At best, discussions can prove enlightening, engaging, and productive for all involved. At worst? We’re sure you have your own adjectives!

Though you, as the instructor, generally play a role in moderating the discussions that take place in your class, your students bear the onus of participating in the discussion with respect, responsiveness, and responsibility. Given that your students may not come to your class knowing how to conduct a productive discussion, they may appreciate learning some of its basic elements.

Cindy Griffin and Jennifer Emerling Bone’s text Invitation to Human Communication stress that, in order to be an effective listener, you must evade the factors that can cause you to give others less than your fullest attention. They offer the following strategies:

  • Tune out any interfering “noise.”  Switch off electronic devices so that you’re less tempted to pay attention to them instead of the speaker. Also: be sure to focus on what the person is saying, rather than your own train of thought (or, for that matter, your concerns about what to have for dinner, or any other worries on your mind).
  • Offer respect. Refrain from interrupting or dominating the discussion. Instead, ask questions that allow the speaker to elaborate upon or clarify a point.
  • Demonstrate that you’re listening. Face the speaker; maintain eye contact; nod or smile in agreement. Say something in response when appropriate – words as simple as “I see” or “yes” can do.
  • When in doubt, ask. If a particular point is not clear to you, politely invite the speaker to further clarify or expand upon his or her point. (Griffin and Emerling Bone, p. 114)

Class discussions also form a beneficial part of the learning process in in the online environment. However, due to the the asynchronous nature of many discussions, as well as the absence of tone, gesture, and other non-verbal cues present during in-person conversations, online learners require a somewhat different set of communication skills.

Discussion boards are frequently the nucleus of group interaction in the online setting. In his text Plugged In: Succeeding as an Online Learner, Joel A. English advises students to consider the following guidelines:

  • When writing a new post, craft a concise subject line. Your topic will then be immediately clear to those scanning the list of posts on the discussion board.
  • Keep your responses focused on the original topic. Don’t cause confusion by making too many points at once or following too long of a rabbit trail. If you wish to discuss more than one topic, begin a new post for each.
  • If a discussion strays from its original subject, start a new subject. By keeping individual discussions focused and centered around a particular topic, you help maintain order and clarity on the discussion board. Beginning a new subject also helps readers easily locate your thoughts on a particular topic if they want to respond or refer back to them at a later time. For example: not everyone will expect to find a conversation about due process under a thread titled “Viability of the Electoral College.”
  • Write shorter, rather than longer, posts whenever possible. A brief post enhances readability while still contributing to the discussion. (Of course, pay attention to any word-count guidelines your instructor may have provided.) Furthermore, the nested nature of the discussions ensures that it’s easy for readers to find the context of your reply, so don’t feel as though you need to include a great amount of background information in a response.
  • Review what you’ve written prior to posting. Be aware that your spelling and grammar contribute to others’ perception of you and your ideas. Additionally, note that many instructors take spelling, grammar, and mechanics into account when grading discussion-board posts.
  • Break your posts into manageable paragraphs. By so doing, you make it easier for others to read your message and follow your train of thought.
  • If you are responding to a particular person’s point, include that person’s name in your post. Writing “Joe’s astute observation about this week’s reading assignment…” or “Ashley’s thought-provoking point regarding the topic of yesterday’s lecture…” helps readers keep track of to whom a particular response is directed.
  • Frame responses in terms of what “I” think, rather than what “you” think or say. By stating “I think…” rather than “You said…” you indicate that you’re sharing your opinion on the topic, rather than criticizing a fellow student’s perspective.
  • As always, write with courtesy and respect. Though there’s room for thoughtful academic debate on a given topic, avoid sparking or getting embroiled in argumentative confrontations that only serve to anger or insult readers. (English, pp. 204-206)


English, Joel A. Plugged In: Succeeding as an Online Learner. 2014. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Griffin, Cindy and Emerling Bone, Jennifer. Invitation to Human Communication. 2014. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

How do you encourage effective discussions in your courses? Share your ideas in the Comments section.