• Resources
  • Blog
  • Best Practices for Facilitating Online Discussions: Tips for Students

Best Practices for Facilitating Online Discussions: Tips for Students

When you are facilitating an online discussion, there are five key roles you can play to encourage deeper engagement with your peers.

3 students collaborating online

One of the goals for online discussions is to give you a chance to learn some online facilitation skills.

This should also give you a new perspective on how to be an effective discussion participant and is supported by research showing that students prefer peer moderation over instructor moderation, that when discussions are facilitated by peers, higher order learning is reported, and that the level of dialogue in online discussions is higher when the instructor is actively involved, but not dominating the discussion (Dennen, 2005, Rourke & Anderson, 2002).

When you are facilitating an online discussion, you have several roles to play. We’ve selected five roles to take a closer at. Think about what each role requires of you and how you can interact with your peers in ways that will move your discussions forward.

Role #1: Starter

Goal

Kick the discussion off right by sharing ideas, asking questions, and raising what you see as the most important issues to talk about.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What are the most important ideas from this week’s materials? Are there new ideas that have been introduced?
  • How do the ideas in these materials fit together? Do they support each other? Or do they offer different points of view?
  • What concepts are difficult? What ideas do you want to understand better?

Ways to Take Action

  • Be ready to contribute to the discussion as soon as it opens
  • Focus on the course materials, but make your posts broad enough that your peers can add their own perspectives
  • Provide new ideas if a discussion seems to have stalled

Role #2: Motivator / Responder

Goal

Make the discussion a place where everyone feels comfortable and encouraged to participate.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Is everyone contributing? Are a few people dominating the conversation?
  • Are everyone’s ideas being acknowledged and responded to?

Ways to Take Action

  • If someone’s posts aren’t getting responses, try to make a point of replying to them.
  • If someone’s ideas aren’t clear, try asking for clarification, or reflecting back what you think they said (e.g. Are you saying that…)
  • If you see examples of people dominating the discussion or shutting others down, let your instructor know.

Role #3: Elaborator / Questioner

Goal

Ask your peers to go deeper, elaborate on an issue, or defend their ideas. Entertain different arguments and ask for evidence. Consider counter-arguments.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Is the argument in a post well-reasoned? Does it have evidence to support claims or is it primarily based on opinion? Does it draw on course readings, research, or theory?
  • What objections could be made to the argument? What about possible counter-arguments to this position?
  • Does the group seem to be in complete agreement at the outset without fully considering alternatives?

Ways to Take Action

  • Be a questioner – ask “Why do you think X?” or “What implications does your point have for Y?”
  • Be an elaborator – take others’ ideas further by building on them or their implications.
  • Be a devil’s advocate – take a contrary position to one (or more) of your classmates’ ideas and make a reasonable defense as to why this is a logical position to take, (of course be respectful while doing this).
  • Be an angel’s advocate – provide support to an idea that is being challenged.

Role #4: Traffic Director

Goal

Keep the discussion moving in a positive direction. Get the discussion back on track if it stalls.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Are we questioning our ideas? Are we building on each other’s contributions? Are we generating new ideas? Are we critiquing, and comparing existing ones? Are we working towards a collective synthesis? (If your group isn’t doing any of these, you may be stalled or off-track.)
  • Were enough different ideas generated to begin with?
  • Is our discussion addressing the questions we asked ourselves at the beginning? What has been inadvertently lost along the way?

Ways to Take Action

  • If the discussion seems to be off-track or ideas have been dropped, make a post bringing up these ideas or pointing out where you think the discussion needs to go.
  • If the discussion has stalled, try introducing some new ideas to the conversation or re-raise some of the initial questions again if they haven’t been answered.
  • Often, a stalled discussion is a sign that it’s time to summarize what’s already been discussed. Seeing the big picture often can help you find new ways to move forward.

Role #5: Synthesizer

Goal

Make connections between posts, pull comments together, summarize key ideas and point out overlapping thoughts, problematic issues, and unresolved questions. Push the conversation forward (maybe in new directions).

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • • Given everyone’s initial posts and any discussion that has resulted, where are we at in answering the questions we posed (or others that have arisen)? • What do we as a group agree on? What do we disagree on? • What have we still not discussed / resolved? • What other important ideas / themes have arisen during the discussion? • What have we not considered yet?

Ways to Take Action

  • Create a post about halfway through your discussion that summarizes where things stand.
  • Identify where you think the conversation needs to go next.
  • You may want to highlight individual contributions or focus more on group ideas – this will depend on the discussion. If you are naming individuals, think about how you are portraying them and their ideas and try not to focus on any one person’s ideas too much.

Summary

Being an effective student facilitator is a challenging (and time-consuming) job. But it is also a rewarding one that allows you to develop new skills and gain an appreciation for how to guide development of a group’s ideas. If you encounter anything you’re not sure about, reach out to your instructor for advice. Good luck!

References

Dennen, V. P. (2005). From message posting to learning dialogues: Factors affecting learner participation in asynchronous discussion. Distance Education, 26(1), 127-148.

Rourke, L. & Anderson T. (2002) Using peer teams to lead online discussions. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2002 (1).