Facilitate discussions


Setting up a discussion prompt is important for initial structuring, but it is crucial to facilitate during the discussion to ensure it is progressing. Baker (2011) warns, “Unmanaged discussions invite chaos.” However, most instructors agree that participation and grading of discussions takes the majority of one’s time (Cranney, Alexander, Wallace, & Alfano, 2011).

Here are some suggestions for effectively and efficiently facilitating discussions as they unfold:

In their Community of Inquiry framework, Anderson et al. emphasize that instructors focus and direct the discussion, with elements such as identifying areas of agreement and disagreement, sharing meaning, and seeking to reach consensus (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007). Direct instruction is also an element, with the facilitator injecting knowledge or clarifying misconceptions as they unfold in discussion.

Do not dominate: Mazzolini and Maddison (2007) studied how instructor-facilitators’ participation rates in discussion forums relate to students’ participation rates. They found that the more the facilitators posted, the significantly fewer and shorter posts were offered by students. Dennen (2005) also found that the more the teacher-facilitator posted in discussion forums, the less peer interaction occurred. Discussion forums in which the facilitators were frequently present but did not dominate resulted in more peer interaction. Cranney et al. (2011) emphasize that the purpose of discussions is for students and instructors to work together.

Keengwe and Kidd (2010, in Baker, 2011) recommend that the instructor’s role is to “(1) support the comments of others by acknowledging and extending their thinking; (2) extend the conversation by adding additional arguments that bolster an opinion; (3) compliment a participant for a statement; (4) persuade the more reserved students to join in.”

Scaffold them more in the beginning: Baker (2011) notes to assist students when needed but with less aid as their competencies with discussions increases.

Be aware of your facilitation moves: Mazzolini and Maddison (2007) conducted interviews with instructor-facilitators and found that those who claimed to exhibit challenging questioning methods in discussion forums actually answered questions 68% of the time, potentially shutting down the conversation.

Socratic: Yang, Newby and Bill (2005) found that when an instructor adopted a Socratic questioning method, which is characterized by a challenging stance, students posted more messages and exhibited a significant improvement in critical thinking. This continued even after Socratic questioning ceased. More information about Socratic questioning can be found here: http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/socratic/fourth.html

The effectiveness of the strategy depends on the topic level being discussed. Gerber et al. (2005) found that when a facilitator adopted challenging techniques in a lower-order topic (based on comprehension), students produced more reasoned posts (reflective statement or argument). Facilitator stance in higher-order topics (requiring deep analysis) did not affect reasoning. Regardless of topic level, facilitators’ challenging stance increased student use of referencing (referring to books or other materials to back up claims).

Summarize and provide feedback at the end of the discussion. In an announcement or email, instructors can report how well the discussion went, talk about positive points and identify where improvements are needed (Baker, 2011).

Link to scholarly reference(s)

  • Baker, J.D. (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. http://jolt.merlot.org/vol7no3/cranney_0911.pdf
  • Dennen, V.P. (2005). From message posting to learning dialogues: Factors affecting learner participation in asynchronous discussion. Distance Education, 26(1), 127-148.
  • Gerber, S., Scott, L., Clements, D.H., & Sarama, J. (2005). Instructor influence on reasoned argument in discussion boards. Educational Technology Research & Development, 53, 25-39.
  • Mazzolini, M., & Maddison, M. (2007). When to jump in: The role of the instructor in online discussion forums. Computers & Education, 49, 193-213.
  • Yang, Y.C., Newby, T.J., & Bill, R.L. (2005). Using Socratic questioning to promote critical thinking skills through asynchronous discussion forums in distance learning environments. American Journal of Distance Education, 19(3), 163-181.