Set Discussion Expectations

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Selecting an effective discussion topic is important, but does not guarantee an interactive, fruitful discussion. It is crucial for instructor to set the stage and establish clear expectations for how students should participate in the discussion.

Learning Objectives

Before designing an online discussion, think about what you want your students to learn from the discussion. Carefully connect the discussion topic to your specific learning objectives and overall course objectives (Baker, 2011; University of Waterloo). When students do not perceive a connection between the discussion topic and the course objectives, they do not participate as actively (Vonderwell & Zachariah, 2005). Share your rationale for choosing this topic with your students, as well as your rationale for choosing discussions as a valid interactive and assessment tool (University of Waterloo).

Here are some questions to consider before starting the discussion (from University of Waterloo):

  • When should they post and reply to others? It is recommended that the student’s initial message should be posted by mid-week, which gives students the chance to read each other’s contributions before replying at the end of the week. If only one due date is established, students often wait until the last day, which prevents a true discussion from taking place throughout the week.
  • How long should each message be? The longer a message is, the less likely students will read the entire message. It’s helpful to set a minimum and maximum word limit.
  • What should be contained in each message to make it a constructive message? It is helpful to model this and provide an example of a constructive message in earlier discussions. Providing rubrics helps students know how they will be assessed, and helps structure their discussion post. Also, what should be contained in each message to make it an interactive message? Typically, the goal is for students to have a discussion that goes back and forth.
  • How many times should they check in to read the discussions? It is recommended that students check in often. At minimum, they should check in three times per week; once to post their message; one to read other contributions; and one to reply.
  • How long should students spend on discussion per week? This is an important question to answer and gives students an idea of how long they should devote to discussions.
  • Do you expect them to read each message? This will likely depend on the size of your class.
  • Do you expect them to reply to each message posted to them? In other words, if a student replies to another student by asking a question, do you expect the student to answer the question? If so, make it clear that students should check back on their own discussion thread and answer any replies.
  • What is acceptable communication in this discussion? For instance, is all caps or ‘text’ language acceptable? It may benefit students to remind them to think about the tone of their language given that there are no body language cues in a discussion. It is helpful to establish the discussion forum space as a ‘classroom’ space, and that language should exemplify this type of environment.
  • If someone posts something that another finds offensive, what should they do? Typically, it is encouraged that the student contact the instructor in a private channel.
  • How much should the discussion be worth in the overall grade? If grades are not given for participation, students typically do not use the discussion forum (University of Waterloo).

It is important to clearly express these expectations to students before a discussion commences.

Link to example artifact(s)

Sample protocols from the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) Learning Online site

Protocol examples from Joanna Dunlap of University of Denver

Link to scholarly reference(s)

University of Waterloo. Online discussions: Tips for instructors.


deNoyelles, A. (2015). Set discussion expectations. In B. Chen & K. Thompson (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning.

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