Discussion Facilitation in a Nutshell

Online Discussion Question – Facilitation in a Nutshell

So, you are set to teach an online course and you see that there is a Discussion Question in each week’s folder and the students are graded on it. You are not alone, researchers have recently found that Discussion Questions are used by over 85% of institutions in their online courses. To some, they may not seem like the most modern way to assess a learning outcome in an online course, but to others, they are a perfect combination of learner-to-content, learner-to-learner, and learner-to-instructor interaction – a veritable learner engagement trifecta. It is with this context that this article is aptly titled: Discussion Facilitation in a Nutshell.

But, before we do this, let’s be clear that not all Discussion Questions are created equal. The best Discussion Questions are those that are mapped to 1 or more learning objectives for the week and ones aligned to a mid- to higher level taxonomy. The best discussion questions also have enough points assigned to them that they matter in the overall grade the student will receive in the course, and are open-ended in nature – basically, questions that lead to a dialog like they would in a traditional face-to-face classroom.

If your Discussion Questions do not meet at least some of those criteria, it would be best to pause here and rewrite them. But if they do, let’s get down to business.

Here are some questions we want to answer:

– Why facilitate a Discussion Question?
– How much facilitation should I provide?
– What should I say?

Why should you facilitate a Discussion Question?

Well, there are a few logistical reasons, primarily around Direct Instruction which is the correlate to the platform time you would spend in a F2F meeting, but most importantly, here are the main reasons to facilitate Discussion questions:

  1. To help the student meet the learning objectives mapped to the Discussion, and

  2. To create a safe learning environment where every student feels valued, that their voices are heard, and that what they have to say is important.

Let’s focus on the second point. If you asked a question in a F2F class and 4 students raised their hands, would you ignore them and just move on to your next question? Likely not. The same applies here, not responding to a student’s Discussion reply is akin to ignoring their hand in class. Though this is slightly exaggerated since we would not typically ask for every student to answer every question in a F2F classroom, responding to a student’s Discussion post is a way of communicating that you “see” them, that what they have to say is important enough or good enough to warrant a reply from an authority figure like you, and it is an opportunity to coach a student into a more correct answer or to further increase their level of inquiry on the subject.

How much online Discussion Question Facilitation should you provide?

How often you should facilitation a Discussion is tricky. One way to determine this is to find out how many hours each week your course has assigned to facilitating Discussions; you could then divide that by an estimate of 15 mins to read and reply to a student post. Another way is to try to respond to every student’s original reply, especially in classes smaller than 20. In larger classes, you might set a goal of replying to 60-75% of the students each week and rotate them so that every student gets a reply at least every other week. Another thing to think about is when to facilitate. We find that most faculty do the majority of their facilitation between Wednesday and Friday, considering that Wednesday is the most common deadline for a student’s first post. Some courses pick up a different cadence and the best faculty adjust to the style of the students they have.

What should you say when you are facilitating an Online Discussion Question?

Which leads us to what you should reply with when you are facilitating discussions. If your goal is to reply to each original post, something the best online faculty do, no matter the size of the course, not all the replies need to be substantive in nature. Some replies are affirming, some are offering different perspectives, some are anecdotes from our careers or recent news, some are referring the student to peer replies that took the same or a different stand, and yet some are links to articles or videos to further the learning. Most of the posts are not more than 2-3 sentences long, and if you can, we would recommend replying with video or audio over plain text to further personalize the instruction. Remember, your replies are instruction – part of the magic of the online classroom is how you reach and teach those students in the Discussions. It’s your chance to demonstrate high impact and individualized teaching to each and every student, from where they are, to where you are taking them, one-by-one. Discussion Questions can be the most interactive and engaging element to your online class, where your students hear your voice and where they use theirs as well. It is your chance to reach beyond the screen and pull them into a bidirectional dialog and where you move them through to mastery of those learning objectives – don’t let this chance pass you by.

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Bettyjo Bouchey MBA, EdD

Bettyjo Bouchey MBA, EdD Bettyjo Bouchey is an Associate Dean & Associate Professor, College of Professional Studies and Advancement Director of Online Academics

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