Office of Academic Innovation


A big benefit of online learning is that your interactions are no longer slowed down by students who do not come to class prepared to discuss the reading. Instead, using asynchronous discussions, you can ask challenging questions of students to interpret and apply what they read and experience and they can refer back to their resources as they process.

Discussion boards can be used in a wide variety of ways:

  • Discussion/Feedback
  • Simulations
  • Case studies
  • Debates
  • Group-oriented projects
  • Private journals
  • Review
  • Extra help

Specific Topics

Crafting Discussion Questions

Explore discussion strategies in this three part article from DE Oracle @ UMUC.

Planning and Conducting Online Discussions 

View a summary of research-based solutions to encourage meaningful student contributions to online discussions (requires you to log into Cook with your Towson NetID):

Hew, K., Cheung, W., & Ng, C. (2010). Student contribution in asynchronous online discussion: a review of the research and empirical exploration. Instructional Science, 38(6), 571-606.  doi:10.1007/s11251-008-9087-0

Process Summary

  1. Determine if an online discussion fits your needs
  2. Design the assignment to keep students engaged
  3. Inform students
  4. Monitor the discussion
  5. Once the discussion is done, wrap up the activity

I.  Determine Need

 If you cannot answer these questions, STOP. All assignments should be used in support of your course objectives or not at all.

  1. What’s the purpose of your online discussion?
  2. How will an online discussion help you reach your course objectives?

II.  Design

  1. What is your discussion topic or activity? Choose a topic that will engage your students and motivate them to participate. The more you know about your students background, the more effectively you will be able to target their interests.
  2. What pre-assignment activities are required? Discussions must be based on prior knowledge gained through life experience or course materials. May include lecture, research, video…
  3. What discussion question(s) will you use? Choose specific questions or problems which require students to use higher order thinking skills to receive credit for the response. Do you want students to interpret, compare, apply, find causes for, evaluate…? 
  4. How many days will students have to complete each post and response in the assignment? What time will the discussion start and end?
    • Sample schedule: Students must submit first post within two days of start time. Students must post two replies between the second and fourth days.
  5. Will you link multiple discussions into a larger assignment (debate or case study)?
  6. Will the discussion be instructor-led or student-led?
  7. What will you require of participants' posts?



Will you require...?

  • A minimum number of posts and responses
  • Conversational or Formal Writing
  • Correct spelling and grammar
  • A minimum and/or maximum post length
  • That each post must add a new idea
  • That students provide supporting evidence for their response?
  • That students provide a rationale for their response?
  1. How will you grade the discussion assignment?  Ensure that your grading system includes all the elements that you require.
  1. How much of the students’ overall grade is this assignment worth? A few points are often incentive enough. Which participation requirements will you use to grade the assignment?
    • Sample grading criteria: Students must post a new message and reply. Each is worth 5 points: 1 point for grammar & 4 points for content (it must have a new idea & provide a rationale). (Actual assignment is worth only 3% of total class grade.)

III.  Inform

  1. If this is the first assignment, provide a technical demonstration and written instructions for accessing the web site, entering the discussion and reading and responding to messages.
  2. Inform your students of everything covered above clearly, in writing and repeat this online. To ensure that your instructions are clear, ask a colleague or TA to review the assignment and restate it to you.
  3. If this is the first assignment, consider posting a model response.

IV.  Monitor

  1. Monitor students’ responses to ensure that students understand your instructions.
  2. Provide feedback to your students to encourage or refocus them.
  3. Summarize and refocus as needed or choose a student or guest to do so.

V.  Wrap up  

  1. Give the students an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned and experienced.
  2. Address areas of misunderstanding that were uncovered during the discussion.
  3. Connect the results of the discussion back to the objectives and to future applications.
  4. Grade the assignment/evaluate the effectiveness of the assignment in reaching your objectives.


Audrey Cutler ◦ (Underlying format adapted from multiple articles and handouts created by Tom Cantu and James Rutkowski at Towson University through 2001.)
Copyright 2003, 2005.
Bibliography below.


Grading Guidelines 

Base grades on general requirements

For example, Shea at SUNY suggests:

Require  participation. Communicate expectations as to acceptable quality and quantity of participation.  For example, students may be required to respond to the question you (or another student) poses and to the responses of at least two other students.  You may wish to provide guidelines regarding quality as well.   This may be as simple as pointing out that "I agree" is not a substantive comment in an online discussion.  Or you may provide criteria regarding how students should support their opinions with reference to readings, research or other course materials.

Create a discussion protocol

Dabbagh (2000 – 2003) provides a more complex protocol and a rubric (used with permission from the author):

Protocol for posting threads and contributing to an online discussion are as follows:

  • Postings should be evenly distributed during the discussion period (not concentrated all on one day or at the beginning and/or end of the period).
  • Postings should be a minimum of one short paragraph and a maximum of two paragraphs.
  • Avoid postings that are limited to 'I agree' or 'great idea', etc. If you agree (or disagree) with a posting then say why you agree by supporting your statement with concepts from the readings or by bringing in a related example or experience.
  • Address the questions as much as possible (don't let the discussion stray).
  • Try to use quotes from the articles that support your postings. Include page numbers when you do that.
  • Build on others responses to create threads.
  • Bring in related prior knowledge (work experience, prior coursework, readings, etc.)
  • Use proper etiquette (proper language, typing, etc.).

This protocol can be used for grading in at least two different manners.  First, you can put this protocol in the syllabus and give full credit to students who follow the protocol.  For example, with you discussion assignment you might include these instructions, "You will receive full credit for this assignment if your responses follow all elements of the discussion board protocol in the syllabus."

Second, you could grade on a scale using rubric table (such as the one below by the same author), a process which requires much more time for grading.


  Weekly Online Discussions Rubric






Timely discussion contributions 5-6 postings well distributed throughout the week 4-6 postings distributed throughout the week  3-6 postings somewhat distributed 2-6 not distributed throughout the week
Responsiveness to discussion and demonstration of knowledge and understanding gained from assigned reading very clear that readings were understood and incorporated well into responses readings were understood and incorporated into responses postings have questionable relationship to reading material not evident that readings were understood and/or not incorporated into discussion
Adherence to on-line protocols all on-line protocols followed 1online protocol not adhered to  2-3 online protocols not adhered to  4 or more online protocols not adhered to 





5 or less


Create Grading Levels

Martin Community College uses an alterative rubric format (used with permission from Susan Colaric, granted 2005)

Class Participation Grading (class participation for this class was worth 25 points out of a total of 100 points for the semester)

Level 1 - 20-25 points

  • provides concrete examples from the readings to support postings
  • integrates prior readings in postings
  • integrates personal observations and knowledge in an accurate and highly insightful way
  • presents new observations
  • constructively responds to classmates postings
  • participates in all module discussions
  • organization of post is very clear and presented in a logical sequence
  • word choice and sentence structure are suitable for undergraduate level work

Level 2 - 14-19 points:

  • provides some examples from the readings to support postings
  • integrates some personal observations and knowledge
  • presents new observations
  • constructively responds to classmates postings
  • participates in all module discussions
  • organization of post is clear and presented in a logical sequence
  • word choice and sentence structure are suitable for undergraduate level work

Level 3 - 7-13 points:

  • alludes to the readings to support postings
  • integrates personal observations and knowledge in a cursory manner
  • does not present new observations
  • constructively responds to classmates postings
  • participates in 6 of 8 module discussions
  • organization of post is unclear and not presented in a logical sequence
  • word choice and sentence structure are not suitable for undergraduate level work

Level 4 - 0-6 points:

  • alludes to the readings to support postings
  • does not integrate personal observations or knowledge
  • does not present new observations
  • responds in a cursory manner to classmates postings
  • participates in less than 6 module discussions
  • organization of posts are unclear and not presented in a logical sequence
  • word choice and sentence structure are not suitable for undergraduate level work

Guidelines for Students Participating in Online Discussions

Help your students get the most out of online discussions by writing a set of guidelines to make your expectations clear. Copy and paste the text below and add your own ideas. Consider posting your version of the guidelines in your syllabus and as an attachment to the opening message of your first online discussion.

What is an online discussion? An online discussion is similar to a voice mail or an email conversation with a few important differences, such as:

  • An online discussion can involve a number of participants, such as a team of students or an entire class.
  • All messages stay posted in the discussion board for participants to read at any time.
  • A discussion can last for a week or longer.

You will find online discussions as rigorous as any face-to-face classroom discussion. The purpose of a discussion is dialogue as a means of learning.

Suggestions for students participating in an online discussion:

  • Use appropriate Netiquette.
  • Use respectful and appropriate language in your responses.
  • You are expected to read all messages. You are responsible for reading all of the messages that are posted in the online discussion. Not reading messages is the equivalent of sleeping in class.
  • You are expected to respond to each other.
  • An online discussion resembles a classroom discussion in its entire rigor.
  • In an in-class discussion, you share ideas with all class members. In an online discussion, you can expect that everyone in the class will read your messages. Since all messages in discussions are public, use email to send a private message.
  • Use a person's name in the body of your message when you reply to their message. It helps to keep all of us oriented. It helps us maintain a clearer sense of who is speaking and who is being spoken to. As we begin to associate names with tone and ideas, we come to know each other better.
  • Change the subject line when you introduce a new topic. The value of this tip will become apparent as the number of messages grows.


Tom Cantu ◦ (Adapted by Bernie Fortenbaugh)
Center for Instructional Advancement and Technology ◦ Towson University.
Copyright 2001, 2005.


Moderating Discussions

A fantastic book on moderating discussions and all of online courses:
Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S. & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning: Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Appendix: Planning and Conducting Online Discussions Bibliography

Bourdess, S. (Interview). (2003, March 20).

Cashin, W.E. & P.C. McKnight. (1986). IDEA Paper No. 15. Improving discussions. Manhattan, Kansas: Kansas State University Center for Faculty Evaluation and

Development. Retrieved March 1, 2003, from

Cole, R. A. (Ed.). (2000). Issues in web-based pedagogy. A critical primer. Westport. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Frederick, P. (1981). The dreaded discussion: Ten ways to start. Improving College and University Teaching, 29 (3), 109-114.

Glennen, S. (Interview). (2003, March 18).

Hara, N., Bonk C.J and Angeli C. (March 2000). Content analysis of online discussion in an applied educational psychology course. Instructional Science. 28 (2), 115-152.

Haavind, S. (Winter, 1999). Effective techniques for keeping web discussions running smoothly. The Concord Consortium. Retrieved March 1, 2003, from

Holland, G. P. (1999). Instructional Design. Retrieved January 7, 2003, from

Love, K. (2002, February). Mapping online discussion in senior english. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. 45(5).

McKeatchie, W. J. (1994). Teaching Tips. Ninth Edition. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company.

Beaudin, B. P. (1999, November). Keeping online asynchronous discussions on topic. Journal or Asynchronous Learning Networks. 3(2). Retrieved March 2, 2003, from

Rodrigues, S. (1999). Evaluation of an online masters course in science teacher education. Journal of Education for Teaching. 25(3).

Rutkowski, J. (2001). Planning an Online Discussion. Retrieved March 1, 2003, from

Office of Academic Innovation
Cook Library Room 405
Phone: 410-704-2005


Watch Clips of Faculty Tips

How do you structure online discussions? (5:42)

What do you require of students before they post? (1:19)

How can I respond
to discussion questions
effectively and efficiently?

How can you use groups to make discussions more manageable? (1:20)

How do you ensure students don't comment all at once? (4:41)

Where should students
post questions that could
benefit others?

In online discussions, how do you get beyond opinions? (0:19)

How can you help students to reflect on their work? (0:38)

Can improve student writing without grading writing? (0:59)

See all faculty tips





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