The Digiknow blog post from last week looked at: OneNote in Education. OneNote Class Notebook is great for creating and disseminating content to students. A variety of media can be use in student learning.

This week, DigiKnow will look at the role of discussion to help engage students. Initially, we look at the benefits of having class discussions in face-to-face teaching. We look at online discussions in MS Teams (synchronous) and online discussion forums (asynchronous).

We provide some scenarios where discussion forums could be used in your online course. Followed by what you can do to encourage student interactivity.

The benefits of discussion
  1. Participation and engagement. Listening to a one hour lecture can result in the students attention decreasing. Ask students to participate. Good questions make students think more deeply around a subject.
  2. Creates dialogue. As a teacher, mix up the lecture with teaching, discussions and other activities. This offers multiple viewpoints from fellow-students.
  3. Teacher gets feedback. This helps gauge students level of understanding.
  4. Students get feedback. If a student misunderstands a theme, this is a good teaching opportunity. Teaches can clarify teaching points in a different way.
  5. Students can prepare. Using regular discussions gives students opportunity to prepare. That may be pre-reading, completing a task and/or flipping the classroom. 
  6. Develops speaking skills. Discussions allow students to develop understanding and articulate it back in their own words. Studies show group discussions improve public speaking skills. Opportunities to speak in groups should be encouraged to develop these skills.
  7. Develops and improves listening skills. Effective communications start off with active listening. Why do we listen? We listen to obtain information. To understand. To learn. Listening allows us to understand and make sense of what is being said.
  8. Controls classroom environment and participation levels. In a classroom scenario, teachers learn which students are likely to contribute. Teachers can choose which student(s) should speak. The change of voice can bring back students attention to the lesson.
  9. The language of the discipline. Discussions give students opportunity to use new discipline vocabulary.
  10. Students as creators of knowledge. Instead of students acquiring knowledge, they are actively engaged through contributing to discussions.
Face-to-face discussion

Clearly, many of the benefits above fit better into face-to-face group discussions. Here, teachers can encourage student participation and create dialogue.

Teachers can get feedback from students whilst in the classroom. Feedback is available through reading body language and facial expression. The tone used provides feedback on delivery, what is being said and how (tone).

Online discussion

Discussions can be live online via MS Teams. Students can appear as speakers on-screen. There are some visual cues available online, i.e., facial expression and tone of voice. However, it’s harder to receive feedback online.

Face-to-face and online discussions are synchronous (real-time) and verbal. The teacher and students have to be present in the same time and place (classroom or virtual space) to participate.

Not only do synchronous discussions improve and develop public speaking skills. Discussions help improve listening skills too. Discussions offer students opportunities to use the vocabulary of their discipline whilst creating knowledge.

Research shows we remember 25-50% of what we hear. There is an added advantage when using MS Teams. As a discussion space, it can be recorded and re-watched. Students can review their public speaking performance on replay to help improve their technique.

Discussions forums

Online discussions are typically forums of written text. They are asynchronous (not occurring in real-time). Here, interpreting a person’s tone and body language/facial expression simply doesn’t happen. Other communications which can be used, i.e., liking comments, emojis and stickers.

A major benefit to using discussion forums are the time and cost conveniences. There is no need for students to travel to a group discussion. This saves time and money regards travel. Sometimes students can be thousands of miles apart and in different time zones. Not having to travel can help lower student anxiety. The time saved on travel can give students more time to study.

Students can engage on discussion forums at times that suit them. It’s flexible and can fit into the students life schedule. This flexibility can improve a students focus, leading to more in-depth consideration for the discussion.

In face-to-face group discussions, classroom noises and background chatter can be distracting. These background distractions don’t occur in online discussion forums.

Students using online discussions can benefit from a wider range of contributions from participants within the group. Shyer students have opportunity to contribute with more time to consider their response. Face-to-face discussions may be dominated by more outspoken peers. Online discussions help balance out the introverts and extroverts of the cohort. More ‘voices’ can be heard.

The biggest benefit for online discussions is the information that can be shared. Participants can upload useful materials or links to web sites and journals. This all helps with reading around a subject and developing understanding.

How can online discussion forums be used?

It is important to create spaces for students to introduce themselves and build rapport with each other.

There can be an Introduction Forum (ice-breaker). Introduce yourself as a teacher. How else would your students get to know you? Encourage students to introduce themselves. How else would they get to know fellow-students?

A Social Forum can be created. Students can discuss out-of-class interests in a safe space whilst supporting each other. The name of the forum could be informal like ‘student cafe’. The mention of ‘cafe’ suggests a social space.

It is advisable to create an FAQ Forum which sits at the top of the module. This forum is for all the questions about assignments, deadlines, etc. The questions typically emailed to teachers between classes and received multiple times. An FAQ section allows for questions and answers to be collated. Students can check FAQs at regular intervals before posing a question.

The above examples of discussion forums are considered ‘open’ forums. Students can get to know fellow-students within these forums.

More structured (or closed) forums could be weekly discussions, group discussions, assignment discussions, assessed or graded discussions, etc.

These are more formal, time limited and can be used by the teacher to gauge levels of understanding. The purpose of these forums is to discuss course content and receive ongoing feedback throughout the course.

It might be students need to work through a set problems, answer questions or provide drafts of reflection. Teachers can provide formative feedback on these tasks. There is opportunity for students to think about and/or share ideas and teach others under the guidance of the teacher.

If assessed/graded discussions are used, these need scheduled within the course. Feedback may be formative or summative. Students are more motivated to participate in graded discussions as it counts toward their end grade.

What can you do (as a teacher) to encourage students?

Participating in online discussions becomes harder if students aren’t motivated to contribute. Lack of teacher presence leads to lower motivation.

You may decide to use asynchronous online discussions. Here’s a few thinks you can to do encourage students:

  1. Set up discussions. Decide on the type of forum (open or closed). Set these up in the appropriate sections of your course.
  2. Ask engaging questions. Stimulate student reflection and make students responsible for their thinking.
  3. Be present. You need to be online. 5-10 minutes a day is fine several times a week.
  4. Encourage students to participate. Reply to comments and build a rapport with your audience. You might read an interesting article that’s relevant to your discussion, share it.
  5. Consider the frequency of discussion. Is there a discussion every week? Fewer discussions might lead to more in-depth and meaningful learning.
  6. When do students participate? Students may participate once the discussion is available. Or 30 minutes before the discussion is due to end. Think about how you can encourage students to participate early and more frequently. For example, you may instruct students to comment by Wednesday and respond to two other posts by Friday. This provides motivation and engagement.

In this blog post, we looked at the role of discussion to help engage students. We covered some benefits of class discussions in face-to-face teaching. We also looked at online discussions in MS Teams and how that may differ from face-to-face.

Then we provided you with some scenarios where discussion forums could be used. Followed by what you could do to encourage student interactivity.

The benefits of discussions in teaching are many. Improved public speaking. Creating knowledge. Respecting others viewpoints and opinion. Improved listening. Critical thinking. Online benefits include saving time and cost. Flexible contributions. Sharing of additional information and reduced anxiety.

Do think about the best mix of discussion forums for your module of teaching. Be active in your discussions. This only needs to be a few minutes each day.

When setting up discussions, be clear with instructions. State when students should provide comment by. Let students know if they need to respond to other student comments. Look at other features available in your learning platform, i.e., one option is to limit a students view of other participants contributions until they have made comment.

Next week

DigiKnow will look at quizzes. We will give an overview of how quizzes can be set up to provide feedback to students in a formative manner.

Please do join us next week to learn more and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @MDBSelearn.


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