FAQs About Online Discussions

How many points or what percent of the total grade should be allocated to discussions  in an online course?

Points/percentages should be assigned based upon the type of course and the objectives for the discussions. High stakes courses, like pharmacology, will necessarily have a higher percentage placed on objective examinations. However, placing too low a percent on discussions may create apathy and a lack of participation. Why should I work hard for a discussion that is only 2% of my total grade? Generally 15-25% of the total grade is a comfortable level that does not encourage apathy and does not create high anxiety for students. Setting the percentage too high creates high anxiety when students feel that “all of the best material has already been said”.

How many students should be assigned to a discussion group?

A group between 4 and 8 students seems to work the best. Having too many students in a group results in redundant postings, frustration that everything of consequence has been said, and complaints that there is “too much to read”. (e.g., If 8 students each make 4-7 postings, there is a potential for students to read 56 postings of variable length and attachments)

Should there be a word limit for each post?

Setting a limit on word count is up to the instructor and the objectives of the course.  By limiting the number of words a student may post the instructor is requiring students to think carefully about what they are discussing.  This may reduce student anxiety as well a remove the temptation to write a “tome”.   An alternative tactic is to deal individually and privately with those who are unable to limit their contributions to reasonable and thoughtful postings.

What is the expectation for faculty regarding reading all postings?

Discussions are not designed as busy-work but play an integral part of the teaching/learning process.  It isn’t reasonable to assign discussions if you do not grade them and most students will not voluntarily participate if it is an ungraded experience.

It is difficult to objectively grade student participation if you do not at least skim each posting. How will you know if false or erroneous conclusions are being shared without reading postings?  In addition you need to respond to the threads in the discussion forums to show teacher presence and manage the conversation.

Discussion forums are one of the more time consuming of all online exercises and yet one of the best for helping students think through difficult or controversial content.  If you are unable to do this, you need to think carefully about using a forum.  Alternatively you can have an experienced have a Teaching Assistant to manage the discussion area.

What are some rules to manage “lurking” or “stealing” ideas from one group to the next?

Students often enjoy visiting other discussion groups. This is called “lurking” because they can visit without leaving an e-trail for the group members to see. Instructions in the syllabus should state that lurking is encouraged and participation by non-group members is allowed; however, the grade for participation is based upon participation in the student’s assigned groups. If a lurking student wants to bring an idea back to his home group, they must give adequate credit and recognition to the original author who posted the idea. Sometimes, faculty may choose to share a particularly insightful posting with all students in the course as well. 

What day of the week and time is best to start or end a discussion?

If most students work during the week days, it is best to plan on having the weekends as the busiest time in the discussion forums. A schedule of starting and ending discussions at 9am on Wednesdays is easily remembered and manageable. Avoid scheduling discussions during a week when a big assignment is due or an exam is scheduled.

How long should a discussion be open?

As long as the start and end date and time are in the syllabus or clearly denoted for all students, there is no set number of days. You should consider your students’ needs (do they work full time, do most complete their work in the course over the weekend). In general, discussions that are assigned over a seven to fourteen day period works very well and are the traditional format within online courses.

When is it best to use a blog or a wiki rather than a discussion format?

A blog is used when to focus on the individual thoughts of each learner.  This type of “discussion” will have multiple entries over an extended period of time, similar to a “diary”.  Other learners can still comment on the blog entry but only each learner is responsible for the content of his or her own blog.  Google Blogger is a decent platform although many learning platforms include blogging tools.

A wiki is best used when for editing and sharing of graphics, photos, videos, or other media along with written text.   A wiki has multiple pages that can be accessed as links within the wiki; rather than “discussion threads” found on a discussion forum. A recommended platform for a wiki is found within the Duke ToolKits for collaboration at https://toolkits.oit.duke.edu  .  WordPress is a particularly powerful platform; however, other wiki sites are available online.  Google docs is another one that is commonly used.

What sort of “hybrid” discussion formats contribute to the learning experience?

  • Private discussion groups arriving at a consensus on a topic and then sharing via the general discussion board
  • Voice boards
  • Rotating responsibility for a group member to provide a synopsis of the discussion at the end of the week

How can non-participation or very late participation be managed (given that others in the group suffer when one or more members are late or absent)

One way to manage late participation is to give extra points to students who post on the first day or two that the discussion is open. This is the carrot approach. You may also use the stick approach and take points away for consistently posting in the final 12-24 hours of the discussion. Giving students a nudge to participate early and often is easily accomplished if you give feedback/scores within a week of the end of the discussion. Often students are adjusting and don’t understand how to maximize their score. Be sure that students clearly understand how the score is derived:  there must be a clear explanation in the syllabus (e.g., “Students can maximize their grade for each discussion by thoughtful participation. Note that it is not possible to achieve a maximum score of 25 points with one or even two postings. Two collaborative level postings at 10 points each plus one generative post at 5 points will achieve the maximum score of 25 points. Likewise, 5 generative posts of 5 points each will achieve 25 points. And so on.”)

In an adult learning environment, a student may choose not to participate and to receive a zero grade for the discussion. Since you do not see the students weekly and will not know if the student has chosen not to participate or if there is a problem prohibiting participation it is best to call or email the student expressing concern and interest. Making contact with a missing-in-action student is important and nurtures community and mutual respect within the course. If an adult learner chooses to prioritize his time for work, studies, family etc. by skipping a discussion assignment, faculty should not harbor resentment or become angry. It is not a statement about the course or the faculty.

The concern when students choose to skip participating in discussions is more problematic with group work.  The members of the group now lack a voice, a source of learning, and a bit of the community and can feel resentful over perceptions of work load.

How much faculty involvement in a discussion is enough? Is too much?

Faculty are responsible for assuring that material shared by students in a discussion is factual and correct. For example, a student in a health economics course cites a document found online. The document describes monetary projections for health care reform. Faculty knows that the website is operated by an ultra-liberal political group, but the student seems unaware of this. The faculty should expand the discussion to aid students in understanding the economics of political positions and how to assess these sources for accuracy and meaning.

  •  In the initial stages of a course (weeks 1-2), the focus from the faculty member is usually on directing and  ensuring that students are applying the course materials and engaging each other in a scholarly manner.
  • In weeks 3-4, faculty may not need to be as involved but must keep a presence that provides correction of misunderstood concepts and steers the topic back in to focus if it deviates.
  • By weeks 5-6, students understand the mechanics of the discussion board very well and many have become role models for others. Leaders have emerged who are adept at finding new information to broaden discussion topics. Faculty participation should be thoughtful and limited to facilitation.
  • In weeks 7-16, the discussions start to go where the students direct and faculty are in the background. Students engage in discovery and are comfortable within their own group. A few students will “lurk” in all groups as they seek to take full advantage of all learning opportunities. The faculty should participate enough to let students know they are reading the postings. Faculty will continue to assure that the original objectives of the original topic are completed.

Faculty should never respond or participate so frequently that students feel their contributions are “too dumb” or “inadequate”.   Be mindful that students need room to discover … sometimes just asking a brief clarifying question is all that is needed from faculty.

Should all discussions be summarized? If so, by whom?

Depending upon the objective for assigning the discussion, either the student(s) or faculty may provide a summary. The issue is less about who summarizes then about communicating that students arrived at a reasonable or correct end point. Correcting misinformation, misimpressions or misunderstandings is managed within a summary. Assuring that each student takes a leadership role in at least one discussion may be another goal.

What is the best practice when using peer ratings for online discussions?

See: Grading Group Participation.

   What methods are available for students with legitimate reasons to “make-up” the work when a discussion is “missed”?

There is no “good” way for a student to make-up a missed discussion forum. An absence during the assigned week lessens the group’s learning experience as well as the student’s own learning. The late-comer has the unfair advantage of reading all postings prior to making their own posts.  And of course, no one reads the late post as the discussion has moved on so the group does not benefit from the contribution.

Developing an alternate assignment is the best option: a short paper or essay, creating a game that might be played by all students, creating a short presentation are potential substitutions for the active learning within a discussion forum.

How do I manage a student who attributes poor participation to technical problems or complains about being unable to open attachments in the discussion?

Faculty must assume that students are truthful and well-intended until a pattern develops. When you receive an email or call about a technical problem, strive to learn if other students have similar problems. Make suggestions such as telling the student to try using another browser. If the student is technologically challenged, you may advise them that they need to find and/or hire someone to assist them with their learning curve. Advise any student with a technical problem to talk to OIT or the department’s technology team. Lastly, after you have received multiple notifications of a technical problem from one student, you may need to be frank and tell the student that there is a pattern developing and there is no evidence of problems at Duke or with the learning system platform.

Use the tools within the learning platform to view times when the student was “in” the course or “in” the test and you may deduce more about the problem or behavior. 

What are some tools for managing the emotional or affective domain when exploring values within a discussion?

See: Facilitating Learning in the Affective Domain