Going Deeper: Roles and Structures for More Engaging Online Discussion

A common approach to generating discussion in an online course is to have students post a response to a prompt and then respond to the posts of several of their classmates. While this approach can generate a substantial amount of participation, the quality of that participation is often lacking due to students’ expectations and the structure of these discussions.

This well-established approach to online discussion often results in a “post dump,” says Steven Goss, director of online education at Bank Street College. “There would be 60 or 70 posts but no real connection, so we started to look at how we might strive for a more realistic conversation where the students are actually generating discourse around a topic being introduced in a course, similar to what happens in the face-to-face classroom.”

Goss worked with Robin Hummel, director of the Leadership in Mathematics Education program, to improve the quality of discourse in her online courses. Part of raising the level of discourse in an online discussion is getting students to focus on understanding thought processes rather than just the correct answer. “What do conversations need to look like in a [face-to-face] classroom? They’re not about raising your hand and giving me the right answer. They’re about explaining your process in a clear way that influences other people’s thinking, which generates discourse.If we’re doing that face-to-face, we should strive to do that online. We consider it an art to be cultivated, to be asking those kinds of questions to get [students] to be able to explain their process in a way that generates conversation,” Hummel says.

Part of the problem with the quality of online discussions is students’ expectations and attitudes about them. Many students enter the online classroom with an orientation toward completing tasks rather than engaging with the content and one another. “Graduate students need to be inquiring and reflecting on their own learning process, themselves as learners, and what they’re contributing to the learning of others,” Hummel says. “When I realized I had set up a very prescriptive environment and started to change it to encourage and support more generative discourse, some of my students pushed back and said, ‘I’ve taken an online course, and this isn’t what we’re supposed to do. I just want to post and be done with it.’”

As an instructor, it’s important to clarify expectations for engaging with one another and to find ways that guide and support them in this type of discourse. With this in mind, Goss and Hummel developed and studied several online courses with the goal of better understanding effective engagement in online discourse.


Goss and Hummel found that it’s important to be transparent about expectations and remind students that their input is equally important as anyone’s, including the instructor’s. In addition, they recommend offering students suggestions on roles they can play in the discussions to help co-create a generative learning experience. These roles include:

  • Validating—Recognizing the contributions of others and explaining why the contribution is valuable.
  • Being resourceful—Sharing or creating resources that contribute to a discussion.
  • Inquiring critically—Offering feedback, asking questions, and providing reflection or commentary.
  • Expanding community—Leading the community to a deeper discourse.

To help make students more aware of the roles they play in discussion, Hummel plans to have students reflect on the roles they play (or don’t play) throughout a course and missed opportunities to take on one of these roles.

Giving students choices can also foster engagement. For example, when students are allowed and encouraged to bring content to the course, there tends to be more natural engagement, Hummel says. In a recent course, a student made a comment about an issue related to the one Hummel introduced, and two students brought articles to the forum to share. “The students were completely engaged in these two articles. Two weeks passed. They were on to other assignments, but they were still going back to posts to generate conversation.”

In addition to choice of content, giving students format choices can be an effective way to engage them. Student-generated content need not be restricted to text. They can respond in discussion with audio, video, or other media. “We are trying to achieve a space that isn’t limited by time or limited to text-based posts,” Goss says.


The following are some structures that she and Goss found in their study that help foster engagement:

  • Small group discussion—Groups of three to six students respond to questions or problems.
  • Pair and share—Two or three students share their thoughts on topics in the course.
  • Reading clubs—Small groups of students discuss what they’ve read.
  • Protocol/synthesis—Small groups use protocols to structure conversation around a concept and synthesize essential understandings.

All these structures are small groups, and this study revealed to Hummel that although she typically uses small groups in her face-to-face courses, she tended not to use them in her online courses.

In contemplating how to structure online discussions, Goss does not recommend eliminating the common structure of asking students to post and respond to several classmates. “We’re not saying that’s bad,” he says. “We’re just talking about how to deepen the conversation in a forum. It means you have to have the students stop and reflect on why they have to have a generative conversation.”

And the structure of a discussion forum, depending on the students and the course, can be informal. “It might not be a weekly forum. It might be an open space for ongoing conversations,” Goss says.

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