Discussion is a student centered form of active learning that builds community among learners by providing social interaction. Through observing discussions, instructors can easily assess students’ current levels of learning at any given point throughout a lesson or a course. Through discussion, students can learn from each other, assess each other’s positions on information being learned, and receive feedback on their own understanding of the concepts being taught.
How to use Discussion
With careful preplanning, instructors can craft discussion activities so that students practice using higher-order thinking skills such as synthesizing and integrating both complex and ambiguous concepts. Throughout a discussion, students have an opportunity to practice critical thinking and to speak freely. The role of the instructor is to act as an objective facilitator, validating comments at times and offering constructive criticism when needed.
The following are some of the ways this teaching approach is used to engage students:
- discussion groups (synchronous and asynchronous in class and online)
- blended learning
- online synchronous or asynchronous
Discussion forums: Often used in online courses, discussion forum activities are typically held within the course space of a learning management system. Structured discussions such as hot seat or debate can foster greater student motivation and interaction. In a hot seat discussion, the student or students who will be answering the question are identified and allowed time to prepare for the discussion, then put on the “hot seat” as the expert answering questions from the rest of the class. In a debate-style discussion, students are assigned roles of either defending pro or con the topic being discussed or learned.
Impact on Learning
Using discussion in instruction can impact learning through creating an impetus for the following to occur (Nilson, 2010, p. 127128):
- Examining and challenging perspectives, beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors
- Exploring new ideas with an open mind
- Deep learning
- Critical thinking
- Problem solving
- Active listening
- Practicing and perfecting oral communication
- Transferring knowledge to new contexts
- Improved content retention
Regardless of the use of or absence of technology, discussion questions can be written to assess learning at any level in Bloom’s hierarchy of learning, from lower order thinking skills to higher order thinking skills (Nilson, 2010, p. 139):
- Knowledge: What did you notice about ___________?
- Comprehension: In your own words, what does __________mean?
- Application: What would be an example of ____________?
- Analysis: What assumptions are behind the argument?
- Synthesis: What conclusions can you come to about __________?
- Evaluation: What would you choose and why?
Regularly scheduled written discussions can be graded for level of student involvement and checked for comprehension. Rubrics are useful for providing evaluation expectations.
Discussions in Canvas?
Canvas provides an integrated system for asynchronous online class discussions.
- Instructors and students can start and contribute to discussion
- Instructors can create topics as an assignment and integrate it with the Canvas Gradebook
Instructions for using each of the following discussion functions are available from Canvas at https://community.canvaslms.com/docs/DOC-3188 as well as the Discussions Creation (Instructors) video at https://community.canvaslms.com/videos/1108. Canvas provides a Discussions Overview (Instructors) video at https://community.canvaslms.com/videos/1109.
- Create, edit, and delete discussion topics
- Reply to, edit, and delete student posts
- Create threaded or focused discussions
- Create Private discussions within student groups
- Create discussions with different due dates
- Create discussion assignments
- Grade discussions with the Canvas SpeedGraderTM
- Subscribe to a discussion
- Enable podcasts
- Embed or attach files, images, and YouTube videos
- Delay discussion posts
- Pin discussion threads
Learn more about using discussions from the Penn State Canvas Learning Center.
You can also learn more about how to create a group discussion for your course from Canvas.
Blogs: Any blogging platform such as Sites at Penn State can be used to host class discussions in an online, asynchronous format. Blogs are basically a running log of information published on the web that allows others to comment. By assigning students specific questions about a reading or asking them to write a reaction or a summary of what they read and then having them comment on each other’s blog, students first internalize the information being learned and then discuss their reactions to the learned information with others in the class through use of comments.
VoiceThread: This online communication and presentation tool can be used for asynchronous discussion that easily shares images, videos, voice comments, documents, and written comments.
Yammer: A social networking service similar to Facebook but made available as a private tool for Penn State users, Yammer can be used for discussions where students can also share files, take polls, give praise, and comment on each other’s posts.
Things to Consider
For successful implementation of discussion, you should consider the following strategies:
- Early on in the course, engage students in a discussion. Take time to reflect and review this first discussion and use this opportunity to explain the value that planned discussion will add to the learning process throughout the course.
- As with any learning activity in a course, expectations for participation in class discussions should be clearly communicated, including how participation will be evaluated. Rubrics can be used to demonstrate what successful participation looks like.
- Plan in advance how you will create small groups for discussion. Do students get to self-select or will they be assigned? Will groups be created to be heterogeneous, and why or why not? Will students be asked to assume specific roles throughout the activity, such as pro, con, or scribe?
“Discussions.” Hybrid Learning @ Penn State. http://sites.psu.edu/hybridlearning/discussions/.
Hall, Barbara M. “You’re Asking the Wrong Question.” Faculty Focus: Higher Ed Teaching Strategies From Magna Publications. Last modified April 6, 2015. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/youre-asking-the-wrong-question/.
Nilson, Linda B. “Leading Effective Discussions.” In Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors 2010, 127136. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. http://www.pharmacy.cmu.ac.th/unit/unit_files/files_download/20140502Teachingatitsbest.pdf.
“Pedagogical Uses of Discussion Forums.” IT Knowledge Base. http://kb.its.psu.edu/cms/article/240.