When instructors hear about using the Discussions tool in TCU Online, they may first think the tool is most useful for instructors teaching classes that are fully online. While this tool is often a cornerstone of fully online courses, there are many ways to use the Discussions tool in all types of classes.
Providing students with an online discussion prompt or activity offers students the chance to think about homework materials, grapple with challenging concepts, reflect about their learning, or make connections across course topics prior to coming to a physical classroom, or in place of meeting face-to-face.
Discussion prompts can be used to generate interest, encourage students to explore the big questions of the field, or think narrowly about a specific problem or case. Students get to clarify their own thinking as a result of having to articulate it for others and also discover what other classmates thought, helping each student see beyond their own perspective.
The Discussions tool can also be used to help generate conversations, debates, and feedback among peers. Some students enjoy using online discussions because they can compose their thoughts before they post a comment, respond more thoughtfully to discussion topics, and engage in lively debates that are less threatening than in a live classroom environment.
As an instructor, the Discussions tool allows for each student to participate in the discussion. In addition, by using the post-first setting, TCU Online will not show other students’ responses to the topic until a student has posted. This allows for a true whole-class discussion in which each and every student participates fully.
Below are some common examples of how instructors in both Face-to-Face and fully online classes use the Discussions tool in TCU Online.
Having an introductions discussion area is a great way to learn about your students and to start building your classroom community whether you meet in person, online, or both. Instructors can start of the thread with their own example and include a brief list with questions or items students should include in their own introduction reply post and how long it should be. Make sure to include some sort of interaction component that encourages students to go back and read through their peers’ introductions and find connections or common interests to get students to start meeting one another. Some instructors ask students to also include a recent photo or to record a short video introducing themselves to peers using the Video Note tool.
It’s nice to have an ungraded discussion area (usually in the course home area) where off-topic discussions can take place. As students online might not know each other in person, this can give them an area to find out more about each other and potential similar interests or focuses. Discussion areas like this are also a place for students to reach out to one another for help, such as asking if someone wants to swap papers to do peer review on their own before a paper is due or if someone wants to get together virtually to review for an upcoming exam. As the Instructor, you might even encourage this type of use for this discussion area.
Virtual Office is a general open discussion area for students to ask detailed questions about the course material, course assignments, or to seek additional/supplementary resources or learning opportunities. This type of discussion sits separately from any required discussion topics and provides a way for students to get help or extend their learning. Instructors should remind students that posts can be seen by all students, so that items of a personal nature are best addressed directly with the instructor. There is also an option in the Discussion tool to have student posts appear as anonymous (to other students, not to the instructor) which, when paired with this type of discussion, gives students the chance to ask without being afraid of what their peers will think. Anonymous posting also allows other students to agree or confirm that they might be struggling as well and explain where they are lost or need assistance. Whether or not posts will be anonymous, instructors generally include some guidelines for students about what sort of questions belong in these types of discussions and remind students that the course netiquette policy applies. If you would like students to answer each other’s questions, you may need to explicitly invite them to do so.
One easy way to get students started with using the Discussions tool is to ask for them to help create a crowdsourced list. This could be done in class or ahead of time as homework or a preparation assignment for students so that the list can be used in class or online with an activity. This is also a great way to help students find connection between the course content and what interests them.
Examples: Perhaps at the start of a unit students have to find a recent news article that relates to the upcoming topic.
Instructors can require students to read and reply to what other articles were posted before coming to class. An instructor could ask students to use the ranking or voting option in the Discussion tool to vote for the “best” or “most interesting” find by their classmates. This can be paired with the anonymous posting feature in Discussions as well. Students can also use the crowdsourced list to complete an in-class or online activity, using the list as a launching point into deeper research or credibility search of the posted links.
There is an option in the Groups tool that allows instructors to create a discussion forum and topics that are restricted to just the instructor and each student individually, essentially a group of 2 (instructor and specific student). This option in Groups is called “Single-user, member specific groups” and should be used with the box “Set up discussion areas” to create essentially a journal area private for that student. Some instructors use this for students to write about topics they may not feel comfortable sharing with the whole class, to reflect about what they are learning about the in the course, or even to share drafts of papers or projects with the instructor for feedback rather than by email. If the class will also use discussions that can be seen by other students, make sure that you have clearly communicated to students which items in the Discussions tool are visible to other students and which items are visible only to you as the instructor. Learn how to set up a journal discussion.
Instructors can also use the Discussions tool to facilitate peer review activities, especially when paired with the Groups tool so that students will only see the peers whose work they are to review. The instructor can set up the guidelines and expectations for what peer review looks like, provide sample language or an example, the timeline for when drafts and feedback should be completed, and how student contributions to peers will be assessed. While this activity can be useful to complete physical classes, often the instructor does not get to see or hear what each student contributed. This provides a record for both the instructor and students of peers’ contributions. Learn how to set up a Peer Review discussion and see an example.
By using the Groups tool, instructors can create small group discussions to help create community within a classroom, especially when teaching larger courses where students may find it difficult to get to know everyone. Having students engage in private small group discussions together may be the beginning of team formation for a project as well. Some instructors use these as reading and discussion groups having each group read a different article and create a summary and analysis of it to share with the whole class either in-person or online. Other instructors have small group discussion all discuss the same topic and formulate a position they will share and compare with the whole class, as a kind of digital Think-Pair-Share. As a group students can create discussion questions as group discussion leaders for the day for the rest of the class in-person or online.
Some instructors create a study or review voting discussion forum for upcoming tests or exams. Instructors can build a discussion with different rating systems depending upon the need. These rating systems include: Up Vote/Down Vote, Up Vote Only, or Five-Star Rating.
Often this option is used in conjunction with the Groups tool, as it allows a private space (from other classmates) for a group of students to discuss or plan projects. Using the Groups tool to create discussions, instructor still has access to all of the group discussions and allows the instructor to provide specific and relevant feedback just to each group. This is especially useful when having students engage in team activities that may involve some element of competition.
This is perhaps the most familiar type of discussion that instructors are familiar with. It is commonly used as a place for students to discuss the current content with each other and the instructor. Whether the class meets in-person, online, or hybrid, discussions can help generate classroom community and students learn to examine a variety of positions outside of their own. There are usually parameters outlined that help guide and encourage conversation, such as engaging or intriguing questions; word limit, positing, and reply expectations; and netiquette norms. Learn more at our Why Use Discussions page.
For each discussion, instructors should be sure to communicate information to students about the initial post as well as replies to peers. For example, what will count as a substantive reply? Is a citation required in the reply posts? Do students need to end their initial posts or their replies with a question?
In addition to these participation expectations, instructors will want to provide specific information about post length and due dates.
Some examples of this wording:
If you have a discussion rubric, you’ll also want to be sure that your directions remind students of this and drive them to review it before they begin their postings. Likewise, your course should have academic integrity information and netiquette information – it is a best practice to have this information accompany each discussion topic in the course.
Maybe you can, or have, come up with even more ways to use Discussions in your classes to improve the educational experience for everyone. Share them with us at FacultyDevel@tcu.edu.