Enhance Your Online Discussions – St. Thomas E-Learning And Research
Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

Enhance Your Online Discussions

As an Instructional Designer, I work with faculty from many different departments and colleges to develop online and blended courses. One comment I’ve heard from almost every professor I’ve worked with is that they don’t find online asynchronous discussions to be as robust as the discussions they have in their face-to-face classes. Given the fact that I recently attended the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) Conference in Nashville and went to a session about improving online discussions, I figured now was the perfect time to share some tips and tricks on how to make online discussions more effective. And who knows? If you incorporate some of the tips below, you might be pleasantly surprised at the well-thought-out and insightful responses you see from students!

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I’ll start by talking about best practices for writing effective discussion prompts. Questions or prompts that only have one right answer don’t typically lend themselves well to discussion. We wouldn’t ask a one-right-answer/closed-ended question to facilitate an in-person class discussion, so it doesn’t make much sense to do it for online discussions either. Try to come up with prompts that require students to take a stance, to argue a point, to ask a question, or to do something other than state the same answer as all of their classmates. If you feel like you’re stuck, don’t worry! I’ve laid out several different options below that will help get the creative juices flowing.

Four A’s Protocol

The first option I’ll talk about is the Four A’s Protocol. This option is great if you want your students to discuss something they’ve read or watched. The Four A’s represent four questions:

  • What Assumptions does the author/creator hold?
  • What do you Agree with?
  • What point(s) do you want to Argue about?
  • Which parts do you want to Aspire to or Act upon?

These questions guide students to think about a text or video more critically and also require them to take a stance on all or some of the points presented. Students will be more inclined to check in to the discussion and see what their peers are saying because they know that not everyone will be saying the same thing, which typically generates interest and livens up the discussion.

“Save the Last Word for Me” Protocol

The next option I’ll talk about is the “Save the Last Word for Me” Protocol. This one also works well if students will be responding to something they’ve read or watched. The general premise is that students pick out three sentences or points that resonated with them in the reading or video and post them in the discussion. In the back of their mind or elsewhere on their computers, they should have a few sentences ready that will explain why those sentences/points stuck out to them. Why were they meaningful or memorable? How do they fit into students’ existing knowledge? Then, two other students respond to the original post, talking about what they think the sentence means, why the point was important to the overall message, etc. Once two students have responded, the original student posts their rationale for choosing the sentences or points.

This is another great opportunity for students to think critically about a reading or a video. Why would someone have chosen those points? How do those snippets fit into the articles or video as a whole? It also allows students to practice active listening and consider other points of view, since they don’t share their original rationale until two other students have responded.

Charrette Protocol

Another option for online discussions is the Charrette Protocol. This one works well if students are working on individual or group projects and you want them to critique and give feedback on someone else’s project.

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This is typically done early on in the project timeline and not after it’s been completed, since the purpose is to improve the final product before there has been a lot of time and effort invested.

The discussion works by having the team or individual give an informal presentation on their project, including particular questions or concerns they’d like the reviewers to consider. Then, the reviewers take some time to think things over before giving feedback to the project owner(s). Once the project is over, it’s beneficial to debrief and talk about what changes were made based on the reviewers’ feedback and how it impacted the project development process.

Case Studies

Case studies are another great option for online discussions. I especially like them because they typically have many different paths to choose from instead of one “right” answer or solution. This often encourages students to check in to the discussion more often because they’re interested to see what their peers would have chosen to do, and the variety of responses also gives them the opportunity to consider other points of view.

Ask the Right Questions

This article will give you more tips and tricks on how to ask the right questions and craft more effective discussion prompts.


The final thing I’ll talk about is setting clear expectations for students so they know what constitutes a high quality post or comment and what doesn’t. I recommend a two-pronged approach that includes a rubric and samples of high-quality vs. low-quality discussion posts so students have concrete examples to refer back to. I’ve created an example rubric that anyone is free to copy and/or build upon for their own classes. This document also includes links to high-quality vs. low-quality discussion posts that anyone can share with their students.

It is my hope that the tips and tricks shared in this blog post will enhance your online discussions, leading to better learning for your students. With careful forethought and planning about writing effective prompts and laying out clear expectations for students, you might be pleasantly surprised at the critical thinking you see from your students in online discussions!

This post was written by Karin Brown, an Instructional Designer for the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at www.stthomas.edu/stelar or email us at stelar@stthomas.edu.

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