5 Ways Online Teachers Can Create Engaged Class Discussions

5 Ways Online Teachers Can Create Engaged Class Discussions
The Editorial Team May 13, 2013

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One of the most challenging tasks that online teachers face today is creating an engaging environment that encourages student participation. An effective lesson plan incorporates online class discussions that complement the course objectives and targets skill development.

Designing pedagogy for engagement

An ideal discussion assignment includes a thought-provoking problem or issue, sufficient time for students to thoroughly explore the issue and feedback from the instructor if the discussion veers off topic or to clarify difficult concepts.

Professor Emerita Donna Reiss (Tidewater Community College) cautions against intervening in the discussion. Along with colleagues Katherine Fischer and Art Young, Reiss published an article titled Ten Tips for Generating Engaged Online Discussions. In the article, Reiss suggests that educators provide feedback via email or as a class-wide message board post to encourage additional reading, critical thinking and continued conversation among students.

Providing relevant topics

Research findings suggest that students are more likely to engage in active learning if the subject matter is relevant to their lives. Moving toward a more “open-ended” teaching style requires educators to embrace the bidirectional learning aspect of online class discussions.

Online courses often include students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, diverse cultural groups and multiple levels of academic achievement. Dividing students into small groups for part of the discussion assignments encourages pupils to consider alternative viewpoints more thoroughly.

Asking students to discuss how a topic directly or indirectly impacts their educational goals promotes critical thinking. The primary objective of discussion board assignments should be to create an opportunity to explore many facets of the topic or proposed challenge.

One way to highlight relevance is to encourage students to use examples from personal experiences, connections to other classes and current news stories in their posts.

Discussion posts must be mandatory, not optional

According to Chad Shorter, University of Wisconsin-Madison, many students will not participate in optional discussion forums. In an article about guidelines for effective online discussions, Shorter says that educators must not assume students will voluntarily participate if they are not required to do so.

Shorter suggests that online teachers consider revising the course syllabus by eliminating other assignments in order to incorporate online discussion activities. In addition to modifying the syllabus, teachers should provide a “getting-to-know-you” or “water cooler” thread for students to engage with each other about non-classroom issues.

Defining expectations and modeling

Although online discussions by nature tend to provide a casual atmosphere, online teachers should establish clear guidelines for posting. Structure and accountability set the tone for higher levels of engagement.

  1. Establish a minimum word count for posts. A well thought out discussion should be at least 250 words.
  2. Establish a code of conduct that promotes a free expression of opinions, views and ideologies while prohibiting offensive language and bullying.
  3. Provide an example of acceptable work or include a resource link for students who are unfamiliar with forums and discussion boards.
  4. Participation requirements should include both original posts and responses to classmates.
  5. Include questions about discussions on weekly quizzes.

Encourage proper format

Incorporate guidelines for posting that include proper citations, MLA or APA format, along with correct grammar and syntax. Encourage students to gather information from credible academic sources, textbooks and published works from experts in the field of study.

Engaging students in online classes is challenging for educators. Early research studies found that discussion boards did not significantly improve student outcomes. However, as online teachers explore the exciting opportunities that this educational component provides, more positive results are expected to emerge.

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