How to Make Online Discussions Work: Writing to Continue the Conversation

By Dr. Michael B. Sherry

Students lean forward in their seats, locking eyes across the circle of desks. Hands go up, tentatively at first, and then more urgently. The discussion is just getting off the ground but…the bell is about to ring. By the next class, the energy will have dissipated, so the teacher reminds students that they can continue the conversation via the class’s online discussion forum. But what will it take to make that online conversation work?

With the rise of online and hybrid courses, online discussion forums have gained popularity. Online learning management systems (e.g., Google Classroom, Blackboard, Desire2Learn) all include discussion boards that can provide opportunities for dialogue beyond the space and time of a regular class period. However, online discussion forums differ from classroom conversations in some important ways. Most notably, they require students to participate in discussion by writing, rather than speaking.

The Benefits and Challenges of Online Discussions

The opportunity to contribute and respond in writing can have both advantages and disadvantages for students, according to previous research. Some class members may appreciate having more time to compose their thoughts. Some may be more likely to participate than they would in face-to-face discussions. On the other hand, those who struggle to write may be frustrated, and without the resources of faces, gestures, and tone of voice, misunderstandings can arise. Finally, students may draw on their experiences, for better or worse, with social media discussion forums.

Beginning with Clear Guidelines

So what makes (written) online discussions work? First, teachers can provide clear participation guidelines to students. The following three questions provide a good starting place for generating these guidelines. Teachers might answer these three questions on their own or discuss them with students:

  1. What is the purpose of the online discussion?
  2. What practices will help students accomplish that purpose?
  3. What would “good” participation look like?

For example, in most face-to-face discussions, encouraging participation is more important than policing word choice and syntax. If the purpose of the online discussion is to generate dialogue rather than academic text, teachers might consider letting go of that ingrained impulse to require and evaluate the use of formal language and grammar. In fact, the use of informal language and other visual features (like emoji ☺) may be one way writers attempt to build rapport with each other in the absence of resources like tone of voice and facial expressions.

Modeling Good Participation

Second, as teachers look toward practices to help encourage student participation in online discussions, they might teach students how to participate and offer models to help them visualize what participation looks like. As with other writing tasks, assigning is not teaching: asking students to make a post and reply to two others tells them what to do but not how to do it.

Two Practices that Promote Online Discussions

Below are two practices, with examples, that research has suggested can promote and sustain discussion. Though these strategies were created for face-to-face discussions, these moves can easily be adapted to online forums.

  • Ask a question: When students ask questions that invite multiple, complex interpretations—Open, Higher-Order Thinking (O-HOT) questions—they spark more responses (and more substantive discussion). On the other hand, Closed, Lower-Order Thinking (C-LOT) questions that can block further conversation. Teachers can use the table below to help students formulate their genuine inquiries about events, characters, or writers’ choices.

  • Take up what someone else has written: When students quote or refer back to what others have already written in their responses, they are more likely to generate subsequent discussion. Responses that include this kind of “uptake” may quote words and employ pronouns like “this/that” and “I/you/he/she/it” (e.g., “What makes you think that?”). Teachers can use the table below to help students practice “uptake”:

Limitations of Online Discussion Platforms

Finally, teachers can promote participation in online discussions by helping students identify and address the visual limitations of the platform. For example, most online discussion forums arrange posts and responses in “threads” that look something like this:

Topic/Prompt:

  • Post 1
    • Response 1.1
    • Response 1.2
  • Post 2
    • Response 2.1
    • Response 2.2

This hierarchy makes for organized reading, but it also limits connections. What if one wants to tie a post or reply to more than one idea, as we so often do in face-to-face conversation? The structure of threaded discussions means that, in order to follow the flow of the conversation, students must scroll down or click multiple times—additional obstacles to participating. Below are three visual strategies for helping students weave better connections during threaded discussions.

Three Strategies for Threaded Discussions

  • NAME-DROPPING: Encourage students to use names when referring to what others have already written. Students can reference more than the contributor, and seeing one’s own name while scrolling down the page makes a writer want to respond.
  • FONT-STYLING: Invent a system with students for indicating a type of response or a change in topic. For example, italicizing disagreement or bolding a new argument can draw attention to those moments and invite responses.
  • SYMBOL-FYING: Students may have their own symbols and images for creating connections, thanks to social media (e.g., @name for citing a previous speaker or #topic for indicating a new/existing idea; memes and .gifs may also mark similar topics).

Continuing the Conversation

As with other writing tasks, clear guidelines, generative models, and flexible strategies make it easier for students to participate. That way, participating in an online discussion can be more than just an assignment or a chance to express one’s opinions–it can be an opportunity to continue the conversation. And as online discussions become increasingly associated with public, civic discourse, perhaps keeping speakers in dialogue is a worthy goal in itself.

Michael Sherry is Assistant Professor of English Education at the University of South Florida. Please continue the conversation by leaving a reply or emailing him at mbsherry@usf.edu.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

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