How to Facilitate Asynchronous Discussions in Your Course

Hosted by: Mary Hoftiezer

Do your asynchronous discussions fall flat?  This podcast will provide you with techniques to get engagement from students in asynchronous discussions.   

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Hi this is Mary Hoftiezer, an Instructional Designer at CETL (C-etl) with another episode of the Cerebro Series.  Today we’ll be exploring:   

How to facilitate asynchronous discussions in your course! 

As an educator myself, I become frustrated when students respond to a peer in an asynchronous discussion, and they post one paragraph and then disappear! I was also wanting students to continue to have in-depth dialogue about a topic and to facilitate more learning.  Instead, my asynchronous discussions fall flat.   

Our colleagues at Iowa State University remind us those asynchronous strategies — provide opportunities for students to complete course work or participate in a discussion at different times — and offer real advantages in the online learning environment. I am here to offer some solutions to your asynchronous discussion dilemmas! 

First, think about your learning objectives for your course.  Consider these three questions first:  What kinds of knowledge, skills, abilities, or attitudes are vital for your students to learn in this course? In three years, what would you like your students to know still or be able to do? What do you want your students to be able to learn on their own after this course ends? 

Second, Choose asynchronous discussions carefully.  Think about the Absorb, Do Connect model proposed by William Horton (2006).  Absorb-Do-Connect is a simple model of categorizing learning activities according to the activities functional purpose.  The framework involves three phases of learning.  The first phase is the absorb phase where students watch, read, or listen while extracting useful knowledge.   The next phase the do phase, students work on their own or in groups to practice skills, analyze information, test assumptions, and actively explore.  The primary purpose of a connect activity is not to teach something new, but to allow students room to bridge gaps between their new knowledge and what they already know. In the process, students exercise higher order thinking skills and make personalized meaning of a concept or skill.  We can create more profound and robust learning experiences for our students if we maximize the engagement of students including peer to peer discussions.   

My third point is to let students know what you expect them to achieve through discussions and the importance of this. Explain each activity’s purpose and how it connects to essential learning outcomes or significant assignments. For example, take the case of an assignment where students propose questions inspired by reading to a discussion forum. The instructions for this assignment could explain that the purpose is to help students practice thinking like scholars in the discipline and develop an innovative research question situated in the literature for an upcoming research proposal assignment. To help build this habit, remember that whenever you are telling students “what” to do, you will also want to acknowledge “why” the assignment may be helpful. Furthermore, model expectations and provide your students with examples of an effective online discussion that represents what you want them to achieve.   

The fourth point is to establish protocols for these discussions.  Consider a protocol such as “yes, and ….” Or “yes, and, but….”.  This protocol will give students a framework to guide their thoughts and the discussions.  You may want to consider a theme-based discussion format.  An example of this would be to have week 1 be everyone’s original thinking.  Next, have week 2 be a discussion where everyone identifies common themes from the previous week.  Week 3 could be a week where students identify common questions that everyone has about a topic.   

The fifth tip is to have students produce something as a result of the discussion.  Consider having students produce a one page executive summary, or reflection.  Have students answer questions such as What was your contribution to the discussion?  What made your contribution significant?  How did you seek help from your peers?  How did you provide help to your peers?  How did you use the discussion to get all viewpoints on this topic?  What viewpoint was most surprising to you?  What did you learn from this viewpoint?  Finally, what topics did you submit to get all the viewpoints.  Consider having students devise a question that they were challenged by, or thought was worthy of a whole class discussion or mini-discussion.  Another idea along these same lines is to have students devise a question that will ‘stump the professor’. 

Tip number six involves using something called Karma Points.  Each asynchronous group is given a collection of points to distribute to their peers.  Points are disbursed based on the quality of discussion response such as to the peer who was most helpful, or the peer who provided details to their responses or to the peer who considered all viewpoints on a topic.  This system will get all students involved and invested in the group discussion.   

Tip number seven involves some other easy to implement strategies for asynchronous discussions: 

Create smaller groups of students for the course duration. 

Allow students to use a variety of media besides text in the discussion, images, audio, and video. 

Create new leaders for each discussion board. Have these leaders develop relevant questions and lead the discussions. 

Try other formats like Facebook, Slack, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram to gain their participation or add variety.  Another mechanism to checkout for online collaboration is Hypothesis.  Adding Hypothesis to your Canvas course supports student success by placing active discussion right on top of course readings, enabling you and your students to add comments and start conversations in the margins of texts. Hypothesis makes your reading assignments:  

Active by encouraging careful and thoughtful reading.  Visible by providing insight into student’s thoughts and understanding. Social by allowing everyone to comment on a single text, together. 

Urge students to share experiences and perspectives in and out of the discussion board. 

Identify and praise collaboration efforts. 

Respond to issues/problems quickly. 

Finally, remember to create a sense of community.  Make your presence felt online. Engage in discussions to demonstrate interest in student contributions, pose questions, and suggest areas to explore.  You may do this by sharing humanizing personal stories, interjecting in discussion forums to extend conversations, or encouraging all students to drop in for a group virtual office hour.   In Canvas, a dedicated Discussion topic for “Questions & Answers” that encourages students to post and answer each other’s questions can help build this sense of support.   

There you have it for how to creating effective asynchronous discussions. 

Remember to identify what your learning objectives will be for the course, explain the relevance, expectations, and protocols for discussions, model expectations, consider having students produce something as a result of the discussion, consider Karma points or stump the professor challenges for students.  Finally, create a sense of community by dropping into discussions and making your presence known to students.  Finally, thoughtful planning for asynchronous discussions can add depth to your students’ knowledge, create a sense of community and create a more enduring educational experience.   

Thanks for joining me today as I explored asynchronous discussions.  Be sure to check out another insightful tidbits at The Cerebro Series.  Until next time, keep those brain juices flowing.