Tips for Fostering Effective Online Discussions

Lin Yu

May 2020 


The discussion board is the heart and soul of the online learning community (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016). As an asynchronous tool, discussions provide a way for students to process, analyze and synthesize information. Prepare discussion board activities that encourage critical thinking, exploration, and reflection. Online discussions also provide a potentially rich environment for interactions between students. Here are some tips for planning and facilitating effective online discussions: 

Convey clear participation expectations  

  • Integrate discussions into your assessment strategy 
  • Share the grading criteria with students early on 
  • Provide guidelines on netiquette and instructions for posting and responding 
  • Make sure to provide clear expectations regarding the number of posts, the number of replies, and the associated deadlines (Simon, 2018) 
  • Use a rubric to grade the quality of student work  

Clarify your role as a facilitator 

  • Share with students how you envision your role in online discussions 
  • Remind students that you will be facilitating the discussions, not replying to every post 
  • Communicate with your student about your online schedule and off-line time 
  • Motivate and encourage students by posting questions, giving and asking for examples, commenting on good connections made by students, and creating “weaving” posts to link good ideas together to advance the discussion (University of Waterloo, 2019) 
  • Provide feedback and coaching, particularly early in the course (Simon, 2018) 
  • In a large enrollment class where it could be challenging to provide detailed individual feedback, provide observation and feedback to the whole class or groups 
  • Give students a leading role – let students take turns leading the discussion every week (Simon, 2018) 

Build a learning community  

  • Ask students to introduce themselves and reply to peers 
  • Ask students to share a hobby, a book that they like, or an interesting fact about themselves 
  • Use an icebreaker, such as interviewing each other and games (Dunlap, 2009) 
  • Share a story, related to the course content that give students insight into your values, passions, interests and so on (Dunlap, 2009) 

Create meaningful questions  

  • Tie discussions to course events: readings, projects, preparing for an assessment (Dunlap, 2009) 
  • Post questions/topics that foster critical and creative thinking 
  • Situate discussions within authentic tasks, providing students the freedom to explore the content and ideas (Darabi, Arrastia, Nelson, Cornille, & Liang, 2011) 
  • Create open-ended questions so that learners can explore and apply the concepts, and share multiple points of view and problem-solving strategies (Arend, 2009) 
  • Ask clarifying questions, but also pose new questions, that encourage students to think about their answers (Nandi, Hamilton, & Harland, 2012) 

Divide class to smaller group discussions 

  • Large or small classes, creating groups will make it easier for your students to stay on top of the discussion (Simon, 2018) 
  • Increase the number of questions so that students could choose the topic that they are most interested in (Simon, 2018) 

Engage quieter students 

  • Organize students into groups to provide opportunity for everyone to participate 
  • Incorporate peer feedback  
  • Assign student specific roles in the discussions such as facilitator, researcher, reporter 

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Arend, B. (2009). Encouraging critical thinking in online threaded discussions. Journal of Educators Online, 6(1), 1-22. 

Boettcher, J.V. & Conrad, R.-M. (2016). The online teaching survival guide: simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

Darabi, A., Arrasita, M. C., Nelson, D.W., Cornille, T., & Liang, X. (2011). Cognitive presence in asynchronous online learning: A comparison off our discussion strategies. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 216-227.doi:10.111/j.1365-2729-2010.00392.x 

Dunlap, J. C. (2009). Down-and-dirty guidelines for effective discussions in online courses. In Lowenthal, P. R., Thomas D., Thai, A., & Yuhnke, B. (Eds.), The CU online handbook. Retrieved from 

Nandi, D., Hamilton, M., & Harland, J. (2012). Evaluating the quality of interaction in asynchronous discussion forums in fully online courses. Distance Education, 33(1), 5-30. doi:10.1080/015879.2012.667957 

Simon, E. (2018). 10 tips for effective online discussions. Retrieved from 

University of Waterloo. (2019). Collaborative online learning: fostering effective discussions. Retrieved from