5 Effective Conversation Starters for Online Discussions

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April 2nd, 2013
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This is a guest post by Jill Rooney, Ph.D, a history professor at MassBay Community College. Jill also authors The Open Academic, a blog focused on student learning, online education, and higher education policy. If you are interested in contributing to the Edmodo Blog, please complete this form.

Connect with Jill on Edmodo or follow her on Twitter @JillRooney2

There’s nothing worse than planning a fantastic online class discussion and watching it fall flat as students submit brief, perfunctory comments that either 1) do not engage with the material or 2) do not provoke others to respond.

You wait endlessly at the computer like some post-modern version of Miss Havisham, clutching your mouse instead of the remains of a tattered wedding gown, clinging in vain not to the hope of love but to the desperate desire to see something—anything—that indicates that your students are even slightly interested in the material.

Participation in Online Interactions Boost Critical Skills

Given what eventually happened to Miss Havisham, your best bet is to think carefully about how you frame your online discussions so that your course doesn’t go down in flames. Edutopia points out that online discussion enables students to build critical thinking skills, a sense of course community, and content knowledge.

Studies also show that class participation is one of the most important indicators of student success. That’s why the assigned question or prompt that gets the chat going is the most important aspect of online student discussions.

But it’s not really fair to expect students to engage with material if the material isn’t, well, engaging. Many articles suggest that teachers adapt the different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and ask questions that prompt students to think critically, but just exactly what does that mean? Is it as simple as starting a content-based question with some of the taxonomy’s buzzwords, such as “explain” or “compare” or even the dreaded “discuss,” a term that gives students absolutely no sure place to land? I don’t think so. I think that will just garner individual contributions that don’t allow for much interaction between students.

Five Effective Conversation Starters for Online Discussions

The best way to encourage real exchange and debate in a discussion thread is to focus on the highest level of the taxonomy and ask students to create something new. Here are some assignment ideas that ask students to do just that:

1.) What would you ask the author?
Gets students thinking from another point of view about the material by asking them to formulate a question that they would ask the author of their assigned reading.

Then, have the rest of the class answer the questions as if they were the author.  It might also be exciting to then have your students email their question to the author and share any responses they might receive with the rest of the class.

2.) Answer a question in character
Ask students a question about the reading, but instruct them to answer as if they were a character in the reading. This can work in English classes, History, Political Science, and many other disciplines. This way, students have the opportunity to contextualize their reading material.

3.) Post a current issue and ask students to respond as a character from their assigned reading
This is a variation on the previous tip, but it asks students to invent something new. For example, if you have assigned the Emancipation Proclamation, ask your students to write what they think Abraham Lincoln’s response to the gay marriage debate might be.

4.) Collaborate on a script for a talk show
Ask your students to role play a discussion about the reading, such as would take place between the author and a talk show host, like Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.

Students who are hesitant or shy about expressing their opinions might feel more comfortable in the guise of someone else, generating participation from students who might normally be more reticent.

5.) Start a chain analysis
You know those chain story exercises, in which someone starts a story and leaves off at a dramatic point? Ask your students to do the same with an analysis. Have one student come up with a thesis, and then have the next student contribute the first piece of evidence that will prove the argument, and so on. Another student can create the conclusion, based on all the evidence presented. This will not only encourage discussion, it will provide valuable experience on project collaboration, an important workplace skill.

The real key to creating dynamic discussion prompts is to use your imagination—which is also a great way to role model your own engagement with the subject!


One response to “5 Effective Conversation Starters for Online Discussions”

  1. JUlie P. says:

    WOW- I liked all of the engaging ideas and would put them to good use with my BOB- Battle of the Books students.

    WONDER- how long it would take to “train” students to feel comfortable to engage like this online. It would be interesting to try these ideas.

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