Good Practice

Engage Students with Online Discussions


Instructors often use classroom discussions to promote sharing and ideas about a subject matter. Sometimes, discussions can become rote and tedious, or engage only one or a few students and the instructor.

So how can you encourage all students to actively participate?


Online discussion between students, or between students and instructors, can help:

  • students and instructors have more time to reflect, which can lead to more thoughtful interaction,
  • students who may not contribute to in-class discussions may feel more comfortable with online discussions, and
  • participants can engage in discussions before, during, or after an online or hybrid class.

Analyze Objectives and Select Discussion Format

Different discussion formats may help your students meet different learning objectives.

Jigsaw Discussions

Jigsaw discussions promote analysis and support collaborative learning through a two-round process:

  1. The instructor breaks the topic or assignment into pieces, and assigns each piece to a different group of students.
  2. During the first round, students who work on the same piece of the puzzle become experts by gathering, discussing, and synthesizing relevant material.
  3. During a second round, new groups are formed. Students are responsible for teaching others based on their newly developed expertise.

Hot-Seat Discussions

Hot-Seat Discussions foster critical thinking, free thought, and discussion by assigning one student to serve as a moderator who researches the subject and keeps the discussion on track.

Comprehension or Completion Checks

Instructors may choose to have students respond to questions via an online discussion before class time to check that they have comprehended or completed certain course content.

Design the Phases of a Discussion

When designing a discussion activity, understanding it in terms of phases has many benefits. You can:

  • create a timeline that allows the appropriate amount of time for each phase,
  • identify specific tasks for each phase (e.g., conduct research, write summaries, identify and explain best responses) and connect them with specific learning objectives.
  • identify opportunities and methods for both formal and informal assessment, and
  • determine when and how to be present during discussion (e.g., redirecting/reinforcing during the exploration phase, providing more detailed syntheses and feedback during the resolution phase).

While this process might sound involved, it is possible to move through the phases in a short time. If necessary, more complex tasks such as conducting research might not be a required part of a discussion.

1) Prompt

Identify a well-crafted question or event about a complex topic or problem. It should:

  • be open-ended enough to require exploration and deliberation,
  • be resolvable by identifying "good, better, and best" solutions,
  • invite multiple perspective, and
  • align with observable, achievable learning goals.

2) Exploration

Students should work together to explore the problem, issue or topic by sharing knowledge, deliberating solutions, working through disagreements, and discovering points of agreement.

3) Integration

Students should identify and prioritize solutions, and synthesize what they've learned.

4) Resolution

Students should identify best answers and solutions, and bring the discussion to a conclusion.

Develop and Implement with Appropriate Technology

The University supports a variety of tools that can be used for online discussions, including with those provided in the Moodle course management system. Compare Online Small Group Discussion Tools.

Signs of an Engaging Discussion

  • Students reflect thoughtfully on relevant content and refer to course concepts and materials.
  • Students participate early and adhere to deadlines and timelines.
  • Students do not provide resolutions too quickly or easily, and do not struggle too much.
  • Students take responsibility for sustaining the discussion.

Evaluate Ways to Assess Student Work

There are opportunities for both formative and summative assessment in online discussion. For example, you can use the following features in the Moodle Forum:

When you decide how to assess your students, consider these factors:

  • How much information your students need to understand what they should learn
  • How students can improve
  • If feedback to students should be immediate or can be delayed
  • If the activity is high stakes or low stakes

Effort Required

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High

Learning Objectives Addressed


Teaching Applications

  • Support collaborative learning
  • Foster critical thinking, free thought, and discussion
  • Check for comprehension or completion