Foster Substantive and Respectful Online Discussions

Explore strategies your students can use to power up their posts and ramp up their responses during online discussions.

Grades 6-12 15 min Resource by:
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Class discussion is a highly effective strategy. The discourse that takes place during a discussion helps students process their new learning while deepening and broadening their understanding of the content. Discussion also helps our students develop their communication and critical thinking skills as they dialogue with their peers and provide evidence that supports their ideas, logic, and reasoning. These discussions also give students a voice and can foster our class community through the sharing of personal experiences and perspectives.

During hybrid and remote learning, we can leverage the online discussion format to achieve these same outcomes and benefits. Using online discussions gives our students another opportunity to connect with their peers, practice communication skills in the form of academic writing, and further develop their critical thinking skills and content knowledge. This online format also provides students with an authentic opportunity to apply netiquette and their digital citizenship skills.

A good rule for discussion is to use hard facts and a soft voice.

– Dorothy Sarnoff

Many learning management systems include an online discussion feature that you can use with your students. If you don’t have access to a learning management system, you can still take advantage of other popular tools, such as Parlay for a comprehensive discussion platform; Kialo for debate discussions; NowComment for discussing text; and YoTeach for chat room discussions.

Many of us have experienced the challenge of students not engaging substantively in discussions, whether they are face-to-face or online. To provide the scaffolding needed for our students to be successful, we can use Gilly Salmon’s Five-Stage Model. In this scaffolded approach, we must first teach our students the technology and our expectations for participating in the online discussions, while also ensuring that our students feel welcomed and encouraged to participate. From there, they will start building community by posting and responding to each other. As they gain confidence, they will go beyond exchanging information to building upon ideas, demonstrating more agency in the dialogue, and eventually applying their learning to their own context.

To help build a strong foundation for this scaffolded process, we need to teach students our expectations and how to participate substantively during online discussion. Five tips are included below for participating in an online discussion that you can share with your students to set them up for success. The tips are written with the older student as the intended audience, so you may share them directly with your students. If you have younger students, you can reference these tips as you design age-appropriate lessons and materials.

To help teach and reinforce these concepts, you may share these discussion tip posters with your students: Power Up Your Posts and Ramp Up Your Responses. You are welcome to make a copy and customize the posters as needed to best support your learners.

Prepare to Discuss

In order to successfully participate in the online discussion:

  • Review classroom materials and notes so that you can reference them in your responses.
  • Carefully read the discussion prompt. What are all the requirements?
  • Reach out to your teacher if you have questions and seek clarification.

Contribute Meaningfully

The goal of the discussion is to learn with and from each other. You can accomplish this by demonstrating your learning, adding value to the conversation, and furthering the conversation in a respectful manner.

First: Respond completely to the discussion prompt

Thoughtfully compose your response to the teacher’s prompt; it should completely answer the question(s) and demonstrate your understanding.

  • Complete the following within your response:
    • 1st: Answer the question or make a claim.
    • 2nd: Give evidence to support your answer/claim.
    • 3rd: Explain the connection between your answer/claim and the evidence.
  • Use academic language.
  • Cite course materials or other credible and reliable sources.
  • Be complete, clear, and concise in your response.
  • Keep formatting simple and add relevant media.

Second: Respond meaningfully to your classmates’ posts

When responding to classmates’ posts, follow the same expectations listed above for responding to the teacher. Your responses should help deepen and broaden understanding for yourself and your classmates.

  • Post early and often. Procrastinating until the last day denies yourself and your peers a deeper, more meaningful discussion.
  • For each response, focus on one point and include supporting evidence.
  • Respond in a manner that seeks to deepen the learning and further the conversation:
    • Expand beyond “I agree/disagree.” Provide specific points of agreement/disagreement. Examples of sentence stems that add to the conversation include:
      • I respectfully disagree… because…
      • Have you considered…?
      • Can you clarify…?
      • I agree. Your comment made me think about…
      • That is an interesting idea. I wonder if…
      • That is an excellent point, and I would add…
    • Ask questions to clarify your understanding or to challenge your own thinking.
    • Present a new question to help broaden or refine the discussion.
    • Share a personal experience that connects to the conversation.
    • Offer another viewpoint to spark conversation.
    • Make connections between ideas being shared.
    • Share outside, relevant resources (website, image, video, book).
    • Connect the conversation to current events.
    • Paraphrase ideas being discussed to confirm understanding.
    • Probe for details.
    • Share different perspectives with the intent to broaden/deepen the conversation.
    • Post open-ended questions that encourage more conversation.
    • Debate with the intention to clarify or broaden the conversation.

Stay Focused and Open-Minded

Stay focused and be open to the conversation. Give yourself permission to change your mind based on thoughtful discussion and evidence presented.

  • Thoughtfully and carefully read your classmates’ posts.
  • Respect and consider the alternative ideas and perspectives shared by your classmates.
  • Keep the focus on learning and not on “winning” the conversation.
  • Share personal stories that are relevant to the conversation, but don’t get too personal. Class discussions are not the space for discussing personal problems or seeking personal advice.

Show Respect

During the discussion, the goal should also be to build trust and show respect among your peers.

  • Use both your heart and head when responding. Be kind and positive, as well as constructive, in your response.
  • Use your classmates’ names when responding to their posts. We all want to feel “seen” and heard. Refer to your classmates’ posts in your responses.
  • Compliment your classmates’ contributions when they add new ideas or insights.
  • Consider your written tone, especially given that classmates won’t have visual cues of our body language and facial expressions. Avoid sarcasm and use humor cautiously.
  • Assume positive intent and comment respectfully to various viewpoints.
  • Demonstrate empathy and consider the point of view of others.
  • Ensure that all voices have a chance to be heard. Don’t dominate the posts.
  • Respond first to those classmates who have not yet received a response to their post.

Use Proper Netiquette

While online discussions do not need to be as formal as a paper, they should not be as casual as texting or posting on social media. Demonstrate digital citizenship and practice appropriate classroom netiquette.

  • Use proper mechanics: spelling, capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure.
  • Avoid slang and acronyms. Do not use all caps or excessive exclamation points, as they may be misconstrued as yelling.
  • Proofread carefully for mechanics, tone, and clarity. Read your response out loud before posting.
  • Respond rather than react. If the topic creates an emotional reaction, wait until later to draft or post your response. Reread your response carefully to ensure that it responds to the content and not the person.
  • Be sure that your responses meet the THINK expectations: True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.
  • Be courteous. Manners matter in all formats. Respond to those who ask you questions. Thank those who compliment you.