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What’s included in an online Discussion?

On laptop diverse people collage webcam view over woman shoulder

Looking back on early courses taught in our online USC Price Master in Public Administration program (yes, Virginia, those course records live forever in the cloud), I’m slightly appalled.

Over the years, students and our alumni have stoked a sense that the Price MPA online program teaches with smooth efficiency, that we naturally communicate effectively, and our coursework is super interesting online.  One look back was enough to rock my confidence.  Was it so rudimentary when we started teaching a decade ago?

Previously in this faculty blog space, I listed ten learning lessons that I hold close right now.  The second lesson learned was “Trust your instincts.” A professor’s instinct, that voice inside your head or that gut reaction, is fundamental to reading a classroom, and knowing how to react to a student’s inquiry or how to structure a course assignment to best engage and instruct. 

In the online classroom, those teacher instincts are honed by weekly discussion boards which record the tone and tenor of student thoughts, advance the learning objectives by seeking responses to any number of prompts, and capture the enthusiasm, worry, distractions, or commitment to being in school at this particular time.

There are many resources for creating and structuring graduate-level discussions online including scholarly articles about sharing feedback and inquiry, teaching excellence centers with directives for discussion type assignments, and the crowd sourced wisdom on the Internet.  Below are my eight best practices:

  • Establish a code of conduct.
  • Set parameters for the length of posts and requirements for citations and grammar mechanics.
  • Structure the flow of the discussion: dates for an original post, queries to two others, and responses to all inquiries for each student.
  • Publish a grading rubric and grade based on substance and participation.
  • Be consistent, offer weekly opportunities to practice and improve discussions.
  • Incorporate personal relevance by seeking out the students’ reaction or reflection on materials.
  • Promote active engagement among students by asking for reactions, comparisons, and feedback.
  • Moderate the discussion flow often with questions that students have not yet considered and provide individual feedback to engage with both the class and individual students.

Trusting my instinct is a lesson learned from many a reading of students’ discussions.  Just as I once led a classroom discussion to read faces and responses, the online forum now documents how well-prepared students are, how sure they are of new knowledge, how strong their individual voices are, and how tentative they are in stating a truth when the world is turning upside down thanks to the pandemic known as COVID-19.  I take cues from my students via written inputs now, and reach out to those who fail to engage, who post only the cursory entry, or who seem more agitated or aggrieved than would be normal.  The written language is so expressive that I know my students by their grammar and style, by the context of their examples, and the complexities of expression. Grading for substance is critical to learning outcomes but considering participation and the intangibles gleaned from messages is the true value of a discussion board, especially when instinct is all a faculty member has to guide a student in need.


Guasch, T., Espasa, A., & Martinez-Melo, M. (2019). The art of questioning in online learning environments: the potentialities of feedback in writing. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education44(1), 111-123.

Smith, T. W. (2019). Making the most of online discussion: A retrospective analysis. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education31(1), 21-31.

University of Southern California Center for Teaching in Excellence

Wikle, J. S., & West, R. E. (2019). An Analysis of Discussion Forum Participation and Student Learning Outcomes. International Journal on E-Learning18(2), 205-228.