Manage Discussions in Large Classes

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Holding effective, engaging discussions in large classes can be a challenge. However, they provide an opportunity for online students to engage with each other and the instructor in a way not possible with other kinds of assessments. Here are some ideas to structure this effectively.

  • Group Size: The most common acceptable number for groups is 8-10 people (Baker, 2011; Seo, 2007). It is likely to be beneficial to break up large classes into smaller groups to focus the discussion. If you are concerned with students not interacting with the whole class, each small group can post a more formal response to an open discussion so ideas can be shared (University of Waterloo).
  • Layout: Encourage students to label their posts and responses unique titles that reflect the content of their message. This can help keep larger discussions on track and allow students to identify the flow of the conversation.
  • Prompt: The choice of discussion prompt is also a factor. Please see “discussion-prompts” for more details.
  • Facilitation: There is no indication that a certain number of posts must made by the instructor in order to support students in discussion (Cranney et al., 2011). Although the instructor should be present and active, they do not need to respond to each post. Please see “facilitate-discussions” for more details.

Instructor Testimony

  • Instructor: UCF’s Dr. Patrick D. Murphy, English Department
  • Course Title: LIT 3313 Science Fiction M course Spring 2011

LIT 3313: Science Fiction is taught as a large reduced seat time M course with 175 students. English courses typically do not rely on multiple choice exams and students expect to have the opportunity for significant time for discussion in any course that we offer. To address those expectations and accommodate the class size, we have moved the bulk of the discussion online.

Manage Online Discussions in a large class

In order to avoid, however, the posting of 175 monologues and to enable students to get a sense of community and individual voices, we have broken the course up into 16 groups, with teach group randomly selected and capped at 12. To insure that dialogue takes place, we have set up a post-response—response to response structure. If no one responds to someone’s initial post that person is obliged to respond to a response to another group member’s post. The class meets f2f on Tuesdays and I lecture and take questions using a powerpoint display for each class meeting, which I then post to the course website that evening, so students can refer to it, if they wish, when making their posts. Additionally, I provide a week in advance prompts for consideration for each week’s reading. Students are informed that these are designed to spur critical thinking and while they may use them when designing their posts, they are not required to do so, and that if they use them, they should focus on one or two in order to generate a topically unified position. In class I have emphasized that their posts should not be informational or just summaries but need to take a position, develop and argument, or provide insight. Critical thinking needs to form the basis for the posts, not mere demonstration of having read the material.

Manage Discussions Column in Grade Book

To avoid having a huge grade book with 16 group columns for each week, we decided to have a running point total with a clear rubric on number of points and how to earn them. Maximum points per week 15. And then we have just one grade book column for discussions and the grade book has the students organized by group so it is easy for the graders to keep track of their own students. So, for week one, an A student would have 15 points, week two 30 points, and they can compare their total points against a chart that shows how many points you need for a “C” by week six and how many points for an “A” by week six.

Link to example artifact(s)

Below are the basic instructions for this portion of the course.

Link to scholarly reference(s)

Baker, D. L. (2011). Designing and orchestrating online discussions. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(3), 401-411).

Cranney, M., Alexander, J. L., Wallace, L., & Alfano, L. (2011). Instructor’s discussion forum effort: Is it worth it? MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(3), 337-348.

Goldman, Z. (2011). Balancing quality and workload in asynchronous online discussions: A win-win approach for students and instructors. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(2), 313-322).

Seo, K. (2007). Utilizing peer moderating in online discussions: Addressing the controversy between teacher moderation and nonmoderation. American Journal of Distance Education, 21, 21-36.

Strategies for teaching large classes. (2009). Faculty Focus.


Sugar, A., deNoyelles, A., & Chen, B. (2015). Manage discussions in large classes. In B. Chen & K. Thompson (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning.

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