Using Online Discussions to Encourage Critical Thinking

How can online discussions be used as a springboard for high level conversations among students in your class? One key is providing good prompts for discussion. Drs. Christine Harrington and Maya Aloni led an inspiring session on  “Promoting Critical Thinking through Online Discussion: Developing Questions and Managing Conversations” at the Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching.

The session focused on developing prompts that encourage students to demonstrate critical thinking; participants discussed a variety of ways to improve discussion quality. Download the handout on critical thinking in online discussions (PDF) and explore other resources at Dr. Harrington’s website.

Good prompts for online discussions

Before students can demonstrate critical thinking, they must have the necessary background knowledge, which should be drawn on to craft a post.  The question prompt should:

  • require that students use their background knowledge
  • be open-ended
  • stimulate discussion
  • allow for multiple student perspectives and
  • be directly related to the course learning objectives.

Forum in Sakai screenshot
See the PDF for a rubric for writing discussion questions and some good examples.

Here’s an example of a discussion post prompt before implementing the guidelines:

 In the readings for this week, several views on homeopathic medicine were discussed. Which one appeals to you and why?

Writing prompt revised using the guidelines:

One of the assigned readings described Dr. Smith’s view of homeopathic medicine. Write a brief rebuttal to Dr. Smith’s position from the point of view of one of the other writers (Jones, Kradau or Kisiniski). Explain the different views to a reader unfamiliar with homeopathy, including references to specific statements by each author.

Other tips in response to common challenges with online discussions:

  • give students guidelines for creating good discussion posts
  • instructors should participate moderately in the discussions (not too little, not too much)
  • instructors can further discussion by using Socratic questions
  • give students credit for posts (see grading, below)

Grading discussion posts

 There are at least two methods to facilitate grading online discussions. One is to create a clear, detailed rubric for student posts, and share it with students before using it to grade the student contributions. Another method also uses a rubric, distributed to the students, who are then required to submit their own self-graded portfolio of their best work, following a template provided by the instructor.

Advantages of online discussions

Although there are many advantages of face-to-face conversations, including the instant feedback on ideas and sense of community that can emerge, there are some advantages to moving discussions online:

  • Participants have time to reflect and improve the quality of their contributions when writing online
  • Introverts are more comfortable participating
  • A sense of classroom community is preserved online (rather than forgotten until the next meeting)
  • Participation can be required, so there is no social loafing
  • Students can access and use outside resources
  • Writing helps learning
  • Writing is less intimidating than participating in a class-wide discussion
  • Student responses can be tracked and credited
  • Discussion can take place without a time limit
  • Critical thinking can be encouraged by requiring that students support statements they make online
  • Student responses can be assessed over time
  • Students may not read feedback on written assignments if there is no feedback loop
  • Receiving multiple sources of feedback on work resembles professional contexts

Download the handout and see other resources at Dr. Harrington’s website. For help setting discussion forums in Sakai at Duke, visit the Sakai support site.