Guest Contributor: Bridgett McGowen-Hawkins, Senior Professional Educator, TeamUP Cengage Learning Peer-to-Peer Faculty Development.

Online course discussions can oftentimes seem like anything but.  You post discussion questions, students post responses, and a few classmates comment with “I agree!”  Frankly, it does not feel like much of a discussion.  Here are three ideas to change that.

1.  Ask B.O.S.S. questions!:  *Aim to ask involving discussion questions, (DQs) questions that bring out serious substance (B.O.S.S.), questions that require divergent thinking and/or evaluative thinking, not DQs that require convergent thinking and standard answers that do not call for creativity.   Consider “In what ways are Freud’s theories considered controversial?” versus “Pretend you lived during Freud’s time and worked alongside him as an intern.  What did you learn during your time with him that could help you defend his belief that human behavior is significant influenced by sexual desire?”

2.  Turn up the volume on silent students!: If you have students who respond to DQs but not much of anything else, try some classroom assessment techniques (CATs) reimagined for the online classroom. For instance, you might post a poll that lists four or five concepts, then have students rank them in order of importance. Then at the end of the week’s discussion, ask students if they would change their rankings. How does this draw in the silent witness? This is a low-stakes opportunity that may be less daunting than having to immediately and directly dive into the DQ; the CATs can serve to whet their appetites and get them intrigued.

3.  Avoid getting lost in cyberspace!:  Is it your quick wit, your smile, your great stories that warm up your face-to-face classrooms?  Recall what works in F2F settings, and replicate it for the virtual space.  If you inspire, fascinate, energize students on-ground, then use those same phrases, emoticons, puns … to inspire, fascinate, and energize them online.  Remember not to lose the essence of you, and allow your personality to influence the online classroom as much as it influences brick-and-mortar classrooms by inserting those nonverbals in your online discussions.

*If you are not at liberty to change or write your own DQs, then check out the TeamUP virtual workshop “Why Isn’t Anyone Talking to Me?!:  Online Course Discussion Do’s, Don’ts, and Best Practices” for a strategy to use B.O.S.S. questions without breaking any rules.

“Why Isn’t Anyone Talking to Me?!” will also provide you with more ideas for drawing in not only the silent student but also other student types such as the student whose posts are unclear or whose comments do not connect to the course content. You’ll also know how to use face-to-face conversation best practices for optimal effects in the online classroom and have everyone talking and listening to you!


Bridgett McGowen-Hawkins is a Senior Professional Educator with Cengage Learning’s Peer-to-Peer Faculty Development team, TeamUP, and she teaches for the Associate’s Program at the University of Phoenix.  See some of Bridgett’s other projects as well as more information on this blog topic at the TeamUP Professional Development Portal by visiting