Brendan Lake, D.M.A., M.Ed., is an instructional designer with ASU Online and an instructional professional with the ASU School of Music.

During my undergraduate studies, I remember having a final exam for an introductory Spanish course where we were asked to have a conversation, in Spanish, about the weather. At the designated time, my professor welcomed me into an empty classroom along with my exam partner, a classmate I barely knew. We sat facing each other in two chairs and began speaking the phrases we knew, one after another: “Are you cold?” “Yes, it is snowing.” After a few minutes, we said, “adios,” exited the classroom, and waited for our professor to email us our grade. Many years later, I realized this was a perfect analogy for a traditional online course discussion.

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The challenge of authenticity and engagement in traditional online discussions

My Spanish final exam wasn’t an authentic or engaging discussion, but it was never meant to be. The goal was to measure my achievement of a learning objective, and when this is the case, conversation is more likely to be mannered and restricted. As I spoke to my exam partner, I wasn’t thinking about who he was, what he cared about, or how our words could bring each other value. In reality, I was speaking to the instructor, on a topic she selected, disguised as a conversation with my classmate. In turn, my classmate played the same charade, using what limited knowledge and ability he had to convince the instructor that he deserved a passing grade.

In a traditional online course discussion, an instructor will often pose one or more challenging questions to the class. All students are required to answer each question, often with explicit guidelines and grading criteria and at least one reply to a peer. What typically ensues is an essay exchange with peer review, where each “original discussion post” essay is followed by one or two “replies” summarizing the original post and adding some additional perspective or confirmation of the ideas, all with the focus of meeting instructor expectations rather than having an authentic conversation or building a learning community. To be clear, there are many situations where this would be a clear and effective element in a course, just as my Spanish final exam was an excellent assessment of my achievement of the learning objective Discuss the weather using basic Spanish vocabulary and grammatical structures.  The issue is that many instructors choose to deploy traditional online discussion assignments with the goal of fostering the types of discussions they have in their brick-and-mortar classrooms, or they use a discussion in an attempt to doubly serve as a summative assessment and an opportunity to connect, which can weaken the effectiveness of both compared to having two distinct areas for each purpose.

How are traditional online discussions different from classroom discussions?

In a face-to-face college classroom, discussions are commonplace and often spontaneous. In the middle of a lecture, an instructor may pose a question to the class or invite students to discuss a prompt amongst themselves. Students may raise their hand or simply interject with a question based out of curiosity or confusion. There are several characteristics of these open discussions that differ from a traditional online assessment discussion:

  • Discussions are non-punitive, meaning that students don’t fear penalties for an incorrect, incomplete, or informally-worded answer, which leads to more authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty, and a more accurate portrayal of student understanding and attitudes for the instructor.
  • Students don’t need to participate in every conversation because the conversations aren’t summative assessments – they’re opportunities to practice knowledge and hear new applications and perspectives on the knowledge. It may be important, however, for every student to engage at some point in a class or week.
  • Students can begin discussions on topics or questions that they’re curious about, which inspires a greater effort to learn and understand the material (Schiefele, 1991).
  • Students can choose how and when they participate in instructor or student-led questions. Only those prepared to answer or those that have valuable contributions discuss, leading to more focused, higher-quality discussions that others can observe and learn from.

Casual discussion

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina from Unsplash

Replicating the classroom discussion experience in online courses

The important question then is: how do we foster these authentic conversations where all students engage non-punitively with each other and the instructor in an online course? There are three general ingredients required: an online space to connect, motivation for students to engage in conversations, and clear guidelines from the instructor on what’s encouraged or prohibited.

Creating an online space for open discussions is easy, but it’s important to consider the functionality of each type of space. One option is a discussion forum in your learning management system (LMS), but many third-party discussion apps, such as Yellowdig and Perusall, are specifically designed to facilitate these types of interactions and can be integrated into your LMS, with grading functionality and analytics to help instructors automatically track and reward students for their interactions. If you have instructional design or technologist support, be sure to connect with these team members to help you identify what’s available and a good fit for your needs.

Second, how will you motivate your learners to engage in these conversations? If it’s a topic where your students will be passionate about the subject matter, they may be intrinsically motivated to build a learning community. More than likely, however, to bring everyone into the discussion/community space, adding extrinsic motivators like low-stakes point values for engagement will be essential. In a basic LMS discussion forum, grading criteria for non-punitive engagement might present as “Either post or respond a total of at least 5 times this week on whatever questions and conversations you want to have related to the material,” in contrast to the more traditional “Post once responding to the instructor prompt and reply once to a peer.” Third-party apps like Yellowdig or Perusall can automatically track and reward these engagements, with some having added functionality like gamified point systems, being able to sort by “unanswered questions,” introducing “likes” or “upvotes” to express that a post was valuable, or the ability to include the value that learners bring to each other as part of the automatic grading/reward system.

Finally, it’s critical to be clear and concise about the guidelines you expect students to follow in these open discussion boards. These types of interactions may be new or different to students accustomed to traditional online discussions, so it’s important not only to anticipate what they need to know, but also how past experiences may impact their assumptions. Some topics you may want to outline for students include:

  • What are students supposed to discuss? Consider: A topic from that week? Anything on the broader course topic? Anything as long as it’s academia-appropriate?
  • Why are these discussions a part of this course? This is a critical element that can help students understand the overall scheme of what you’re looking for and to reduce the sense of “busy work”
  • Is this a graded activity? It’s important to be clear early on if this is an activity students are expected to participate in, and whether there are consequences to not doing so.
  • How do students earn points? Consider: what qualifies as a “minimum” effort that you would want to reward? Would any post earn credit? Is there a minimum word count you expect of students for each post? Do you require that all students include at least one question in each post or reply?
  • What are the expectations around tone and netiquette? This will help students navigate how to express their thoughts in what might be considered a more informal space.
  • Do you want students to post about logistical questions and technical errors about the course here, or should these be reported elsewhere? Some instructors may prefer technical issues reported elsewhere for higher visibility and quicker resolution.

Here’s an example of what these guidelines might look like, using an example from ASU 101: The ASU Experience, an orientation course for new ASU Online students: Conversation overview for ASU 101

Although these are more democratized spaces where students can direct their own learning and conversations, instructors continue to play an important role in taking conversations deeper, or addressing student questions and curiosities that don’t get a response from others. It’s the perfect space to post thought-provoking questions for students to see and contribute as they choose, which reduces anxiety and promotes higher-quality conversations. In my own experience as an online instructor and in my role as an instructional designer debriefing with faculty after a term, there tends to be a greater sense of being an actual teacher in these conversations, rather than just a grader evaluating submissions from a distance. Students have consistently used these discussion boards to collectively empathize on challenges with the content, they’ve shared great study resources, and they’ve generated engaging questions for each other. I would recommend any instructor strongly consider adding open discussions to their courses.

Special thanks to ASU Online instructional designers Joe Benfield, Vicki Harmon, Taylor O’Kelley, and Renee Pilbeam for their ideas and input on this article.


Schiefele, U. (1991). Interest, learning, and motivation. Educational Psychologist, 26(3/4), 299-323.