Research-informed suggested practice

Research points to various factors which contribute to successful online discussion activities:

  • Clear expectations
  • Structured prompts
  • Appropriate scaffolding
  • Group size
  • Liited academic participation
  • Student facilitation

Provide clear expectations on demonstrating critical thinking

Providing clear and detailed expectations for performance allows students to focus on learning the material rather than wondering what is expected.

Providing expectations can be effective for fostering critical thinking in asynchronous online discussion.  Bai (2009)  found  students  who  were  informed  that  their  postings  must  meet four phases of cognitive presence: triggering, exploration, integration, and resolution; and were given specific descriptions of each phase had higher levels of cognitive presence than students who were not informed.

Scanlan & Hancock (2010) found that providing students with a framework that described elements of clinical reasoning lead to an increased frequency of discussion postings that reflected thinking at the evaluation cognitive level. 

One of the most effective strategies to communicate expectations for asynchronous online discussion performance is by providing a rubric. Students can use a discussion rubric as a guide for constructing quality responses and to self-assess discussion responses prior to posting them to the discussion board.


Rubric criteria can encourage critical thinking.  For example, a discussion rubric based on Bloom’s taxonomy lead to higher critical thinking skills among students (Szabo & Schwartz,  2009).

Teaching staff can encourage critical thinking by including and describing it in their rubric criteria. Points can be assigned based on the level of cognition reflected in discussion posts, with fewer points for lower levels: recalling facts, describing main ideas, applying knowledge in other contexts, and more points for higher levels: analysis of evidence, making connections and evaluating information).

Design discussion prompts that are structured

Discussion prompts may be unstructured, requiring  students  to discuss a topic of their choosing or to simply respond to an open-ended question without any specific parameters for participation or support materials. 

While unstructured prompts may be attractive because they require less pre-planning and allow for more flexibility, research suggests that structured prompts are more effective for promoting critical thinking in asynchronous online discussion activities.

In online discusson activites designed to develop students’ ability to adopt and uinderstand the perspectivers of others, Chadwick & Ralston, 2010 found that discussion prompts that:

  1. are relevant to course content
  2. include instructions for how to respond to peers (e.g.,, compare your experiences with your peers)
  3. specify time parameters (ie.g., complete all postings within a week)

 lead to higher levels of perspective-taking than unstructured discussions in which students could choose which topics to discuss, were given no instructions about how to respond to peers, and where participation was optional.

One approach to elicit critical thinking is the Four Question technique, devised by Dietz-Uhler & Lanter (2009).  This requires structuring a learning activity to encourage analysis, reflection, relating and questioning.  Here is an example from a Psychology course, one which resulted in improved quiz performance among students:

  1. Analysis: Identify one important concept, research finding, theory, or idea in psychology that you learned while completing this activity
  2. Reflect: Why do you believe that this concept, research finding, theory, or idea in psychology is important?
  3. Relate: Apply what you have learned from this activity to some aspect of your life
  4. Question: What question(s) has the activity raised for you? What are you still wondering about? 

Please write approximately 100 words for questions 2-4.  Do not, in response to question 4, state that you do not have any questions; that in itself raises a question.

Alexander et al. (2010) examined the effectiveness of the four questions technique for designing discussion prompts to promote critical thinking.  The comparative study showed that students in the online discussion activities that incorporated the Four Question technique demonstrated higher levels of critical thinking.

Provide scaffolding in the form of initial and response posts exemplars

Scaffolding is any form of instructional support that enables learners to complete tasks they would be unable to master without assistance.  The provision of scaffolding to show learners how to construct substantive discussion posts increases the quality of discourse and the level of thinking in online discussion activities (Spatariu & Winsor, 2013).

One effective scaffolding strategy is to provide learners with exemplars of initial discussion postings and responses to peers.  This reduces extraneous cognitive load by allowing learners to focus on learning course content, rather than on how to construct initial postings and responses that meet expectations (Darabi & Jin, 2012).

For example, studies showed that providing students with examples of acceptable initial postings and guidelines for generating substantive responses to extend thinking resulted in higher levels of cognition and reflection and higher quality responses (Stegmann, Weinberger, & Fischer, 2007).

Learners who are unfamiliar with sustaining meaningful discourse in an asynchronous environment or are unaccustomed to demonstrating critical thinking are likely to benefit from more scaffolding compared to experienced online learners (Pisutova-Gerber & Malovicova, 2009).  Teachers should consider the level of scaffolding required by the target group when designing online discussion activities.  For example, research (Agee & Smith, 2011) suggests that discussions at the undergraduate level reflect lower levels of thinking, and that this group requires more scaffolding than postgraduate students.

Limit the size of the discussion group

Another strategy for promoting critical thinking in online discussions is to control the size of the discussion group.

Research (Bliss & Lawrence, 2009) suggests that smaller discussion groups foster more critical thinking than larger discussion groups. One reason may be that extraneous cognitive load is reduced  because there are not as many postings to read (Schellens & Valcke, 2006).

Research (Hew & Cheung, 2011) indicates that online discussion activities limited to 13 students or fewer resulted in higher levels of knowledge construction, characterized by evaluation, proposing ideas based on theory, testing new knowledge against existing schema, and applying new knowledge.

Therefore, teaching staff should consider breaking cohorts into smaller groups, rather than conducting whole-class online discusions in order to increase critical thinking.

Limit academic participation

Determining the appropriate level of moderation and presence in an online discussion activity is challenging. Too little may result in discussions that stray off topic or devolve into exchanges based solely on opinion (Maddix, 2012). Furthermore, without academic input, feedback or direction, learners may be left feeling that the activity is equivalent to putting a message in the bottle and dropping it into the ocean (Rovai, 2007).

Conversely, too much academic input and presence may stifle the discussion and the free flow of ideas, leaving students feeling like they have nothing to contribute (Maddix, 2012). Responding to nearly every student’s post or responding with comments that are off-topic or more conversational than academic is detrimental to the promotion of critical thinking in AODs (Arend, 2009; Bliss & Lawrence, 2009).

The majority of studies suggest that a low level of academic presence promotes critical thinking, either directly or indirectly by increasing the amount of student-student interaction (Arend, 2009, Dennan, 2007).

Encourage student facilitation

High levels of academic presence in asynchronous online discussions can stifle interaction and diminish opportunities for higher-level critical discourse and knowledge construction.  Correia and Baran, 2010 found that academic-led discussion activities resulted in a series of essays from students, rather than meaningful student-to-student interaction.

Student-led discussion activities are therefore worthy of consideration.  Research in this area has identified several effective student-led discussion strategies to increase engagement and critical thinking. Many of these relate to the [provision of distinct roles] and include encouraging students to:

  1. Show appreciation through the use of emoticons / likes / short replies
  2. Provide comments/opinions/explanations taking an active role such as `Devil’s Advocate’ or ‘Elaborator’; acknowledging and building upon other’s contributions
  3. Ask questions to prompt fellow students to clarify, justify or re-examine their assumptions
  4. Encourage peers to contribute by inviting individuals to post or respond to an existing post; by using the @name feature in MS Teams; or via private messaging
  5. Give peer feedback on whether they agree or disagree, and with reference to the activity rubric
  6. Summarise what has been said by taking an active role to commentate during the activity and to produce a final synopsis.

Some of these strategies are explicitly related to critical thinking, while others are not.  For example, asking questions in the Socratic tradition aligns with higher order thinking, while showing appreciation does not.  Showing appreciation for other’s contributions may motivate students to make additional contributions which may, in turn, generate further discussion.  An increase in contributions does not necessarily guarantee critical thinking, but interaction is an important aspect of the construction of knowledge and should not be overlooked.

Posted by Martin King

Senior Learning Technologist; MOOC Producer; Moodle, Turnitin, Grademark, Peermark, Panopto, Turning Technologies expert.

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