity, students are ask to participate in a more free discussion to offer more general feedback. Here is my discussion prompt:

Group 3: Discussion 3: Peer Reviews Paper 2

On Monday, after you have submit your paper in Connect, participate in the peer review process in Connect where you will peer review your 2 teammates’ papers. Watch how:

After you’ve done your peer reviews, come back here and reflect on your experience. Did you get good feedback? Was it helpful? What else do you need to know to help make your outline better? Provide feedback and ask questions here to complete discussion 3.

Most students are so excited to participate in this part of the discussion. They thank each other for the feedback they receive. They sum up their thoughts on the individual papers and offer suggestions to make it better. It’s turned into something completely different than what I anticipated. See below for an example of part of a discussion from a group. Students have expressed that they like the peer review and the concluding discussion because they feel they are helping each other and they feel bad if someone helps them and they done reciprocate.


Click to image to see in full size

As a result of these types of discussions, students have found friends in the course and “hang out” with each other online. A key element to this is I haven’t done much changing to the groups. Some groups are not as successful and when a change has been made, students have been thankful. An added benefit for me is that the rewrites on these papers after the peer reviews and discussion are much better and students are more confident about their work. I can’t wait until the end of the semester when I poll students on which aspects of the course they found most helpful in their learning. Usually the discussion forum ends up dead last. I have a feeling this semester, they might be at the top of the list. We’ll see.

Two Components of Successful Asynchronous Discussions in Online Courses

  1. Todd Conaway
    Mar 7 2013

    The Connect Composition looks very slick. Is it part of the textbook? I also wonder if the assignments students submit and the comments are still available to a student after the class is over?

    As I was watching the video I was thinking about other spaces that allow similar opportunity for both teachers and students that would be student owned. The features are pretty rich in Connect.

    As usual, another well written voyage into the world of teaching. Thanks for sharing.

    • soul4real
      Mar 8 2013

      Yes, Connect is part of our McGraw-Hill textbook. It has a set of online tools included with an online ebook. Students have access for 4 years, but teachers would have to keep courses open in order for students to have access to their assignments. If they close the course, they will only have access to the tools, which is still good. It’s a pretty rich handbook.
      Thanks for stopping by.

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