Memorable Interactions: Content, Community and (the lack of) Control

Online discussion has tremendous potential to engage students, develop written communication skills, and promote learning. Unfortunately, discussion boards often fall short, resulting in perfunctory posts and comments and surface treatment of the issues. If discussions, online or otherwise, are to endure and change thinking, they must be notable.

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Online discussion has tremendous potential to engage students, develop written communication skills, and promote learning. Unfortunately, discussion boards often fall short, resulting in perfunctory posts and comments and surface treatment of the issues. If discussions, online or otherwise, are to endure and change thinking, they must be notable. Think back to a remarkable or meaningful discussion. What was the topic? The context? How would you characterize the nature of the interaction¾humorous, serious, spirited, or bordering on out-of-control? Who and how many people were involved? What were your takeaways from the exchange? What did you learn from the experience? Why was this the interaction you thought of first?

In sum, what made the interaction significant? Memorable interaction characteristics can be organized around issues of content, community, and control. Planning online discussion with these features in mind increases the likelihood the interactions will facilitate more learning and leave students with a lasting impression.


Indifference is the bane of noteworthy discussions. If the topic is irrelevant or without meaning, why should participants discuss it? In contrast, memorable interactions explore a topic, theme, or issue that matters. Discourse that advances learning derives from disagreement, a range of perspectives and alternative solutions to an interesting problem or question. Meaningful exchanges often conclude with “agreeing to disagree,” producing several explanations, or the realization that no definitive solution exists. Participants in a memorable exchange leave the interaction with fresh ways of thinking or a challenge to rethink their views. Either way, they leave the conversation still thinking.

As they plan for online discussion, instructors should ask themselves and their students:

When students don't connect with the topic, or think it's irrelevant, they engage in discussion by “going through the motions,” which doesn't create a solid foundation for discourse. Identifying interesting topics may be more challenging in some disciplines than others, particularly the technical or quantitative fields. One way to mitigate this is by seeking feedback about content from students. What do they know already? What would they like to learn about the discipline? Incorporating students' interests and feedback as much as possible will support their genuine interest in the content and the discussion.

Current events, case studies, and what-if scenarios are effective strategies for connecting students to content. Provide opportunities to connect with the content through research combined with personal reflection. Engaging dialogue, evidenced by nested threads that probe issues in depth, are more likely when students are interested in the subject and have strong views about it. “I didn't know that before,” “I never thought of it this way,” and “I will respond differently in the future,” are phrases describing outcomes from memorable interactions. Online, the content may matter even more because people aren't physically together. It's harder to connect with people when you can't hear their tone of voice or see their facial expressions. Because others are not physically present, online discussion will depend more heavily on content and format.


In order for participants to meaningfully contribute when they are interested in the topic, they must believe they have something valuable to say and trust their ideas will be judged fairly. It's crucial to establish a welcoming class climate as soon as the course opens because norms get established quickly. Fritschner (2000) suggests having a discussion about discussion. Asking what participation means, why it's important, and how it relates to learning helps to bridge the distance among students, and between students and professor, by establishing shared definitions of and expectations for interaction.

At the beginning of a course, teacher-led topics and structure are appropriate as students gain familiarity with the subject, the instructor and each other. Engaging learners through interesting discussions that advance learning requires finding the right trigger or asking the right questions. Initially, instructor-led discussions may be helpful. But over the course of a semester, if the teacher always starts and structures the discussion, it's easy for students to fall into a mental rut where posts and responses become perfunctory.

To minimize this risk, online discussion should eventually shift from teacher-scripted to more student-initiated and student-led topics and formats. To facilitate the transition, Brower (2003) recommends strategies that encourage students to build on and facilitate peers' posts and comments by asking students to pose a completely different question, answer a question posed by another, or build upon a peer's comment. Similarly, Naranjo, Onrubia & Segués (2012) recommend asking students to provide more than a personal reaction by providing them with “models of argumentation that help them to ground their ideas conceptually, using the knowledge that they are learning.” (p. 292) They suggest assigning different students to summarize the discussion, then using their summaries to raise questions that extend and deepen the discussion or to launch a follow-up interaction.


Professors can facilitate selection of discussion-provoking topics and engender a favorable class climate. But can they plan for the spontaneous quality of memorable interactions? Unscripted, happenstance, and disorderly describe the lively exchanges most often remembered. Planned spontaneity sounds like an oxymoron. How can a discussion leader plan and make arrangements for interaction that will have a spontaneous, sudden, or impromptu quality? Technically, one can't. But teachers can increase that likelihood by planning sufficiently and then relinquishing some control. Planning ensures that learning goals are addressed. Planning allows students to learn process as well as content. But too much control over discussions leaves no room for spontaneity, and spontaneity is what gets students engaged and thinking. Face-to-face discussions often get interesting when they start becoming a bit out of control. People interrupt. New voices jump in. Ideas and responses are bandied about in a haphazard fashion.

To put this into practice online, it may help to view control of the discussion along a continuum from complete control of topic, format, and post/comment rules on one end to a totally open forum on the other. It may be appropriate for lower-level courses to begin at or near the controlled end of the spectrum, focusing on low-risk topics, discussion board mechanics, and developing a positive class climate. But Weaver & Qi (2005) find “the more students perceive the professor as an authority of knowledge, the less likely it is they will participate in class.” (p. 586)

Shifting from expert/controller to asking students to assume greater autonomy over discussion topics, formats, and facilitation helps students develop as independent learners while supporting the serendipitous quality of memorable interactions. Control can be relinquished in stages, allowing students to work through basic content to more advanced topics, while getting to know each other and the teacher. Ideally, this transitions to the point where students are responsible for selecting topics, moderating, and even assessing the exchange (Baran & Correia, 2009). 

Note that incrementally reducing control does not mean eliminating structure. Sautter (2007) suggests a modular content approach to force integration of concepts, incorporating questions (which can be student-driven) that do not have “known” answers, and allowing sufficient time for discussions to unfold and develop where students “take the lead role in the evolution of a discussion.” (p. 124) Structure is important to scaffold learning, and structure is not the same as control.

Of course, empowering students and ceding some authority over online discussion doesn't automatically produce spontaneous interactions. In addition, surrendering some control may be scary for teachers and uncomfortable for students. But learning is messy and memorable interactions are unpredictable. By seeking student input and sharing decision-making, teachers send a powerful message about students' roles and responsibilities in the bumpy process of learning through discussion. Shared control also increases the likelihood the online interactions will become lasting memories.


Baran, E. & Correia, A. 2009. Student-led Facilitation Strategies in Online Discussions. Distance Education, 30(3): 339-361.

Brower, H. H. 2003. On Emulating Classroom Discussion in a Distance-Delivered OBHR Course: Creating an On-Line Learning Community. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2(1): 22-36.

Fritschner, L. M. 2000. Inside the Undergraduate College Classroom: Faculty and Students Differ on the Meaning of Student Participation. The Journal of Higher Education, 71(3): 342-362.

Naranjo, M., Onrubia, J. & Segués, M.T. 2012. Participation and Cognitive Quality Profiles in an Online Discussion Forum. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(2): 282-294.

Sautter, P. 2007. Designing Discussion Activities to Achieve Desired Learning Outcomes: Choices Using Mode of Delivery and Structure. Journal of Marketing Education, 29(2): 122-131.

Weaver, R. R. & Qi, J. 2005. Classroom Organization and Participation. Journal of Higher Education, 76(5): 570-600.

On Tuesday, April 28, 2015 Lolita Paff, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Business Economics at Penn State Berks, will provide a 40 minute online seminar titled “Online Discussion: Practices to Boost Learning & Engagement.”

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