SMART Tips for Online Discussions

Online Learning
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Sparking a good discussion in the face-to-face classroom can be an engaging and intellectually rewarding experience for both students and faculty. When it comes to teaching online, many faculty members may wonder how an asynchronous online discussion board can ever fully replicate the experience of real-time, personal interactions complete with non-verbal cues, spontaneity, and emotional nuances. While an online discussion board will probably never re-create a face-to-face conversation, it is a powerful tool in its own right that may even be superior to in-class discussions when used effectively.

In the asynchronous online format, students have discussion questions well in advance and can draft several versions of their response. A great advantage of the asynchronous format is the extra time it allows students to prepare thoughtful responses that they can express with greater clarity. Typical discussions found in brick-and-mortar classrooms are often heavily dependent on impromptu student input and can be dominated by only a handful of students while the rest remain passive listeners. Conversely, the open, democratic nature of online communication gives every person in class a chance to express their ideas in an environment that is likely to be free of the personal biases, stereotypes, and unconscious subtexts often lurking under the surface of face-to-face interactions.

With some practice, even those new to online discussion tools can reap their academic benefits, but faculty should be aware of some instructional techniques that can improve online interactions. Read on for some tips on how to be SMART when considering learning objectives, crafting discussion prompts, and guiding student interactions.

In the business world, managers often demand that the goals for their employees’ performance reviews are written in the SMART format (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound) that was first introduced in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran. This writing template can be very useful when applied to the directions and prompts in online discussion boards.

S: Ask for Specifics

When setting up your discussion, make sure you are asking students to respond to a question that refers to a specific area of the curriculum or reading. Questions should be open-ended and encourage answers that reference specific examples, while still requiring students to think beyond a mere recall of factual information. Instead of asking students to merely identify two or three salient points from a reading, go further and require that they relate examples to their own experiences or apply important points to a hypothetical situation.

M: Set Measurable Outcomes

Particularly important in early online discussions, faculty should set measurable standards for student responses. You want to build an online community where participation in your discussion board is an efficient and enjoyable experience for all parties. Give students a rubric and an example post of what you expect from their responses. Consider how many points a typical answer should address, how many additional replies to others you require, the preferred format for source citations, and general guidelines for the word count of posts. Many students, especially those new to the online environment, will can not be expected to guess the individual standards of their professor, so it’s best to be clear up front about how formal or informal you want your discussion boards to be. Clear, measurable standards will also save faculty a lot of time and frustration when it comes time to read, respond to, and grade all of those discussion board responses.

A: Scaffold Attainable Learning Experiences

Questions should be challenging enough that students will have to spend time thinking critically about their contributions, but still attainable enough that most people in class will be able to respond appropriately. Early in the course discussions, ask questions that give students an opportunity to concisely demonstrate that they have read and comprehended class material. As the semester goes on, scaffold discussions that allow students to progress to the higher-order thinking skills of Bloom’s taxonomy.

Bloom's Taxonomy
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Faculty should avoid generic feedback in their own discussion board replies, and instead use their responses to model the ways students can post more engaging responses to their peers. Show them how to extend the discussion by asking questions, by bringing in new connections, or by evaluating arguments. Positive feedback to excellent posts is a strong motivator for students. One effective strategy is to use the course announcement page to call attention to good discussion threads.

R: Relevancy Rules

When possible, try to ask questions that make discussions relevant to the academic strengths of students in the class. If you know that many students have a wealth of relatable life experiences, ask them to connect concepts to past experiences. However, if the students have stronger academic backgrounds, then require discussion board posts to be supported by research. No matter what the academic discipline, students will better retain the material if they feel it is relevant to some area of their life and if they are given the opportunity to express that connection in writing.

T: Encourage Timely Responses

Even though online discussion boards are asynchronous by nature, faculty should adopt strategies that keep discussions time-bound and moving along at a good pace. Some students will be tempted to hold their responses until most of the class has already posted. If left unchecked, this tardy tendency could result in late discussions that occur after the class has moved on to new material. Instructors should have policies that discourage late responses. One solution is to require that students post to the discussion board on specific days of the week.

In addition, faculty should be timely in their responses as well. Students used to the quick gratification of online communication, expect instructors to check the discussion board daily and offer responses within 24 hours especially if students post questions there.

Whether your class is fully online or just transitioning to hybrid, the discussion board is one of the best online tools available to encourage student learning and build rapport in your class. If you are looking for more tips for creating and participating in great online discussions, check out this article by Rob Benson and this blog post by Katie Lepi and as always, contact the instructional design team at La Salle for any of your online learning support needs.

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