Energizing Stalled Discussions
So you have worked your typing fingers to the bone for 15 weeks designing a well-organized online course based on current best practices and you can’t wait for students to get involved in your first exciting discussion. You subscribe to the forum and anxiously await their replies.
The seconds tick by…and turn into days…when students finally begin replying the day—or the night—the initial post is due. The initial posts are half-hearted and surface-level thinking, and the replies are your typical, “Great post!” What do you do?
Here are a few tips for jump-starting your discussions.
In your announcements at the end of a discussion, reference posts and replies that are equivalent to what you’re looking for. For example “John made some great points about ‘xyz’ in this week’s discussion. Emily also made some robust and well thought-out replies on the topic of ‘abc.’”
And in those announcements referencing insightful initial posts, you can also model appropriate replies. If John’s post was so good, tell the class a little more about it and interject with your thoughts on John’s post. Even still, do the same with Emily’s replies so students can see what an engaging discussion should look like.
Include reminders about the rubric for the assignment in your announcement and include a link to it in your email.
Don’t forget to offer your personal assistance if you notice several students are struggling. Remind students about your open door policy and appropriate synchronous and/or asynchronous hours for communication and invite them to make an appointment.
When you do see other great posts and replies, copy them and email the student personally to ask if you can use their post/replies as an exemplary example for next weeks’ (or next semesters’) discussions. Students talk—even in online classes—and it will likely get around to the others. Using more positive feedback to illicit better discussion may help students, especially if their answers are lacking because they aren’t sure what you are looking for and are not used to using online discussions.
What to Avoid?
What you want to avoid is sending “warning” announcements to students, stating what is NOT ACCEPTABLE without providing an example of what is acceptable. Remember that not every student has taken an online course and understands what engaging discussions should look like online. If they are coming from a background of primarily traditional face-to-face courses, they may not have had the opportunity to use a discussion board in any capacity. Provide some scaffolding and support to account for student skill levels and differences.
What Else Can I Do?
If all else fails, check your rubric and discussion topics. Maybe they need a little work. Did you include initial post reply lengths in your rubric? How about referencing outside resources? Does your rubric address critical thinking, application, and/or reflection? Are you asking them questions that are insightful and — most importantly — involve them expressing their opinions? Even if the material cannot be made intensely personal, asking students to compare two topics and tell you how they feel about them —especially if controversial — will spark more student interest and engagement with the presented topics.