Support Students in Online Discussions by Clarifying and Demonstrating Expectations, and Providing Guidance in Feedback

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Online discussion forums provide students an opportunity to engage with one another and with their instructors on topics relevant to the course. They can be effective in creating community and can reassure students that their contributions to the class are of value. Additionally, they provide a space in which students can be experts, sharing their learning and knowledge (Hamilton & Harland, 2012).

How can we be sure that students understand what is expected and required when participating in an online discussion? Even when instructions and rubrics are provided, students might not understand what constitutes an effective discussion post? Detailed instructions and rubrics can provide guidance, but they may not be enough (Colvin, Knight & Ritter, 2019). This strategy provides students with clear expectations, examples, and guidance in online discussions.

Strategy Implementation

TSL4240 – Issues in Second Language Acquisition is a fully online course with an enrollment of 32 students per class. Students are randomly divided into four groups of eight and are assigned four discussions during the semester. Each discussion is done over a two-week period and comprises an initial post and response posts. For the initial post each group member is asked to write a question inspired by a portion of the assigned reading(s). The question must be well developed and supported with references to the assigned reading(s), plus other sources if desired. Students must ensure that they do not duplicate their peers’ questions. This requires students to read questions that have already been posted before they post their own. 

Students receive responses from their peers in the follow-up discussion assignments. They also receive individual feedback from the instructor on all initial discussion posts and global feedback from the instructor on the response posts and the discussion assignment as a whole. If students’ discussion posts demonstrate that they are struggling with the expectations outlined in the instructions, examples, and rubrics, the instructor provides individualized guidance in addition to feedback on the content of their posts, thus allowing them to improve their analysis of the course content and communications with their peers.

A “Discussions – Instructions & Examples” page was created to support and guide students. It indicates what is expected and required of both portions of the discussion, and provides clear examples of effective and ineffective questions, plus effective and ineffective responses. It also includes detailed instructor notes that explain why the examples are effective or ineffective. 

The “Discussions – Instructions & Examples” page has had a positive influence on discussions in this course. Questions and responses posted are substantive and of high quality and provide students and the instructor alike engaging and interesting content for which to provide responses and feedback.

Scholarly Reference(s)

  • Bacchus, R., Colvin, E., Knight, E. B., & Ritter, L. (2019). When rubrics aren’t enough: Exploring exemplars and student rubric co-construction. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 1–14.
  • Farrow, E., Moore, J., & Gašević, D. (2021). Markers of Cognitive Quality in Student Contributions to Online Course Discussion Forums. Journal of Learning Analytics, 9(2), 38–65.
  • Nandi, D., Hamilton, M., & Harland, J. (2012). Evaluating the quality of interaction in asynchronous discussion forums in fully online courses. Distance Education, 33(1), 5–30.
  • Wang, Y.-M. (2019). Enhancing the Quality of Online Discussion—Assessment Matters. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 48(1), 112–129. 


Prucha, A. (2024). Support Students in Online Discussions by Clarifying and Demonstrating Expectations, and Providing Guidance in Feedback. In deNoyelles, A., Bauer, S., & Wyatt, S. (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning.