Tips for Keeping Online Asynchronous
Discussions on Topic
Students often can be unaware of how to successfu
lly discuss online topics. Just as with any other
assignment, it’s important to structure online discussion
s and let students know your expectations. Use some
of the tips below to help your onlin
e discussions be rich and effective.
Plan the Discussion
Present well-designed questions that
keep students topic-focused.
Creating the open-ended question that fosters on-t
arget discussion is a matter of experience. See
Bloom’s Taxonomy for some guidance.
Provide guidelines for students on
preparing acceptable responses.
Sometimes new online instructors express surprise that their class’s threaded discussions did not
pan out even though they had heard that threaded discussion is such an
effective learning tool
online. Usually, these same instructors simply created a space for discussion to happen with no
parameters or guidelines. Consider whether you wa
nt to create free threads, moderately informal
threads, or formal thread and make
your expectations clear to students.
State the expectation that online
discussion stay on topic.
Give clear detailed directions to your students
on what you want in their responses at the
beginning of each thread.
Provide café or informal threaded di
scussion elsewhere in the course.
Have more than one threaded discussion in your course. You
might have a permanent “water
cooler” thread at the very start of your course
which students can access
as they come and go. A
colleague made the suggestion that the “Café” thre
ad or “Student Lounge” thread can be used as
a place to get your students to decide on the pa
rameters of threaded discussions in the course –
let them jointly decide how structured the thread
should be or how often class members should
Provide Thorough Feedback
Revise the original discussion forum question when responses are off-target.
Online courses offer the instructor flexibility.
If a particular question is not working well and
students are confused, change it immediately and
send out an email to yo
ur students regarding
the change or post a thread in the threaded discussion.
Offer consistent summaries of discussion.
Usually the entire class will answer a threaded disc
ussion question by the time the discussion is
over. But the class does not always realize this.
Send an email to your students summing up the
issues presented and resolved in a discussion;
pinpoint especially inte
resting and informative
responses by your students. You can also do this
by posting a “my two-cents” response after the
conclusion of the threaded discussion. Waiting un
til the discussion is over (if you have placed a
date due on it) will help you avoid any “teacher says” syndrome.
Include a reminder that students stay on topic.
Don’t ignore the threaded discussion if you want it
to be effective. If students begin to stray from
the topic, send out an email pushing everyone back
in the right direction, or, better yet, if the
direction the students have strayed is a good one, reinforce it and allow the
discussion to focus on
the new topic.
Privately reprimand and give constructive feedback
to students with off-topic conversations.
Don’t be afraid to shoot off an email to a st
udent who is doing a poor job in the threaded
discussion. If the problem is chronic and quite
disruptive, call the student and make sure he/she
understands the protocol of the threads.
Create Rules and Regulations
Present the rules of conduct to eliminate off-topic discussion.
From the start, detail the “p’s and q’s” of the th
read. Or use the informal thread as a place for
your students to determine the “p’s and q’s”.
Provide a reward.
Offer extra credit for excellenc
e in thread participation.
Provide a grade for keeping on topic.
Make both participation and quality of re
sponse a part of your grading policy.
Screen postings and route off-topic posting to alternative locations
with explanation to submitter.
Ask all your students to email to you their thre
aded discussion responses and post them yourself
on the threads. Notify those students whose responses are not adequate.
Expel offenders after a certain number of off-topic submissions.
Delete threaded discussion postings by those st
udents who refuse to play by the rules and then
deny them access into the threads and dock th
eir class participation grade. You also might
include threaded discussion responses in an
overall Courtesy Code for your course.
Lange, D., Moore, G. S. and Winograd, K. (2001).
You can teach online: Building a cr
eative learning environment
. New York: McGraw-Hill