Best Practices for Student-Led Discussions

Student facilitation is a key component of successful online discussions. Learn how to foster great student-led discussions with these tips.

cartoon of male student on laptop

Sometimes less is more. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, one of several powerful things we can do as instructors to stimulate engaging online discussion is to step back from being the center of things and create space for students to take ownership of the conversation. This doesn’t mean opening a discussion, walking away and hoping for the best (definitely not a proven instructional strategy).

Instead, we can be actively involved without dominating by distributing the responsibility for making sure a discussion is going well across the group.

Students report that they not only prefer it when their peers are the ones facilitating discussions online but also that they are more motivated to participate. Examinations of the discussions that result have also shown richer, more interactive dialogue with higher levels of critical thinking, creating a win-win situation.

There are also benefits for the student facilitators who gain new perspectives into the ways that discussions can stumble or stall that they can take back to their role as a regular discussion participant. Facilitating an online discussion well can be challenging, so it’s important to set students up for success with clear expectations and strategies. Below I share some best practices for organizing student facilitation that I’ve developed over the last 15 years.

Provide Clear Expectations, with Student Choice where Possible

Students (like all of us!) like to know what is coming so they can be ready. Make clear at the start of a course how many times each student will be asked to facilitate, for how long, if they will do so alone or in teams and when those time(s) will be.

Facilitation takes much more effort than regular discussion participation, so it’s best if students are able to choose to take on this responsibility when they know they will have enough time to devote to the task. Giving students choice over the topic of the discussion that they will facilitate as well (either by letting them come up with the topic or by indicating preferences from a pre-set schedule) lets them pick what set of issues or ideas they most want to engage with and take ownership over.

Once the facilitation schedule is set, make sure it easily accessible and that students get reminders of when their turn is coming, especially if responsibilities start before the actual facilitation period. I try to increase the sense of community responsibility the role entails by making a point in my synchronous class sessions and/or weekly asynchronous announcements of thanking prior facilitators and welcoming upcoming ones by name.

Outline Specific Roles and Responsibilities for Facilitators

You can think about what facilitators will do in terms of three phases of the discussion: the kick-off, the flow and the closing. Facilitator roles for each of these will depend in part on what “flavor” of discussion you design. For example, to discuss a set of assigned readings, different flavors might include an open conversation (about whatever students find interesting), a set of specific questions to explore (usually focused on key issues in the texts), or a task to tackle which might require divergent or convergent engagement (e.g. share images of all the different situations you’ve encountered in which the reading might be relevant / collectively decide on the best way to solve a problem based on the reading).

If the discussion is open or the questions / task set by you as the instructor, then the facilitators can be asked to get the discussion rolling by seeding some ideas as soon as the discussion opens (it often helps to point out that this means they need to get a jump on the readings the week before). Alternatively, student facilitators can be asked to develop questions or task themselves. This supports greater ownership of the discussion, and works best when there is time for students to develop discussion prompts and receive feedback to revise them before they go live.

Towards the end of a discussion, facilitators can be powerful in bringing things together; this might mean summarizing and synthesizing the major ideas discussed, sharing answers to questions that were agreed upon and those still outstanding, or representing the group’s collective response to a task posed. Students find this task more meaningful when it doesn’t just end the discussion but also leads into so further class activities.

In between the kick-off and the closing the facilitators have several roles they can play to help the discussion flow along (each which can also be tailored more specifically to fit the discussion flavor): they can stimulate discussion by encouraging participation and providing new ideas if things stall, they can deepen the discussion by responding constructively to ideas contributed by others, and they can advance the discussion by weaving ideas together and setting a direction for the conversation to proceed. While making connections across posts is something that commonly happens towards the end of a discussion, it is actually one of the most powerful things a facilitator can do in the middle of the flow of a conversation to give it new life and push things to a higher level.

How to Stimulate the Discussion

Questions for Facilitators to Ask:

  • Is everyone contributing?
  • Are a few people dominating the conversation?
  • Are everyone’s ideas being acknowledged and responded to
  • Have things “gone quiet”?

Ways for Facilitators to Take Action: Post intriguing questions or provocative comments and tag specific people to reply. Make a point of responding to posts that haven’t’ received attention and/or comment on posts and invite others to reply.

How to Deepen the Discussion

 Questions for Facilitators to Ask:

  • Are ideas fully explained?
  • Are they supported with reasons or presented as simple opinions?
  • What assumptions are being made that could be questioned?

Ways for Facilitators to Take Action: Push interesting ideas further by asking about why people think something, suggest new implications of their ideas or play devil’s advocate by questioning things that have been said.

How to Advance the Discussion

Questions for Facilitators to Ask:

  • What things do people seem to generally agree on?
  • Where are there differences in opinion or unresolved questions?
  • Have all possibilities been considered?
  • What is missing from the conversation?

Ways for Facilitators to Take Action: Make a synthesis of where things are at midway through the discussion and suggest what ideas or questions need more attention. Connect the current discussion to prior discussions and the bigger picture of the course to show (or ask) why it matters.

Model Good Facilitation Practices

It is one thing to talk about what a facilitator does and quite another to see what is looks like in the context of a particular course design and topic. This means that one of the best way to help students become strong facilitators is to show them how it’s done. When I’m using online discussion as a key component of a course, I usually take on the responsibility for facilitation in the first week (or two), making sure to provide examples of each of the roles I want to students to play. To make sure my efforts to show all the different ways to facilitate don’t get overlooked, I also add meta-text to my posts to explicitly state what they are doing (e.g. “[Here I’m pointing out two conflicting ideas in the discussion that need to be resolved]”).

Make Sure Assessment Criteria Are Aligned

In addition to up-front guidance, how an assignment will be graded sends a powerful message to students about what matters. Ideally, assessment criteria should be clearly connected to the roles and responsibilities expected of facilitators with an indication of what counts as evidence that they being are met. When time allows, I like to conclude students’ facilitation experience with a short reflection that asks them to show how they think they fulfilled their responsibilities and what they learned about discussions by facilitating. I ask them to provide evidence with a few select quotes from the discussion, both of posts they made that they thought were particularly powerful and of posts from their classmates showing how their comments were received.

Peer facilitation is a powerful way to help students take on ownership of their online discussion and can lead to more active, richer conversations. By setting up a clear structure, outlining specific roles and responsibilities, modeling good practices, aligning assessment and providing students with choice you can set them up for success as a facilitator and a to have positive experience that can help them become a stronger discussion participation in the future.