How to Foster Critical Thinking, Student Engagement in Online Discussions

Threaded discussions can provide excellent opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking. But critical thinking isn't an automatic feature of these discussions. It needs to be nurtured through clear expectations, carefully crafted questions, timely and useful feedback, and creative facilitation.

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Threaded discussions can provide excellent opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking. But critical thinking isn't an automatic feature of these discussions. It needs to be nurtured through clear expectations, carefully crafted questions, timely and useful feedback, and creative facilitation.

In an interview with Online Classroom, Texas Tech University instructors Marcus Tanner, Jillian Yarbrough, and Andrea McCourt discussed some of the principles of designing and managing threaded discussions that have helped their students engage the material and each other in productive discussions.

Crafting questions

Discussion prompts play an essential role in soliciting meaningful discussion. Although there are opportunities for the instructor to spontaneously engage in asking questions, it's important to carefully plan and construct questions that progress from basic to advanced.

“I usually start my semester at the very basic level, asking knowledge questions, because I want everyone to get really comfortable in the discussion and feel that it's a safe place to share opinions and ideas,” says McCourt, program director of Human Resource Development. “If you're going to move up to synthesis or application, I think that takes several weeks of students taking chances and being rewarded in discussions as well as giving them very well-written questions.”

In addition to helping students become more comfortable in the online setting, lower-level questions can help them become more comfortable with the content. “Some of our students are not only learning to navigate, but this also might be a new topic to them, and it's difficult to jump immediately into synthesis or application,” says Yarbrough, who teaches in the Human Resource Development program.

Lower-level questions need not be simple yes-no questions. For example, if the content describes a four-step process, rather than getting students to simply restate those steps, you can have them select which step is their favorite or state which they think is the most important and why. This provides the “lower-level regurgitation, and you can extend the question a little bit to have students talk about their preferences,” McCourt says. “You can push it a little further.”

Tanner, program director for Integrative Studies, adds, “It's not a yes-no question. It's a multipart question where in the first part they're answering something at the low level, but the second part is midlevel. Even with the same discussion question they're utilizing more than one level of Bloom's Taxonomy, so we're constantly challenging them to move higher up.”

Set expectations

Students need to know what is expected of them in threaded discussions. Describe expectations, provide a rubric, and demonstrate in the introductory discussion what you consider to be a substantive post.

“We have created our own rubrics. I apply them across the courses I teach, but each is going to have a slight modification from course to course because the discussion might have a different point value or a different emphasis. Sometimes the amount of participation requirement varies slightly from course to course,” Yarbrough says.

The discussion board has the potential to bring together diverse perspectives. The key is to help students feel comfortable sharing. “We all have had different careers and different experiences. Embrace that, and say periodically, ‘Share your perspective. Share your experiences. We're looking for you to share your unique ideas and experiences. It's important to be on topic, but there's no right or wrong answer,'” Yarbrough says.

That said, a substantive post needs to be more than just one's opinion. “Even though we may ask for their personal opinion about something, we're also expecting that opinion to come out of the course content. So when I'm grading those discussion board posts, I might write, ‘This is a great thought that you had, but how is this connected to the course content for the week? What can you pull from the text or one of the lectures that would help substantiate what you're saying here?'” Tanner says.

When McCourt asks students to include their opinions, she phrases the prompt carefully to say things such as, “Using your related life experiences, professional opinions, and information from the textbook, tell me … .” This helps clarify the expectation that “it's not merely an opinion question,” McCourt says.

For them to get the highest grade on a post, McCourt requires students to cite outside resources—the textbook, a journal article, or a reputable website. “Even if I have a very opinion-heavy question, for full credit they know they have to cite something else,” she says.

Students get graded on the discussions and see the rubric on a regular basis, but sometimes general feedback to all the students can help raise the level of the discussion. “I teach all undergraduate classes, and the trickiest thing for me to do is to get them to cite outside sources and do it well. When I provide the [discussion] model in the first week of the semester or so, I will actually give them a post where I cite and give an opinion, and I'll sometimes call their attention to the fact after I've graded the first week that the biggest problem I usually see in student responses is that they haven't cited outside resources. In my class feedback after the first week of the semester I will frequently say, ‘Here's the biggest area of omission. Look at my response to the discussion question. That's what I expect from you,'” McCourt says.

Managing participation

In addition to setting expectations and asking questions that will generate lively discussion, the instructor needs to monitor and facilitate the discussion to keep it on track and maximize learning.

At the beginning of each discussion, Tanner posts a “primer, providing a little bit more feedback in terms of what I'm looking for in an answer, and I might even provide a bit of an answer to the question as I see it.”

At the end of the discussion, after he has graded it, Tanner posts a reflection. “I'll say, ‘This is what I saw in terms of students' participation in this discussion. These are some really great points that were made.' Then I might also bring up some points that weren't made and even do some housekeeping things in those reflections, saying, ‘You guys really need to stick close to the course content' or ‘Make sure you're using APA style.'”

Yarbrough also provides a summary post, making sure that students see how each week's discussion builds on the previous week's. In addition, she might ask an additional question if she sees participation dwindling.

“I have the main discussion question, and of course I'm responding to students. But I can also post a new question that is related, and sometimes in these new questions, I might say something like ‘Last week we talked about x, and now we're talking about y. Let's discuss how x and y are related,'” Yarbrough says.

The additional question is optional, but the idea is to generate new ideas and help students see how the content builds throughout the course.

When McCourt sees discussion decreasing, she rephrases the question or incorporates a current event or YouTube clip to get the conversation going again.

“I view my role as that of a moderator. I think if you establish yourself as an authority, you can shut down the discussion. So I make it a point in my syllabus and in the discussion that we're learning together. And when I respond to students, a lot of times I tell them, ‘I will be playing the devil's advocate role, so I will question what you're saying. It's not because what you're saying is wrong. It's because I want to hear more ideas,'” McCourt says.

In addition, sometimes students need to be redirected in the discussion board. “If I get a response that I need to send in a different direction or correct a little bit, I always try to find something in that student's response that is positive. ‘I really liked your unique approach and really liked the way you did this. That's the first time I've seen it described that way. Have you thought about this … ?' I try to very gently redirect as a moderator, because I think discussion needs to be fostered, and I do think an instructor can shut it down. Also, I would never tell a student in a public forum, ‘You're wrong,'” McCourt says.


Rubrics help streamline the grading process, but sometimes it's important to provide additional feedback to students that the other students don't see. This feedback might be a simple compliment on a good post, or it might be more in-depth coaching.

“I usually save my qualitative feedback for students who have gone above and beyond expectations or when I need to provide additional feedback for students who are struggling,” McCourt says. “I do not respond to every student each week. I try to keep a running tally of who I responded to each week, so I interact with everyone throughout the semester in the public forum. I try to interact equally with all students in discussion boards rather than responding just to early posters.”