Scaffold Online Discussion through ‘Steering’

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Steering is a strategy used in interactional scaffolding of asynchronous discussion. Interactional scaffolding assumes the important role of the instructor as mediating discussion and maintaining a communicative ‘presence’ to support students to participate effectively in this mode of interaction. Interactional scaffolding involves modelling discourse and ways of communicating, and ensuring that the discussion keeps moving purposefully towards learning outcomes. The strategy of steering works hand in hand with instructing (i.e. unambiguous directions, organizing) within a well-designed environment that is favorable to interaction.  Steering the discussion towards shared understandings and concepts should be one of the main activities of the instructor. Steering discussion can involve techniques such as prompting, focusing, questioning, and clarifying.

The steering strategy is one of a number developed from research into how to support instructors and students to participate meaningfully in asynchronous discussion forums. Initial research focused on fully online courses (see Delahunty, Jones & Verenikina, 2014; Delahunty, 2018). A number of strategies were subsequently developed and implemented in both online and blended modes of delivery (see Project Report 2019). However, while steering is important, there needs to be something that is ‘discussable’ for the strategy to be effective. This requires careful planning to ensure support is designed into the learning environment such as outcome-oriented task design, explicit communicative strategies and clear guidelines for participation (Verenikina, Jones & Delahunty, 2017,

Link to example artifact(s)

Data from Delahunty, 2014; Office for Learning and Teaching Grant, 2016 – Final Report: Verenikina, Jones & Delahunty, 2019; and from authors’ teaching contexts)

The following provides some examples for each of the steering activities as non-prescriptive ways that steering may be used in online discussion. For further detail, please see The Guide to Fostering Asynchronous Online Discussion in Higher Education, which contains a Designing Asynchronous Worksheet, which follows the steps outlined in the Guide, including task design, communicative strategies, scaffolding, and setting clear expectations.

Prompting involves stimulating a desire in students to participate. Prompting may be done at any stage of the discussion. It may be explicit or implicit, and often includes instructions or makes use of the moment as a ‘teachable’ one, for example:

By inviting/encouraging participation, as well as using a conversational ‘tone’ e.g.

  • This week’s reading discussed the concept of authenticity. What is your understanding of this concept? did the readings challenge or confirm your understanding? Newspapers are a great resource learning a language. What are some benefits and challenges that we need consider before using such a resource in our lesson planning?’ (PG Education, TESOL, Blended)
  • ‘When we all contribute to discussion we are able to gain a sense of the diverse perspectives within our group, and this helps us all learn from each other as well as helping make sense of some of the concepts we will be covering’ (Academic Development for Sessional/Casual teachers, Online)

By modelling ways of communicating, for example:

  • ‘I’m pleased you are interested in our Chat session, since this is one of the ways in which we can see how literacy is changing … our online chat writing is usually quite different from our letters, essays and traditional written texts’ (PG, Education, Online)
  • ‘Please take some time to look around the site and become familiar with its functions. Despite being a subject about technology, there is a good chance that some links may be broken despite my efforts to maintain the site. It’s just the nature of online technology. If you come across any problems, please let me know’ (PG, Education, TESOL, Blended)

By modelling attitudes: such as drawing students’ attention to the benefits of participation through giving a positive evaluation of forum discussion, e.g.

  • I have found that one of the most valuable introductory activities is one where we meet each other … and one where we comment on our present understanding of [concept]’ (PG, Education, Online)

Focusing: draws students’ attention to particular resources, ideas to consider, previous posts etc., for example:

  • Another interesting point mentioned in your course notes reads: “Most languages have words for describing the processes of reading and writing but, not even among European languages that are close to English, are there equivalents for the word, ‘literacy’ (PG, Education, Online)
  • Hi everyone, here’s an article that you might find interesting. Do you think the points raised here are also relevant to TESOL contexts?’ (PG, Education, TESOL, Blended)
  • ‘As Y pointed out in the last forum discussion …’ (Academic Development for Sessional/Casual teachers, Online)

Questioning 1: to stimulate thinking e.g.

  • ‘Based on what we’ve been talking about, how different do you think are the experiences of [working, living, teaching] in a rural community?’ (PG, Education, Online)
  • ‘As information and communication technologies are transforming how we read, write and communicate, how should we be taking account of these changes in our [life, work, teaching]?’ (PG, Education, Online) 

Questioning 2: to feed forward and move the discussion along after there has been some discussion, but learners have not yet reached the learning outcomes of the discussion task, e.g.

  • ‘ I too (as X pointed out) am happy to see the value of both the methods – intrinsic and extrinsic. What I was wondering though, whether extrinsic rewards such as points displayed on the IWB would undermine intrinsic motivation of those who are already intrinsically motivated?’ (PG, Education Early Childhood, Blended)
  • Does the process of acquiring proficiency in a second language, especially if it uses a different script, helps make us aware of how complex a concept literacy really is? Do we judge functional literacy differently for a native speaker than we do for a learner of a second/foreign language?’ (PG, Education, Online)

(see also Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001 for questioning based on the Practical Inquiry Model)

 Clarifying: to make something clearer through restating, paraphrasing or summarizing, e.g.

  • ‘In other words what I’m saying is similar to X, but different in that … ‘ (generic – representative of many instances of clarifying)
  • ‘I was glad to see that everyone valued Approach A which is linked to nurturing intrinsic motivation. Yet, this approach has some limitations, e.g. not catering for individual styles of learning. … At the same time I was happy to see that Approach B made sense for many too as a starter for those students who need extrinsic support to get them going. Some of you mentioned that such motivation should not be ongoing …’ (PG, Education Early Childhood, Blended)

Link to scholarly reference(s)

Delahunty, J. (2014). Constructing knowledge, identity and community in asynchronous discussion forums: socio-semiotic perspectives in online learning. Unpublished Thesis. University of Wollongong.

Delahunty, J. (2018). Connecting to learn, learning to connect: Thinking together in asynchronous forum discussion. Linguistics and Education. 46, 12-22.

Delahunty, J., Jones, P., & Verenikina, I. (2014). Movers and shapers:  teaching in online environments. Linguistics and Education. 28(4): 54-78. DOI:

Delahunty, J., Verenikina, I, & Jones, P. (2014).  Socio-emotional connections: identity, belonging and learning in online interactions. A literature review. Technology, Pedagogy and Education. 23(2): 243-265. DOI:

Fostering Online Discussion website (2017)

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education.

Verenikina, I., Jones, P. T., & Delahunty, J. (2017). The Guide to Fostering Asynchronous Online Discussion in Higher Education. Available from

Verenikina, I., Jones, P. T., & Delahunty, J. (2019). Building Capacity to Scaffold Online Discussion: Enhancing students’ construction of knowledge and communication competencies. Final Report SD15-5131. Office for Learning and Teaching. Available from

Verenikina, I. (2012). Facilitating collaborative work in tertiary teaching: a self-study. The Australian Educational Researcher, 39, 477–489

Verenikina, I. (2008). Scaffolding and learning: its role in nurturing new learners. In Kell, P, Vialle, W, Konza, D & Vogl, G (Eds), Learning and the learner: exploring learning for new times, University of Wollongong, 2008, pp.161-180.


Delahunty, J., Verenikina, I., & Jones, P. (2019). Scaffold online discussion through ‘steering’. In A. deNoyelles, A. Albrecht, S. Bauer, & S. Wyatt (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning.

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