A Three-Tiered Discussion Format for Online and Blended Courses

One of the central challenges to structuring meaningful discussion in courses with online components is to identify what shared learning experiences students are able to accomplish on their own, what learning experiences require dynamic support, and what kind of dynamic support would be best (e.g., the professor facilitating asynchronous discussion boards, synchronous online classes, synchronous online office hours).

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One of the central challenges to structuring meaningful discussion in courses with online components is to identify what shared learning experiences students are able to accomplish on their own, what learning experiences require dynamic support, and what kind of dynamic support would be best (e.g., the professor facilitating asynchronous discussion boards, synchronous online classes, synchronous online office hours). Care needs to be taken to ensure that students are not asked to do something for which they are not prepared or for which they lack the necessary understanding. For example, asking students to engage in a peer-to-peer discussion about a dense text without expert insight into what key concepts are important to understand and how those are best discussed will result in frustration and apathy in the students. In the traditional bricks-and-mortar classroom, a professor can quickly figure out what major pieces of the puzzle students are missing and provide the necessary scaffolding in real time to keep the students engaged and learning. However, with online components, the professor may, to varying degrees, not be available to identify the students' real-time needs. Frustration can quickly mount before a professor has a chance to intervene.  

One way to overcome this challenge is to use a three-tiered discussion structure that asks students to first explore foundational ideas, then to identify conflicts within and among ideas, and finally to propose nuanced resolutions to the conflicts and/or apply the ideas in some relevant way. Moving students from exploring ideas, to identifying conflict, and then to resolution or application takes them from a novice to an expert understanding as they grapple and work with the content of the course. While this helps facilitate meaningful learning in any context, in blended course designs it can serve as the basis for structuring discussions along a continuum of completely asynchronous to completely synchronous (or highly dynamic asynchronous) course designs.

First, shared learning experiences—readings, recorded lectures, and other directed activities—can be thought of as discussion elements that facilitate the exploration of ideas and serve as the basis upon which more interactive elements can be built. Accordingly, they are likely better designed as asynchronous activities. The key to designing these asynchronous elements is to focus upon how they serve as the foundation for more complex discussion elements to come. To this end, one should ask questions such as these: When students get to the next level of the class discussion (i.e., identifying conflicts), what should they know? What should they be able to do? What should they be prepared to discuss? The answers to these questions ought to consider how the shared learning experiences will introduce students to foundational concepts and illuminate what is important for the topic and why. At the basic level, this might be accomplished by assigning a reading and then providing a recorded lecture that highlights the important points that students ought to consider.

Second, having provided a shared learning experience that focused students upon salient points, the next step would be a discussion element(s) that requires students to identify and explore together conflicts in what they have learned. Depending upon the learning goals, the conflicts could be within the idea(s) introduced, between the idea(s) and popular thought, and/or in the unresolved questions the idea(s) raises. This can be accomplished in an asynchronous discussion by simply structuring discussion board prompts that point out one or more conflicts and ask students to explore them in a structured way. For example, students might be asked to identify the paradox of two or more ideas being true at the same time or the conflicts they observe between an idea and their observations of popular thought. A discussion of this sort would require the professor to be present in the discussion, to at least some extent, to clarify, redirect, and question as appropriate. Importantly, this discussion element could also be accomplished synchronously with a live class or with students working in small groups outside of class using technologies of their choice. In any case, the necessary scaffolding and context must be built into the discussion board question questions, grading rubrics, evaluations, and professor contributions. That is, the expectations of what students are to accomplish, how they are to accomplish it, and how they will be assessed need to be clearly articulated.

Third, having developed their foundational knowledge of an idea(s), and having explored points of conceptual conflicts, students are well well-prepared for an advanced discussion considering tentative or conditional resolutions to the conflicts and/or the implications of the idea(s) for themselves, society, and/or their professional practice. In blended designs that have synchronous elements (either virtual or bricks-and-mortar), the live sessions are probably the best place to pursue with students the resolution and/or application since the professor can provide almost unlimited real-time scaffolding to help students achieve the most complex aspects of the learning goals. In the design of synchronous sessions, the objective is to pick up where the discussion left off in exploring conflicts and ask students to move in the direction of resolution and application. There are many ways this can be accomplished. One basic approach could be to put students in smaller groups and have each group work on a resolution/application of a certain conflict before each group reports to the class as a whole. During this time, the professor would move in and out of the groups, providing learning support as necessary. Another basic approach could be to review the work products from the exploration of conflicts discussion element and identify student-generated themes that could serve as the basis of a whole class discussion.

Whether fully online or blended, course discussions can be enriched with a three-tiered format that fosters critical thinking and creativity in students.

Stefan A. Perun is an assistant professor public administration at Villanova University.