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FoxTALE Managing Forum Discussions: Discussion Design

Video demonstrations and instructions on how to add and use forums in course sites.

Discussion Design

How to Design Online Discussions

The discussion cycle: Prepare, Initiate, Converse, Synthesize

Robust discussions help learners step outside of their academic comfort zones and step into a safe learning community in which they can explore and think creatively.

Start by helping learners share their stories in ice breakers. The students will get to know each other more quickly and you will be able to refer to interests and goals a student has shared when you give that student feedback throughout the course.

Establish a predictable pattern for discussions throughout the course. You can enlist your learners in determining the best time of the week for individual preparation and the best time for active discussion.

Some learners find it helpful to know how much time they should expect to spend in a weekly discussion. Most learners spend up to 2 hours a week in preparing their initial statement, checking discussion progress daily, making substantive replies to colleagues, and writing summary statements.


Organize discussion activities with clear and detailed instructions. Introduce the discussion with a brief video. Your visual presence will be engaging. Give a deadline for when learners should make their first post in the discussion. This helps everyone show up and stay connected.


Consider the idea of engaging learners in developing their own contract, or covenant, in how they will collaboratively establish guidelines for conduct and commit to participate in discussions. Introduce this assignment at the beginning of the course and include a basic framework that can be used to initiate the process.


Some ideas for discussion design:

Guiding Questions

Author questions that will help learners

  • Begin to form concepts
  • Exercise the ability to make associations
  • Apply their learning to new data or novel situations
  • Most of all, help learners value scholarly conversation

Would it be beneficial for the learners to clarify, compare and contrast, identify cause and effect, perform analysis?


Initial Statement

Have students begin the discussion with an initial statement. This strategy helps learners organize their thinking. This could come in the form of

  • the student offering a critical question that has emerged in the assigned reading, presentation, case study
  • the student identifying the most important points, what makes them important, and how they connect to what we have been learning


Entrance or Exit Statements

Set a regular pattern of collecting statements from students that help you identify areas where students are confused, need more resources, or have found meaning that motivates their learning. Collection of the student feedback could be in the form of online discussion prior to the coming classroom period (i.e., Entrance Ticket). Student statements could also serve as a summary of their learning for a local classroom session or as a synthesis of group learning in an online discussion (i.e., Exit Ticket).


Discussion Activities


One Word
Ask students to state one word that describes their life or who they are today. They complete the post by sharing why they chose that word.
Picture This
Direct students to, Creative Commons Museum Collections, or similar sources to find an image that represents their life or why they are participating in this course. They complete the post by sharing why they chose that image. Alternatively, students could choose to produce an audio recording to share a story or insight.
Rotating Leadership
Discussion cycles are led by assigned students in a weekly rotation. Each week begins with discussion groups led by assigned leaders and concludes with an all-class synthesis discussion.
  • A roster is created to assign, or invite students to register, for rotating leadership.  See the example, Rotating Leadership Schedule
  • The weekly rotating leader is is responsible to set up discussion questions, keep members on track, and draft a summary of the discussion
  • In the All-class synthesis forum, each small group's leader posts their group's summary for collegial review led by faculty

See the graphic, How Can We Take Common Teaching Strategies Online, for a version of think-pair-share in online discussions.


There are many possibilities, here is one description:

Learners are divided into groups that are paired in order to conduct debates. Each debate group is given a private forum in which they can prepare. Each paired debate group is given a a Debate Arena forum into which all other paired debate groups are invited to observe their debate. The observing groups are given survey forms in which they can adjudicate the debates they observe.


Solving a Problem

Develop several perspectives on a problem that is presented in the topic being studied. Assign groups to each perspective. Groups are given private forums in which they prepare. Each group gives a presentation followed by questions from the other groups. All groups work together to find connections that demonstrate how all the perspectives address the problem and contribute to a solution.