Designing Online Discussions

Regardless of whether you are teaching web-enhanced, blended/hybrid, or fully online, asynchronous online discussions are very effective means of engaging students and deepening understanding. However, designing an effective online discussion is one of the more challenging aspects that you will face, as a novice or experienced online teachers. Since much of the learning in an online or blended class occurs in the asynchronous discussion forum, it is critical that you carefully construct the learning environment to promote exploration, reflection, and analysis. This information is the first step in developing the skill set to design an effective online discussion. Facilitating online discussions is addressed separately.

About online discussions

Online discussions can serve several purposes. They are crucial in the effort to develop and sustain community among students. They also serve as the “classroom” where ideas are raised, examined, and resolved. Online discussions provide an opportunity for students to do more than re-state information learned in class. They are forums that allow students to bring in outside information, relate course content to real-world events, and apply the material. 


  • All students have a voice in the conversation
  • Asynchronous discussion promotes deepened reflection
  • Students are encouraged to bring in outside readings or experiences
  • An increased sense of community develops among students
  • You can have more individual contact with students


  • Constructing and facilitating an effective discussion forum is a skill that develops over time
  • Time management can be a challenge for students and yourself
  • Students may feel the discussion is “busy work” to fill the time

Design of an online discussion

The careful design of an online discussion forum is essential to ensure the conversation is meaningful and aligned with course goals. Just as in a face-to-face discussion, you need to determine the intended outcome of the discussion and craft questions that promote individual exploration of a topic while at the same time contributing to a common understanding. However, online students need clear expectations for participation, and you should use your presence to redirect the conversation if needed and guide students to their own understanding of the material. All discussion activities should be connected to course learning outcomes and provide an opportunity for students to apply, reflect, extend, or question the course content.

An effective online discussion question is:

  • Open ended
  • Challenging
  • Congruent with learning objectives
  • Experiential, authentic

Examples of types of questions:

Questions to promote exploration:

  • What is the relationship between…?
  • What inconsistencies or fallacies exist…?
  • What is the applicability of…?
  • Predict what would happen if…

Verbs to advance cognition:

  • Appraise the value of…
  • Critique the position of…
  • Choose a position and defend…
  • Compare and contrast these approaches…
  • Design a scenario…

Time management:

Time management in online discussion forums can be a struggle for both you and the students. An often-heard comment from instructors is that students expect them to be online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even when you do commit to an extensive online presence, the students may feel you are not present or not responsive. Finally, a common complaint from students is that the online discussion feels like busy work and takes too much time. All of these issues can be addressed through increasing the clarity of expectations in discussion forums. Strategies include:

  • Keep discussion groups small—5-7 members only.
  • Log on daily but choose specific days/times to read and respond to student posts.
  • Participate more frequently at course start and fade as students become more comfortable.
  • Indicate to students when you will be online.
  • Create meaningful forum questions that allow for multiple “correct” responses.
  • Create a regular rhythm to the week or module so that students know what is expected of them every day.
  • Indicate expectations for post length and number of posts.
  • Provide clear due dates for initial and follow-up posts.
  • Create a wrap-up post that signals the end of that discussion.
  • Provide individual comments outside of the discussion forum on a rotating basis.
  • Determine your strategy for online presence, communicate it clearly to the students, and apply it consistently.

General tips:


Require and grade participation

Since much of the learning in an online class takes place in the discussion forum, be sure to value that activity by allotting a significant percentage of the course grade. It is not uncommon for online participation to be weighted at 20% or more of the final grade.

Include discussion forum protocols        

Students who are new to online learning will need the support of clearly defined expectations for participation. Include documentation on netiquette (online etiquette), time management strategies, expectations of length, and a description of what makes a good discussion post. You should also indicate when you will be online, what level of participation the students can expect from you, and how students can contact you with any questions or problems. You should also consider using a rubric to grade participation that is provided to the students.

Groups and group sizes

When teaching a class of more than 15 students, it is advisable to have small group discussions of approximately 5-7 students. Group discussions can help keep the conversation focused and the time commitment of the student manageable. When facilitating group discussions be sure to monitor each group and craft a summary that touches on each group’s contribution. Extension: consider having a member of each group create a group summary that is shared with the whole class.

Establish dates

Online discussions should have clear beginning and end dates, with milestones indicated. Try to create a standard rhythm for the discussion that will become natural for the students (i.e., forum opens on Sunday, first post due Wednesday, follow-up post due by Saturday). Close the discussion forum with a summation or wrap-up post that indicates the discussion has ended.


A well-designed online discussion forum can do more than engage students with the material provided by you. An online discussion forum can promote leadership skills, or encourage students to define the learning experience. This section outlines a few extensions that can be used to enhance the discussion.

Student-created discussion questions

Consider identifying students on a rotating basis to provide a question for consideration by their peers. The students can email you options before the discussion forum begins. This is most appropriate for more advanced students who have some mastery of the content being discussed.

Assign roles

Consider assigning roles so that every student has a specific responsibility within the discussion. Roles may include facilitator, summarizer, researcher, task manager, etc. Have the roles shift every discussion.


Akin, Lynn, and Neal, S. (2007). “CREST+ Model: Writing Effective Online Discussion Questions.” Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 3(2).

Gilbert, P. & Dabbagh, N. (2005). “How to structure online discussions for meaningful discourse: A case study.” British Journal of Educational Technology, v36, n1, pp. 5-18.

McGonigal, K. (2005). “Using Class Discussion to Meet your Teaching Goals.” The Center for Teaching and Learning Fall Newsletter, 15(1).

Swan, K. (2002). “Building Learning Communities in Online Courses.” Education, Communication, and Information, 2(1).


Back to Top