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8 Tips for High-Quality, Open Conversations

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

There are two types of reactions instructors have when they switch over to Yellowdig. They either are so excited to not have the responsibility of orchestrating the conversation and letting it happen naturally or they are afraid to break the structure they are used to in standard “discussion boards” and continue to post prompts for students to respond to. Sometimes not doing something is the hardest, yet most effective, thing to do. This is one of those times. Resist the urge to prompt your students (you’ll thank yourself later).

What should I do instead?

That is the right question! There are certain ways instructors can actively encourage the community and occasionally nudge it in the right direction without creating an overly-structured, repetitive, or boring experience.

To be clear, none of these suggestions are intended to be used in a way that forces every student to post in response to them. One of the major downsides of prompting is that it generates too many similar posts that no one actually reads or discusses. Also, you would never start an in-class conversation by forcing every student to respond to the same question, so why start an online one that way?

1. Share a clear idea of what you expect from your students and put that in the Yellowdig assignment in your LMS or pin that post to the top for the first week.

As Yellowdig may be new to many students or used in different ways by other faculty at your institution, it is important to set the tone of your community from the very beginning. Many students may wrongly view Yellowdig as a weekly, prompt based assignment at first. It is important to make it clear that the way you participate in Yellowdig is very different from the typical discussion boards they are used to.

Here is a sample expectation setting post:

“At some point each week I *may* be posting a few questions that are related to the topics and readings. To be clear, these questions are not an assignment, but an option for you to discuss if you are stuck. You should not wait for my questions to be posted to contribute to the community. I post them to take the opportunity to highlight some important questions about each week's readings and to give you an opportunity to at least think about them, even if you choose not to take part in discussing them. If you want to respond to these questions, please start your own Post and then other students can talk with you about your thoughts in the Comments. There are certainly many other things related to (the course topic) worth thinking about or sharing with the class, so I encourage you to create your own Posts where you do things like ask relevant questions you have from class or share current events and outside information.

I will allow you to earn points for anything you contribute in Yellowdig, as long as it improves the learning experience of the community. This includes asking questions and commenting, as long as what you are contributing is thoughtful, understandable, and relevant. You do not necessarily have to post new content, it is ok to only comment on things that have been posted, as long as you're contributing to a real conversation that's related to what we're all trying to learn. For that reason I've also set it up without any time limits on responding to any conversations across the different weeks—if something occurs to you a few weeks from now about the readings or the conversation happening this week, I would invite you to bring it back to these conversations and add to them. If you see an article or video you know is going to be really relevant to a future topic in the course, please don’t hesitate to share it early too. You will be able to earn more points if your fellow classmates like and discuss your Posts, so consider that. Posting things that are well-written and relevant will get more students to read and respond to your Posts, which will allow you to earn your points more quickly. Also, remember that this is a course community and any good community requires conversations and interactions between people. Try to initiate and maintain actual back-and-forth dialogue with your classmates. The Posts and Comments you create are not really for me; they are for the whole class.

Be aware that there are search and filter functions to the right at the very top of the feed so you can find easily find posts by things like topic, author, or date. If you have any questions, raise them in Comments below!” If you would like to see more conversation starter ideas for your discussion community, take a look at our Conversation Starters Help Article.

2. Start out the community with introductions.

Encourage everyone to use the topic “Introductions” to share about themselves. Model this behavior by writing an interesting post about yourself and including a video that you can record right in the platform to say, “Hi!”. See how easy it is below. Maybe even suggest that everyone share a picture of themselves doing something related to the class, doing something they like to do, at their favorite spot on campus, or even a silly baby picture. Especially when everyone is isolated at home, encouraging students to add pictures or videos is a great way to humanize everyone in the community and start to connect to the real people behind the names that they will be seeing the rest of the semester.

On the rare occasion when you may be asking students to share something specific we recommend that you include this suggestion - “Share in a separate Post rather than a Comment to this one. More people will see it, and you will earn more points toward your participation.” Because our feed is designed to surface posts that are being interacted with to keep active conversations going, we discourage having students only earn points by replying to your posts. It “short-circuits” an important part of Yellowdig’s design that improves engagement.

3. Model the behavior you've asked of your students.

A good way to think about your role is to model the behavior you want from your students in the way you post, comment, and interact. Then reinforce ideal behaviors among community members with visual recognitions (i.e., reactions and accolades) and the occasional comment. Demanding specific behaviors from others (e.g., requiring everyone to comment on your post) is not something you would typically want a student community member to do, so we would typically suggest you not do it either. Reserve demands for the rare individual who deviates from the norms you’ve modeled and described for the community. The vast majority of students are not only good citizens when you follow the advice here, but we think they’ll surprise you with how interested and helpful they are!

4. Encourage students to ask for help.

No matter what course you are teaching, your students are bound to have questions. Even if it is something as simple as, “When is our essay first draft due?” Questions like these could typically be answered by the person you sit next to in class, but without that option they may need to turn to the professor. That is, unless they have somewhere they can reach out to other students, like their course community. We encourage you to announce that you have set up a topic called “Help-forum” or “Course questions” where students are expected to ask their questions.

This benefits both the students and instructors. The students get quicker answers, those who answer get the material reinforced as they explain it to their peers, and even the students who just read the answers benefit. Instructors get less repetitive questions and can spend more time doing what they love, adding value in other ways to their teaching! To stay engaged with students, professors can still answer questions themselves. We also encourage instructors to give accolades to students who answered correctly (e.g., a “verified response” accolade), both to give recognition to the helpful student and because students can then filter by an accolade to find all the best answers.Learn more about setting up a help forum in our summary of a webinar with STEM professor Dr. Vicki Hart.

5. Share a recent news article or journal article from your field.

Part of what keeps your course relevant is tying in current events and industry updates that students can apply to their learnings from your class. Simply sharing an article you read, why you read it, and how you see it connecting to what you are teaching can show students that what they are doing applies in the real world as well and help to model what you expect from them. See an example student post below.

6. Use the network graph feature to reach unconnected students.

The network graph is a new feature that allows you to find the most connected or least connected students. We have found that students who are not interacting with other students, and therefore not getting highly connected on the network map, are more likely to drop the class, get poor grades, or rate the class and their instructor poorly. Unconnected students appear that way because they are either not participating at all or are only posting and not having back and forth conversations with others. Identifying these students early and reaching out to them can help draw them into the class and improve retention. Learn more about the network graph and how you can use it in this article.

7. Set up a topic for students to simply get to know each other.

We have heard of classes successfully having a topic called “class lounge” or “watercooler,” where students know they can talk to each other about any appropriate topic. The idea behind having this topic is to cultivate a relaxed environment and facilitate some of the chatter that would typically happen between students before and after class.

This rapport between students will enable them to feel more comfortable speaking up in synchronous sessions or working in group settings with other students who they may have never met in person before. The types of interactions that happen in this topic can be anything from sharing gifs that made them laugh, talking about university wide events, or even reacting to the latest snowstorm or sports game. The benefits of creating a community that students can feel comfortable being a part of has so many positive outcomes; perhaps this topic simply brightens a students’ day, makes them want to come back to the community to see what others may have shared, or creates a sense of belonging that helps to retain students in the class. It is not unusual for real humans to want to engage in “small talk” alongside “serious business.” If you give this topic a name and you feel like there’s too much here, you can always politely encourage your students to focus more on “serious business,” but it is important that you allow your students room for self-expression and relationship-building.

8. Make a student the expert.

In many courses, especially with adult students, the prior experience and current roles of students mean that they may be an expert on a particular topic, perhaps even eclipsing what the instructor knows about a particular topic. By paying attention to what individual students are talking about, which you can also get a feel for at the bottom of the Topics area within the Community Health dashboard, you can encourage specific students to post about their experiences or expertise on a week where that expertise coincides with things you’ll be talking about in class.

We hope you find success while implementing these tips in your course communities. Please reach out to if you have any questions! Happy Discussing!


Brian Verdine, the Head of Client Success at Yellowdig. Brian received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. He went on to a postdoctoral position in the Education department at the University of Delaware where he later became, and continues to be, an Affiliated Assistant Professor. His academic research and his now primary career in educational technology has focused on understanding and improving learning outside of classrooms, in less formal learning situations. At Yellowdig, he manages all aspects of Client Success with a strong focus on how implementation in classes influences instructor and student outcomes.

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Jun 06, 2022

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