6 Ways to Support Student-Led Discussions Online

Student-led discussions in an online environment can break down common feelings of isolation and get students talking.

male student in blue sweater waving at laptop

Putting students in charge of online discussions has great benefits for engagement, activity and learning. When their peers lead discussions, students are more likely to feel comfortable participating, share their ideas, and get involved in deeper levels of critical thinking.

Student facilitators learn invaluable lessons about how to lead, encourage, and moderate conversations, and instructors are freed from practical orchestration tasks to have the space they need to respond, reflect, and guide. While students relish the opportunity to take ownership of their discussions, it is important to provide them with a solid framework for success.

Here are six ways you can put students on the path to more engaging, participatory, student-led discussions.

1. Create a solid foundation for facilitation with a well-designed discussion

First, understand what student facilitation is and what it’s meant to accomplish. Student facilitators are not stepping into your shoes as the instructor. Rather, they are taking on a focused task: fostering collaborative dialog about a particular subject.

For this to work, you will need to be very clear about your expectations for discussion:

  • Will conversations be based on a particular reading or will they answer specific questions?
  • Will students be extracting key ideas or or connecting class readings to the world around them?
  • Should students explore multiple ideas and perspectives during discussions or will you ask them to adopt a single stance on a complex issue?
  • Are they expected to come to a conclusion or identify areas for future exploration?

All of these possibilities are legitimate, and indeed, all could be accommodated across a series of discussions in a course. Remember to also think about how you can connect online discussions with what’s going on in your synchronous class sessions. In short, communicate your expectations clearly to show the value of the discussions and establish a shared understanding of what they are meant to accomplish.

2. Create a structure and schedule for student facilitation

You’ll need to make a few organizational decisions as you build your syllabus.

In what weeks will your students engage in discussions?

Consider skipping student facilitation during the first week (you’re all still getting to know each other), the last week (exams), and weeks when you have a major assignment scheduled.

How many facilitators will you have for each discussion?

Think about how many discussion weeks are available relative to the number of students in the class and how many weeks (usually 1 or 2) you will want to facilitate at the start to give students a model to follow. Consider assigning two facilitators to a discussion when possible so that students can share ideas and defuse any anxiety. If you do this, you’ll want to also be clear how you expect them to share the facilitation role.

How will discussion weeks / topics be assigned?

Consider asking students to submit their top three choices (you can ask them to think about which topics they are most interested in and which weeks they’ll have the extra time to devote to the discussion). You’ll have a little juggling to do, but students’ sense of ownership for their facilitation will be higher leading to better discussions. When possible, try to assign a strong student facilitator or pair to go first and offer a good peer model to follow. Make sure to add student facilitator names to the syllabus to signal the value of this contribution (and of course to remind them when their turn comes).

3. Communicate the responsibilities of student facilitators clearly

A good place to start is our Online Discussion Student Facilitation Guide, which outlines the different roles that students can adopt to move discussions forward, focusing on ways to ask them to elaborate, clarify, question, summarize and make connections to best support critical thinking.

You should also consider whether you will define and post the initial discussion question or have your students do so. Creating an original post is, of course, higher order thinking and may be more suited to graduate students who will be more likely to uncover critical questions and key concepts. If you do have students come up with the questions, it can really up the quality to have them run them by you briefly before kicking things off.

You might also consider asking student facilitators to create a post that synthesizes “the discussion so far” during the middle of week. They can address the following questions:

  • “What do we agree on?”
  • “What questions are still unresolved?”
  • “What ideas are most valuable to take away?”
  • “What did we miss?”

(If you’re using Harmonize, consider using multiple due dates to encourage students to engage throughout the week). Studies show that having facilitators address these synthesizing questions midway through the discussion can elevate the quality of subsequent posts.

4. Provide a good model of what facilitation looks like

Build in time early in the semester to model what a good discussion is by taking on the role of facilitator yourself for a discussion or two. Construct your post carefully and model good facilitation throughout the week in as many different ways as you can–by questioning, elaborating, explaining, synthesizing, and so on.

In an online discussion forum, you have the advantage of being able to model behavior while simultaneously pointing out what you’re doing. So, for example, when modeling facilitation you might respond to a student post by saying, “that’s really interesting; it provides a good example of the challenges @Juan described in a post yesterday.” But you can also point out what you just did by noting that you’ve linked different ideas from different students, “here I’ve connected a new idea with one we were talking about earlier”.

You can do this for a range of facilitation techniques: “here I’m simply responding; here I’m linking ideas; here I’m synthesizing our discussion so far.” By doing this in the context of a live student discussion, you’re demonstrating that facilitation is a responsive and always adapting skill.

5. Guide from the side

How hands-on should you be once you’ve handed the facilitator role over to students?  During the semester you will need to balance the needs of student facilitators with the learning goals of your course. How you do this will, of course, vary with the students, class and discussion topics. Some of your students will be naturals, some will require more coaching, some will need to be gently reminded that they are facilitators and not lecturers, and still others will need help in how to manage conflicting opinions.

Generally, you will be more hands-on early in the semester as you model behavior, participate in discussions, and provide guidance early on. As you step back, issues may arise. If you find that you need to coach your student facilitators, whenever possible do so off line (via a private message) so that they have time to absorb your advice and so you don’t publicly take away from their leadership role as facilitator. You may discover that the facilitator who seems to be over-contributing is relieved to learn he or she doesn’t always have to have something to say

6. Make assessments clear

If you’ve been using discussion forums in your online or blended classrooms, you probably have spent some time designing assessment rubrics. (You can also find some advice on how to design and fine-tune your rubrics here.) It’s fairly simple to establish quantifiable criteria, but don’t forget to include qualitative criteria.

Think about what you want your student facilitators to take away from the experience.

  • Have they learned how to identify key concepts and use them to prompt discussion?
  • Have they responded effectively to student comments without shutting down discussion?
  • Have they developed their ability to synthesize different points of view?

To adjudicate these higher order learning objectives more fairly, consider asking your students for their input on how well they believe they’ve met these goals. In an online discussion forum, where conversations are available for review, student facilitators can point to specific examples of where they felt their facilitation was strong and/or how their comments were taken up by others. It’s a great way to help students own their facilitation performance and it helps you identify things you might have missed.