Why “Discussions” Fail: Reconsidering Online Discussion Best Practices

Many degree programs and courses include online discussion board spaces with weekly assignments and prompts to attempt to engage students, promote critical thinking, increase topic relevance, help students network, and allow them to otherwise “interact.”

Often students and instructors treat these as “check-the-box” assignments and they rarely spur anything resembling real conversations. Subsequently, these assignments rarely meet their intended educational or social aims.

In reality, this well-worn framework itself actually creates a cascade of unintended but self-reinforcing and highly damaging behavior patterns. Without avoiding these consequences and promoting positive behavioral change in the majority of the learner population, traditional “discussions” are practically doomed to failure.

The primary issues created by the traditional “1 post and 2 comment” assignment framework are:

  1. Students write for the wrong audiencetheir instructor rather than their classmates.

  2. The framework over emphasizes the Community of Inquiry element of Teaching Presence, while minimizing the equally important aspects of Cognitive and Social Presence.

  3. Specific deadlines allow students to procrastinate without any impact on their personal course outcomes and discourages early participation, a key to good back-and-forth discussion.

  4. Restricting discussion boards to one topic per week constricts the blending and integration of topics across the course and provides less new material for students to consume.

  5. Regular deadlines and topic shifts often extinguish a good conversation just as it is starting, only to try to start a new conversation that may or may not be more interesting or relevant to students.

The first problem, that students write for the wrong audience, is driven by the fact that grades in traditional discussions typically assess post quality according to an instructor’s rubric. These rubrics rarely assess whether a post was read a lot, interacted with by others, or if it created actual discussion, despite these being obvious goals behind authoring the posts to begin with.

Accordingly, assignments and grading compel content generation but do not propel content consumption or conversations. Back-and-forth conversations are clearly vital to the vast majority of the purported benefits of peer discussions and are, in fact, a defining element of the word discussion itself. Yellowdig’s database clearly indicates that a higher proportion of commenting drives voluntary participation, often well beyond the course requirements (e.g., Kampa & Verdine, 2020; Verdine, 2018). Importantly, research from partners also indicates that it is consumptive behaviors and comments, not posting, that are most associated with better course grade outcomes, student satisfaction, and student persistence/retention (e.g., Martin, Martin, & Feldstein, 2017; ASU Efficacy Report, 2019).

For understanding problem number two, let’s break down how current online “discussions” reflect the three required elements for a strong community stated in the Community of Inquiry (CoI) Framework: Cognitive, Social, and Teaching Presence.

Teaching Presence: The highly structured nature of traditional discussions heavily favor the instructional management and direct instruction that is considered part of Teaching Presence.

Social Presence: Defined as “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop interpersonal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities,” (Garrison, 2009). In standard discussions pedagogy, building Social Presence is all but ignored and typically the rules of assignments implicitly, if not explicitly, forbid students from doing the kinds of activities that would actually promote Social Presence. Without the ability to practice open communication, build group cohesion, or the opportunity for risk-free expression, there is very little social motivation to participate in standard discussions.

Cognitive Presence: Depending on the assignment, traditional discussions also often miss many aspects of Cognitive Presence (e.g., exploration, integration, sense of puzzlement, applying new ideas, etc.). These shortcomings make traditional discussion interactions feel forced, remove many of the elements that spur interest and curiosity in the subject matter, and lead to students merely complying with the rules of a highly-managed experience.

The third problem centers around procrastinating to a deadline and how that specifically has an impact on peer-to-peer interactions and impacts the learning experience of every student, not just the individual procrastinating. The standard discussion framework typically used in a Canvas or Blackboard discussion board encourages procrastination. In fact, since there are no posts for them to read when they get there, students who try to participate early and start good conversations actually have to come back to be able to participate in any back-and-forth dialogue about the subject. As shown in the graphic below, a deadline-centered framework actually incentivizes students to participate in one small window of time just before the deadline, even for previously motivated students (Lieberman, 2019).

The fourth problem is that standard discussions typically allow the discussion of onlyone topic per week that stops at a deadline, which constricts the blending and integration of topics across the course. A free-flowing discussion allows for much more co-construction of the learning experience (Moore and Marra, 2014). The weekly discussion question structure also does not allow conversations to shift quickly in response to real-world events or even topics that may have spontaneously emerged in synchronous class sessions or small-group work. Together this means that most traditional discussion prompts create responses that are not as temporally or topically relevant as they could otherwise be, which is a key to the student's perception of the conversation being valuable, interesting, and engaging. These highly relevant and engaging conversations can then be applied in the classroom after, also improving the interest and relevance of synchronous sessions, as Professor Schmidt explains below.

The final issue resulting from standard "discussions" is that regular deadlines and topic shifts will oftenextinguish a good conversation just as it is starting, only to try to start a new conversation that may or may not be more interesting or relevant to students. To put this in perspective, at a university gathering with colleagues how annoying is it if someone crashes into a good ongoing conversation, abruptly changes the topic, and takes the conversation in a direction you and the others do not care about? Topic shifting on a schedule rather than in response to the natural ebbs, flows, and branches of a good conversation are a main reason why traditional discussions don’t seem natural–they aren’t.

Real conversations are inherently messy. They switch topics. Side conversations happen. If you walk into the room in the middle of a conversation you might have to listen for a while to catch up before you can participate. These things are not bad; they are essential to many of the learning advantages of discussions versus studying a textbook or reading a news article.

The uncertainty of where a conversation will go also inspires curiosity and at least a little bit of FOMO (fear of missing out), both of which are motivators for students wanting to come back to their course community often. Frequent participation is essential for real back-and-forth conversations, so promoting frequent (even if short) visits to the community helps drive better discussions.

Due to all of these inherent limitations of the traditional discussion paradigm, discussion forums are not engaging, dynamic, or thought-provoking places. Because they offer so little socially, do not drive student interest, and do not appear to produce much educational value to students, they are widely regarded with scorn by students and instructors. Without being engaging or producing true discussions they also do not yield the vast majority of benefits that motivated their use to begin with. This model for incorporating discussion spaces simply doesn’t work and most of the existing technologies reinforce, rather than change, the bad habits that produce these poor outcomes.

It is necessary to appreciate these challenges to create a different model for discussions that avoids the negative behavior patterns they produce. Many of the solutions for these problems are baked into the Yellowdig platform, a community-building technology that amplifies student engagement and interaction. The data we have collected indicates that the above problems are side effects of traditional discussion framework itself and are at play regardless of the talent of instructors, quality of prompts, motivation level of students, or platform used. Yellowdig was designed to enable a different approach that avoids these problems and we hope to create new conversations about how course design can be improved in light of the acknowledged limitations of the dominant paradigm.

Brian Verdine, Ph.D. is 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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