Promoting Meaningful Discussions in an Online Format

graphic of students studying atop giant conversation bubbles
Online Learning
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Essie Childers is a professor of Student Success at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas


The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed educators and administrators into an unprecedented, uncertain fall. However, the main goal is to prepare students for success in the online learning environment. One way to accomplish this: meaningful discussions. Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning posits that students remember 70% of what they say and write. Thus, utilizing discussion forums are a great way to engage and motivate your online students to retain information. Discussion forums give students practice writing and organizing their thoughts, but to be effective they should pose thought-provoking questions.

Here are the four types of questions I incorporate into my online discussion forums to promote meaningful discussions in class:

Create a Sense of Belonging

Learning online can be lonely, so consider posting questions where students can get to know one another to create a sense of belonging. Questions asking students to list their favorite subject, food, music, movies, books or places to travel allows them to see how much they have in common. Another fun version of this could be to have students try and convince classmates to go on a virtual vacation. In this post, students discuss specific features of the selected destination and tell why they enjoyed the trip.

Check Comprehension

Comprehension questions allow you to check a student’s understanding of a challenging topic from their reading. For example, if the section discusses emotional intelligence, you can ask students to post personal examples of emotional self-awareness and self-management, relationship management and/or social awareness. By including personal examples, the instructor can see if the students fully understood the concept of emotional intelligence. Furthermore, the instructor can modify the lecture as needed if the discussion posts are completed before class.

Encourage Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a lifelong skill for students to master. To encourage critical thinking in your discussion forums, post articles for your class to read and reflect upon. Then ask them to list interesting or usable elements from the material (IOUs) and explain why they selected those specific elements. For example, if the posted article is about note-taking, the student may comment that it was interesting to see graphic organizers being used for taking notes.

Promote Divergent Thinking

To get the creative juices flowing, try posting a question that requires students to make a prediction. For example, you could ask, “In the absence of a vaccine for COVID-19, what predictions can you make regarding the future of online classes?” Questions of this nature require more than a simple yes or no answer. To take it a step further, you can ask them to post an article regarding online courses to support their position.

A Hub for Learning

Meaningful discussion posts are filled with thought-provoking questions. As a result, the discussion forum becomes a hub for information gathering and sharing. Students will be anxious to read and respond to their classmates’ posts and you will be excited to read the responses to see how your students have become a community of learners.


Want more online teaching tips? Download our free ebook, Peer-proven Strategies for a Successful Online Course.