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#65: Strategies to Make Discussion Boards More Engaging [Podcast]

#65: Strategies to Make Discussion Boards More Engaging [Podcast]

This content initially appeared at APUEdge.Com 

Discussion boards are a required part of many online courses, but they can sometimes get flat and boring. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks about how to have an engaging dialogue with students. Learn five strategies to improve discussion boards as well as how to apply the Guided ANCHORS approach to managing discussion forums.

#39: Creative Methods and Strategies for Teaching Online

#39: Creative Methods and Strategies for Teaching Online

This content first appeared on APUSEdge.Com

It can be challenging to keep online courses engaging and interesting. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares five methods and strategies to help online educators enhance their classroom. Learn how to increase student engagement through asynchronous discussions, online group work, gamification, guided exploration, and leveraging the full power of your school’s learning management system.

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge

Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher

Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

I thank you for joining me. It’s wonderful to be with you here today, to talk about methods and strategies teaching online. There are so many ways you can engage with your students in the online classroom, many of which involve special tools, interfaces, apps, or other items that might be considered bright and shiny objects.

Just to help you avoid getting overwhelmed, I’m going to introduce you to five specific methods and strategies you might consider using in your upcoming courses to help you keep the overwhelm at a minimum and get excited about trying something new and creative.

You might already know this, but choosing methods and strategies that work for your online environment and also guide your students appropriately through the topic, it’s challenging but it’s also necessary.

Creative strategies are so needed because students otherwise will disengage. Online education can be very isolating. If we always use an essay and discussion board approach, it can also be very dry and boring. Engaging your students and getting them excited about what they’re going to learn and how they’re going to learn is only part of the battle. We’re going to talk about that: how to learn it.

Think about the typical online class that focuses mainly on a lecture and some kind of assignment the student will give back to you. This is somewhat an imitation of a live class, and most of us would see this as the typical way a college class occurs. Online students need way more opportunities to interact with each other, with the content, and with you.

Online learners are a bit different than the residential students you might have at a traditional face-to-face university. Many of them have busy lives and need to be able to look at smaller bits of information, like a little video clip or something engaging they can click through or several of these things.

If you take the time to chunk information and use special strategies to create engagement, these strategies will really help your students be interested in your online course and help them throughout their learning and help them enjoy the process.

The tools that give your students the opportunity to work through the content that they need to learn, compete with their own performance, and manage the overall learning process can really help your online courses become more exciting and motivating.

As I’ve already mentioned, this could quickly lead to overwhelm for you. So choose one thing to try in your upcoming course, keep it small and simple, and you will be very pleased with the way this leads to a better result for you and your students.

Five Strategies for Improving Student Engagement

So here are the five methods and strategies I’d like to share with you today to help you get something more interesting going on in a small and simple piece.

Asynchronous Discussions

The first is asynchronous discussions. Asynchronous discussions are the hallmark component of online courses. Most people expect to see a discussion forum at some point in an online class. Some people use discussion forums throughout the entire course. Discussion forums give students the opportunity to teach and learn from each other. They can try on ideas, analyze, explore, debate, discuss. They can really get into the content through a discussion. They can also engage in dialogue with you, the instructor.

The discussion can include text. It could be based on images, audio, video, or multimedia, or you could include some combination of those things. In a previous episode of the Online Teaching Lounge, I explored a lot of different ways to manage your online discussions and creative a forum prompts you might consider trying. I hope you will take a look at those previous episodes. They’ll give you a lot of ideas in the asynchronous discussion area.

Online Group Work

The second method and strategy I would like to suggest is online group work. Learning can be a collaborative endeavor and group work can promote dialogue while refining understandings. This can be done in a way that fits the subject matter that you are teaching.

Group discussions, group projects, and peer-to-peer activities can also make online learning much more enjoyable for your students. This will reduce the tendency to have just lecture and discussion-based courses, and it will also make it more interesting when they’re forming connections with their classmates.

One of the drawbacks of online learning is that students do not really get to know each other deeply. When they work in a group, they have a better chance of getting to know each other, connecting and maybe even knowing a familiar name when they go to the next course in their program.

Group work can be very difficult to manage. I used to do an online project in the music appreciation class that I am teaching most. In that course when the group work came up, sometimes I would specifically assign students groups of people that were in the same time zone. My students tend to be all over the world at any given point, so I like to creatively manage that.

I had also chosen groups based on similar demographics. Maybe they’re in the same military branch or maybe some knew the subject of music a little bit and some didn’t, and I would combine those to give everybody a better chance of engaging about the content.

Group work needs clear instructions, creative activities to explore where each group member can contribute something. And, of course, some kind of criteria for grading that makes it worth the student’s time.

When I say worth their time, I mean that they’re going to actually be graded on their own contribution and not solely on the group grade. Students get very discouraged when they’re graded on the work that classmates have not done.

It’s also very helpful in group work assignments to let students choose some component of the assignment themselves. Maybe there are some creative elements they can put in there. Maybe there are several choices of what could be created or discussed in the assignment, and maybe there is also the opportunity to choose what the output format is going to look like whether it’s an essay, a PowerPoint, or some multimedia presentation.

Considering group work as the opportunity to really engage in a real-world fashion, this is an opportunity for you to also coach your students on how to work as teams, especially online.

Games and Simulations

The third method and strategy I’d like to introduce, this is the area of games and simulations. Games and simulations are opportunities for your students to apply new learning in real life scenarios. These can be supplemented through hypothetical situations, maybe they’re even role-playing or through specific apps and platforms built for some kind of educational gaming.

You might consider badging. Sometimes students get very excited about earning these little badges that appear as tokens of their achievement. There might be something built into your LMS that allows badging or up-voting or some kind of other engagement about the game or simulation itself.

Sometimes a little bit of competition actually makes the learning process even more fun. Games and simulations are becoming increasingly popular. I was at the Online Learning Consortium Conference a couple of years ago where a faculty member actually introduced the idea of using a Dungeons and Dragons scenario in a class, for gaming options.

If you explore the possibilities of gaming and simulations that are available, you just might find one that works fabulously in your subject matter. Simulations are a little bit different than games. They’re a little bit more applied and real-world oriented and might revolve around a case study or a role-play.

A simulation is something that might have a decision tree. For example, maybe the student enters a crime scene and they’re in a class where this is the area of focus. In the simulation, they might need to examine evidence and make a choice. With a decision tree, when they click on one choice, it will go to one avenue, and when they click on a different choice, it will take them someplace else. It’s a little bit like the 1980s example of choose your own adventure books. You get to choose the different options and the program takes you in different directions.

There are a lot of apps and things available that allow for decision trees. Even a simple PowerPoint presentation could be rigged so that you have a decision tree option available. You can create a slide where a student clicks on one or the other item on the slide, and depending on what they click on, it moves them to another slide entirely, skipping over a whole bunch of slides in between.

If you’re not sure what to use for a simulation and you’d like to try, I recommend starting with a simple PowerPoint. You might also consider reaching out to your classroom management team, whoever is working on your LMS at your institution, to see what’s available. Some apps can even be integrated into the learning management system to make this a lot easier for your students and for you.

Going back to the idea of gaming, I will go back into an app that I’d like to recommend today. There is one called Quizlet, which is well known for flashcard studying. Quizlet hosts flashcard-style tools to create simple interactive and game-like components that are easily embedded into any LMS.

A lot of students search for subject matter content online, maybe they do a Google search for items related to your class that you’re teaching. And many of them actually find Quizlets already available that help them study the terms that are taught in your class.

If you decide to create a Quizlet, it can be very simple to just create a list of terms or ideas, concepts, scenarios, and you can set up various options in the Quizlet program, making it fit your subject matter and your strategy the best.

Keep in mind that any new technology you may be learning as the instructor might be equally challenging for your students. There is a learning curve to everything, so when you’re trying a new interface, a new app, or a new program, keep yourself limited to one. This is going to help you avoid the overwhelm that comes with bright and shiny object syndrome. And when you get overwhelmed with a lot of new options, it can be paralyzing, making it difficult for you to integrate that into your classroom.

If you’re able to develop simulations, role-playing games, or other gamification that might go into your courses, this could be really engaging and fun. It will generate interest in your class and in the content of your course. And also guide your students to learn at a deeper level, and the results will definitely be worthwhile.

Guided Exploration

A fourth area I recommend is called guided exploration. Guided exploration helps your students quite a bit. It can be delivered as an instructor-made video. Perhaps you are doing a screencast that walks through the entire classroom, showing your students around. Maybe it’s a narrated screencast. It could be a classroom tour, a list of steps for investigating a topic, a guided exercise in the subject matter. Maybe it’s an analysis presentation of some kind of case study or other issue, or other teacher-led tools.

When we think about guided exploration, this is often the idea of lecturing on a content matter. If you use guided exploration, really what you’re doing is giving an overview of a subject or the topic, walking students through it, and describing, discussing, and analyzing it as you go.

As the instructor, you’re giving a little bit more information about the thinking for this kind of subject, maybe what we might notice. One example I’d like to share is from the music appreciation class, because of course, that’s my subject area. Guided exploration in this case might be a recording of a performance where I’m going to pause it, point out a few things in that video, discuss it and record myself doing this, and then continue recording a little segment and talk through which musical devices are showing up.

As I do that kind of guided exploration video, my students are going to have a lot more hands-on guidance so that when they listen to their musical example and have to analyze it, they feel a little bit more prepared.

Leveraging Your Learning Management System

The last method or strategy that I would like to share with you today is your LMS. Your LMS, of course, isn’t a strategy itself, but it comes with a lot of different components to help you track student progress and create creative assignments. You can communicate with everyone through your LMS, usually. You can also reach individuals privately. There might be some kind of messaging feature. There might be something also that enables interaction or even live video. Leveraging your LMS and all of its different components could allow you to create things that are new and different.

Some learning management systems have a group setting. You can take a forum discussion and randomly assign students into different groups so that they’re just discussing the topic in smaller groups than they normally would. Sometimes this alone is a very engaging method for students to get connected and a strategy for helping them dive to a deeper level.

Just in review, we’ve talked today about asynchronous discussions, group work, games and simulations, guided exploration, and learning management system components. Methods and strategies in your online class are a little bit different than deciding what to teach, it’s more about deciding how you will teach it.

As you spend the time creatively deciding your methods and strategies, you’re going to be able to be creating something that is more interesting for your students and more engaging overall. It will also give you that feeling of trying something fresh every so often. So that you don’t get stuck in patterns that you teach every single semester, but that you keep trying something new.

I hope you will try at least one of these methods and strategies today to freshen up your online teaching. And I wish you all the best this week in your online teaching.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

 

#38: Asking Great Questions Can Improve Student Engagement

#38: Asking Great Questions Can Improve Student Engagement

This content first appeared at APUSEdge.Com

Increasing engagement in the online classroom can often be challenging for educators. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses the importance of asking great questions to solicit information from students, generate more detailed discussion forums, and get students to think more deeply about a topic. Learn seven steps to develop creative and open-ended questions and advice for turning statements into engaging questions.

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Today, I’m going to talk with you about asking great questions to up level your teaching in the online environment. Many of us know that asking questions can be a great practice. This happens in discussions. Sometimes we ask questions in our feedback. We might ask questions during a live synchronous session. There are many ways we ask questions when we’re teaching, but particularly when we’re teaching online.

In this episode, we will talk about why asking good questions is important. We will also talk about how to create great questions. And lastly, we will use a strategy to turn any statement into a question. So let’s dive in.

Asking Good Questions Helps Engage Students

Why is asking good questions important? This is a great question, isn’t it? We could debate all day about what makes a good question. What makes a great question? Whether we should ask questions? Or tell?

The bottom line is great questions involve using a question to get a student to think, explore, analyze, debate, or examine information in a deep way. Asking students questions can motivate their curiosity about the topic and it can help you understand whether or not they have learned what they’re supposed to be learning.

Questions turn the student into the teacher. There’s a well-known concept that when we teach something to others, we learn it better. The more we ask students questions, the more they master the content. However, effective questioning is about asking the right kind of questions.

There are several questions we could ask, but the distinction I want to make here is the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions. An open-ended question allows for many possibilities. An open-ended question asks a student to contribute their unique frame of reference, but it also allows them to take one of many possible approaches to the answer.

With an open-ended question, students might all answer differently. There could be a variety of responses given. Many interpretations. Many approaches. In the end, an open-ended question invites. Open-ended questions start with what, how, why.

Closed-ended questions, in contrast, usually lead to one specific answer. Closed-ended questions might simply be a yes or no response. A closed-ended question discourages exploration. It actually just asks for a report. Usually a closed-ended question is asking about facts. A closed-ended question might begin with, do you, does it, is it. All of these could be answered in a very simple yes or no.

[Podcast: Developing Leadership Skills in Online Higher Education]

Why is asking good questions important in online education? Because we have discussion boards and assignments as some of our primary feedback methods of how students are learning, and where we’re going to give the feedback, we really want to solicit a lot of information from our students. We also want to get our students thinking deeply through these activities. Asking good questions in these areas invites creativity. Exploration. It also invites students to really think about what they’re going to say in response.

Especially in a discussion area, if we ask great questions, a detailed dialogue follows. When we ask closed-ended questions or poorly created questions, all of the students respond in the same way. They provide similar responses. There’s not a lot of interaction because there’s nothing really to discuss. And it’s very difficult to get the conversation flowing.

As a faculty member or a teacher online, if you ever find a discussion falling flat, I would suggest the first step is to look at the questions asked in the beginning of this discussion. Is there something about those questions that closes it down from the get go? Is there something that could be added to fill it out? Now, those are yes or no questions. Really, it’s either effective or it’s closing things down. Think about the quality of the questions in discussion forums specifically, and whether or not you believe there’s a right answer.

When you, as the instructor approach a discussion as if there is one right answer, chances are the discussion is going to move in a very narrow, closed-up fashion. I would suggest exploring other types of questioning to open that up, and to help students generate more possibilities, more connections, and more understanding.

As you think about the role questions play in your online teaching, consider this: Each of your students is a member of a learning community. There’s a whole system in your classroom. Bigger than that, your students are each members of professional communities outside of that classroom. What can you do to open their thinking to these broader spaces? To help them feel connected in this learning community of your classroom, and also to help them feel connected to the bigger professional community that they are also a part of? What can you do to monitor your students’ learning through asking creative questions and great questions? And what can you do to find out what students know about this subject?

Many faculty members are very concerned about plagiarism, and rightly so. There are plenty of websites out there offering students quick responses, answers they can copy and paste into your course. There are even professional essay writers available to write the students’ papers and discussions for them.

Getting to know your students through their week one introductions and through their backgrounds, you can start to think about what they might already know and what they need to learn. As you’re monitoring student learning through the discussions, through the assignments and through all those other activities you might include, consider how they can uniquely apply the content. In your questions when you ask students to apply the content, there are unique responses. Doing this through great questions is a very clever and creative way to do it.

A Formula for Creating Good Questions

Now we’re going to talk about how to ask great questions. Some of the ideas I will share with you here come from a book called Everyday Instructional Coaching: Seven Daily Drivers to Support Teacher Effectiveness by Nathan Lang-Raad. This book is really designed to coach faculty so that you can go out and observe, mentor, teach, coach, and interact with a variety of faculty members on various levels.

In one section of his book, Nathan has a whole area devoted to question strategies. Now these question strategies are initially targeting the instructional coach. As a teacher and an instructor, I propose that you are also a coach to your students. This is why I’m sharing the strategies with you now. The author here suggests there is a question formulation technique created by some researchers at the Right Question Institute, it’s called the Question Formulation Process.

Step 1: Identify a Question Focus

There are seven steps to creating great questions and the first one is to identify a question focus. When you identify the question focus your thinking about the starting point. It’s not really the question itself, it’s the topic. Think about the topic, the problem, or the situation. What is it exactly you’re focusing on in your question?

Step 2: Brainstorm Many Questions

Second, follow the rules for producing questions. One of the suggestions the author makes here is to ask a lot of questions. This is the brainstorming strategy. Ask as many questions as you can, don’t stop, judge or discount any of your questions, and write them all down. Look through and consider what is going to generate the best results from your students. You can create buy-in, you can also create engagement through your questions. Brainstorming a lot of different questions you might choose will help you come up with even better questions.

Step 3: Selecting and Producing Questions

The third step is producing the questions. You take your topic that you initially started with, your topic or your problem or your situation that you’re going to focus on, and you’ve brainstormed a lot of possible questions. Here, we want to focus on what is going to generate the most open information? Produce the question that is open ended and look at the quality of this question.

Step 4: Improving Your Questions

Next, the fourth step is improving your questions. You can go back to this list of questions you created and cross off any that are closed ended. As you read them, consider: is there a yes or no answer that is easy to come with? Do you, is it, those kinds of beginnings definitely signal less effective questions.

As you go through, look at the beginning of the question. Determine would you like to phrase it differently? What might invite more? Also ask yourself, does this question have enough information to get students moving in the direction I’d like them to go?

For example, if we ask too short of a question, we might actually get totally different results in the responses. Does the question include enough information to generate true discussion about that content?

The best way to check your questions for alignment is to go back to your purpose for asking the question in the first place. Look at the topic and your goal for asking that question. Does it align with your focus? If the answer is yes, you can use that question with some confidence that it’s going to yield the results you’re looking for.

Step 5: Prioritize the Questions

The fifth step in asking great questions, and developing great questions, is to prioritize. If you’ve done your due diligence and you’ve created quite a list of questions, choose the top three. Narrow them down and determine which three are your best possibilities.

Step 6: Establish Your Next Steps

Now you can decide which questions you’d like to ask. How will you use these questions? Will you use them in a lesson, in a discussion area, in an assignment? Review the way you will use your questions.

Step 7: Reflecting

The last step is to reflect on what you’ve learned in the process of selecting your questions. Also reflect on the effectiveness of your questions. This involves using them with your students, evaluating the outcomes, and determining how effective your questioning strategies were.

In the end, effective open-ended questions explicitly tied to your topic and your instructional goals that are well suited for the ways in which you will use them such as in discussions or elsewhere, these will be great questions. Now let’s move to our last and final area today.

How to Turn a Statement into a Question

A strategy to turn any statement into a question. I share this strategy with you because I have evaluated a lot of content, a lot of programming, many course design models, and a lot of forum discussion prompts specifically.

Many times I find educators giving statements to students rather than asking questions. A statement would be something like, “Tell me what you believe to be the most important outcome of X, Y, Z concept.” When you ask someone a question instead, it opens up thinking. When you speak in terms of a statement that you want to elicit a different response, it’s very directive and often closes down thinking.

Instead of, “Tell me X, Y, Z,” this can easily be turned into a great question by saying, “What are the primary outcomes that seem most important to you from whatever this is?” You can also say, “In your opinion, and based on the evidence you’ve learned in this class, what do you believe to be the most important outcomes of this historical event?”

When you ask a question like that, it’s also helpful to follow it up with an expectation. “In your response please give reference to your sources used, the concepts you learned and make connections to application, modern day, et cetera.”

As you give students your great questions and turn statements into questions, you will become much more effective in getting students to propel their own learning, helping them teach themselves more, retain the knowledge more, and become highly engaged in everything they’re learning.

Today, we’ve covered three critical areas of asking questions. The first was, why should we ask good questions? Why is asking good questions important at all? The second, how to ask a great question. And I shared with you a seven step strategy from the book, Everyday Instructional Coaching: Seven Daily Drivers to Support Teacher Effectiveness by Nathan Lang-Raad.

And lastly, a strategy to turn any question into a statement. It’s very simple. Although sometimes it requires practice, especially if it’s a change from your current approach in your classroom.

As you consider using questions in your online teaching, it will become easier to do, and you will find a lot of positive results. From there, you can continue to use your brainstorming process to create more questions, use positive questions, powerful questions, open-ended questions, and questions that generate higher order thinking. Thank you for being here with me today and exploring this topic.

If you have suggestions for future episodes, please visit my website, bethaniehansen.com/request. I love to hear from my listeners, and I’d love to make this podcast even more effective for you. Best wishes to you in your online teaching this week.

 
#28: Five Ways to Make Online Forum Discussions More Creative

#28: Five Ways to Make Online Forum Discussions More Creative

This podcast content initially appeared on OnlineLearningTips.com.

 

Transcript:

This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Thank you for joining me today. We’re going to discuss online discussion forums and specifically, creative ideas to make those discussions more educationally valuable, help your students connect more, and help them to learn as well.

The typical discussion practices that we find in online, higher education across the board are to respond to a question reply to two peers. Well, when you reply to two classmates, often a student can post their answer, go back the very same day, respond to two others, and never enter that discussion again. Unless there’s a really compelling reason for them to do so, that often is the case.

When we create interesting and creative discussions that further their learning, as well as tapping into their creativity and apply to their real lives, the future, and their higher thinking, there’s a better tendency for students to engage in return and talk some more.

We want to be creative as much as we can to really engage the students in their learning. We also want to use a variety of instructional practices, as well as those active verbs from the taxonomies about thinking. These might range anywhere from factual level, all the way up to analysis and synthesis and creation.

The way we write the discussion forum has everything to do with what we get out of the end, where the students are writing and answering that discussion.

Today, I have five creative ideas for you that I think you’re going to enjoy, and I hope they liven up your discussion forums now and in the future, and that you will also enjoy creating more.

 

In a short piece called Generating Lively Online Discussion by John Orlando of North Central University, John tells us about how students are more likely to get involved in a discussion that is already active. If we have a discussion that really promotes activity early in the week, or instructions that ask students to engage early in the week, this is going to provide that kind of high level of interactivity.

In addition to that, we want the instructor to set a schedule for engaging and also responding to all the students that are there. This is going to give students a reason to check-in, return, see the latest posts, and engage further in that discussion. John’s tip about the activity level really comes from two things.

One is part of the instructions for a discussion forum, and the other is the way the instructor responds to students throughout the course and engages in that discussion.

Now, in my role, I have observed a lot of faculty over the course of the last several years, and I’ve noticed there are people who believe that the students should talk privately in that discussion with little intervention from the instructor, and then the instructor comes in later in the week and just adds a little bit or steers it. Then there are other people who post early in the week and are an integral part of that discussion. There are benefits to both of these approaches.

As you write the discussion questions, you want to consider your own involvement. How much will you be there? What kind of responses do you anticipate getting from your students, and will this really foster higher thinking? Will it help them dig into their learning a little bit more and apply the skills that you want them to have? Will it liven up that classroom?

Another thing John Orlando mentions is that students are more comfortable participating when they feel some kind of emotional bond of trust and comfort with others. That’s what he says actually makes the difference between productive discussions and those where there might be flaming comments or inappropriate types of interaction, like you might find on social media.

Be Creative with Week One Forum to Encourage Interaction and Create Psychological Safety for Students

Now, this kind of emotional bonding can occur when you have a bio at the beginning of the course. We’re talking about the week one forum discussion.

Idea number one this week is about your week one introductory forum. The idea is that you would post your bio as a model for students of what you expect, and also have a forum discussion where they introduce themselves, and they share something about their experience in the subject matter, and maybe even answer a creative question in that first week to help everyone get to know them.

You might further consider having a webcam that you use, or using some kind of digital storytelling John recommends, and narration over imagery, or a video where they just introduce themselves, and also type up a little bit.

In that week one discussion, I’ve tried this in my own online teaching, and I find that there’s an interesting thing that happens when you add questions about the subject matter. I’ll tell you about this. The example prompt I’m going to share with you today comes from a music appreciation class, which is the subject I spend a lot of time in, and this is a personal introduction for week one.

Students are asked to answer all the questions, consider numbering them, so they’re easy to find as you read, and pacing the questions into the post just to type in between the questions. Here are the questions that are asked:

  1. Introduce yourself: Where you are from, your profession, your family, your major, where are living now generally, and so forth.
  2. Have you had had any experiences in other cultures or countries? Have you experienced music in your native land, in another country, or in another culture?
  3. If you have experienced the music of any other culture or historical era prior to our course, please share your perception of one or more significant experiences you had with other cultures or eras.
  4. What are your learning goals or expectations for this class, and what do you hope to gain from obtaining your degree?
  5. How might learning about music benefit you?
  6. What kind of music do you connect with most and why? Feel free to share a sound, or video link to a sample of this kind of music to share with classmates.
  7. Tell us about your music or non-musical background, whether you have read music, sung in choir, played an instrument or more. Tell us about you and your feelings or experiences with music. If you have no musical background, don’t be afraid to say so.

Now by asking all these different questions for the first week forum, I’m pretty certain when I have a student truly engaging in the class and when I have one that’s just copying and pasting their initial post from some other course they’re also taking. I also get to know their background in the subject matter, and these are fairly non-threatening questions. They don’t have to study in order to answer these questions. They don’t have to know anything from the class, and they can fully engage in that very first week.

The week one introduction is a creative way to get to know your students, help them get to know each other, but also create that idea of psychological safety. That way, they’re going to be comfortable trying new concepts and doing the more difficult discussions, where they have to think more deeply in the future weeks.

The more you engage throughout that first week and provide encouraging feedback, and give your students your encouragement, positivity, and inspiration, as well as your acceptance of what they bring to the situation, the more they’re going to be comfortable and ready to go in the following weeks. That week one discussion idea is to tap into their existing knowledge and experience, and really bring it into the class from the very beginning.

Scaffold Complexity to Foster Critical Thinking and Increase Psychological Safety

A second idea you might really enjoy for creative discussions is more a strategy that starts in the beginning weeks of the course, and it increases throughout the class. Now this one I think is clever because it also creates a level of psychological safety. It helps students move from a very basic level of their understanding and their engagement in the discussion, and it takes them to higher levels throughout the course. This one is from Rob Kelly in a called How to Foster Critical Thinking and Student Engagement in Online Discussions.

Rob has a suggestion here that he got from an interview with Marcus Tanner, Jillian Yarbrough, and Andrea McCourt in an interview about online classes at Texas Tech University. Now, these instructors were talking about principles of designing and managing threaded discussions typical of most online classes.

One of the more interesting takeaways from this article is about crafting the discussion questions, and this part is about how lower-level questions early in the course that really don’t tap into the analysis synthesis, or higher thinking too soon help students become comfortable with the content. It also helps them participate while they’re learning their way around the course for those first few weeks, understanding the new topics, the content they’re learning, and really starting to build confidence in the way they engage in the discussion.

Even though a question might be a lower level question for your forums, you would still want them to be open-ended questions. Definitely don’t want closed-ended questions that ask a yes or no question. And if you can have it open-ended that invites a little bit of creativity, students can share in a way that is not threatening, and also enables them to have uniqueness from one student to the next.

I can’t tell you how many times I have taught a class where students read each other’s posts, and then they wanted to reply with their initial post on the exact same topic, instead of reaching outside the box, or being creative.

The more you craft your discussion posts, you want to encourage them to choose a topic not covered yet, an angle not covered yet, something like that that’s going to help them not reproduce the person right before them.

Another idea that has to do with this scaffolding is that in later weeks, you’re going to want to vary that and add more in-depth analysis, synthesis, and higher-thinking activities. You’re really getting to see what students truly understand, and they’re also increasing in complexity, so students are learning at a deeper level throughout the course.

You could, for example, have multi-part questions where in the first part, they’re answering a lower-level thing, and then the second part is going to be more mid-level thinking. Even in the same discussion question, they suggest here that you use more than one level of Bloom’s taxonomy, so that you’re challenging students to think higher and higher and higher as they go through.

If all of your discussion forums are graduated from the very basic level and scaffolded up to the more complex level that you want them to get at during the class, you’re setting them up for a high level of success, and you’re helping them build their confidence where they’re going to be able to engage better and better.

That idea supports three different example forum prompts that I’m going to share with you. Early in the class of, again, I’m going to refer to music appreciation here because that’s my example subject today, there are three different types of discussion prompts that illustrate this scaffolding idea.

The first one would be describing music. You might not know this, but students who are new to thinking about music from any viewpoint other than hearing it need a lots of opportunities to slow down, actively listen, and describe what they’re hearing. It just doesn’t come naturally for most people. In fact, many people remark that they’re used to hearing music in the background, and they’re not really focused on what the music parts sound like.

Active listening can be a challenge, and we discuss it a lot in the forums throughout the music classes. It requires that active listening and some picking apart what they’re hearing, identifying, and then writing about it, discussing it. Then later in the course, we want to move up to more than just descriptions.

That first discussion where they’re using what I call level one skills, they might be identifying the instrument sounds and the basic musical aspects, and maybe they could use some level two skills as well, like describing the music elements they’re hearing.

Then later, we can add level three skills like applying terms to what has been heard, predicting what might happen next in the music, and analyzing the overall musical arc of what has been played, or what has been listened to.

Prompt 1: Select one music selection included in a list provided here (and then the instructor would list six to eight different choices that are applicable to the weekly content), develop an initial forum post that describes the music you selected. Be sure to include the following:

  1. Write the name of your chosen music selection in the title of your initial forum response, so that everyone can tell which piece you chose before reading your post.
  2. In the body of the post, describe the following music aspects within the piece as you heard them: instrumentation, overall mood, tempo, dynamics or loudness and any changes you noticed, tone quality or timbre, melody, harmony, and any other aspects you would like to describe. In your answer, keep in mind that others are reading your initial post, who have not listened to this musical selection. Your description of the music might be the only way they can connect to it. Provide as much description as possible and give details and examples from your listening experience. Be sure to use music terminology.

This idea of using the academic terms and just starting with descriptions is a great way to dive into content the first week of any class. The second idea would be to compare and contrast some concepts. Again, taking from the music appreciation idea, we can compare and contrast two different musical styles to different historical periods, to different performances of a single song.

You could, for example, take a performance that is in front of a live audience of rock music and a performance in front of a live audience of what we call Western art music, and students could compare those.

Those kinds of posts and forum engagement, that kind forum topic, really does require a little guidance from the instructor to ensure that the examples they choose are really what you’re looking for, so be sure to explain fully.

Here’s an example prompt from that idea:

Read chapter four of your textbook about the classical period. Listen to the linked examples while completing your reading assignment. After listening to two examples of Mozart’s music as listed in the book, and also listening to two examples of Haydn’s, compare the styles of these two composers.

In your post share, which four pieces you sampled and by which composers. Tell about your initial impressions of the pieces. What musical similarities and differences did you note between the two composers? Use at least four specific key musical terms, like instrumentation, tempo, mood, texture dynamics, and so forth to discuss. After comparing and contrasting the two composers, which one do you prefer and why.

Then we could take this up another level and in another forum week, we could do the analysis.

This example is about commercials on television. Consider commercials you have watched on television and think about the music that accompanied them. As noted in your textbook, music powerfully affects the conscious and subconscious emotions of listeners. Select a television commercial that has music in it. Post a description of your selection using as much detail as possible about the music used. Provide the YouTube link if possible. Explain the qualities you heard in the commercial and tell about the music’s attractive traits if any. Then answer the following questions:

  • What makes music effective for its advertising purpose?
  • How do you respond to music and advertising, like the example you chose?
  • What role did music seem to play in the commercial?
  • Was the music in the background or more prominently in the focus of the commercial and why?
  • What kind of image or mood did the music seem to convey?

As you think about writing your forum discussion prompts early in the course at a more simple level and later in the course at a more complex level, and scaffolding your students through, this second strategy to writing forum discussion prompts will really help you increase the student’s confidence, continue to build psychological safety, and more effectively guide them to discussing and writing about things in greater depth.

Now, these next three examples come from a presentation that I witnessed that was sponsored by Quality Matters, and it was called Alternative Discussion Structures by Lisa Kidder and Mark Cooper from Idaho State University. It was just this past year, and it was really full of great discussion ideas.

The three I’m going to share with you as part of my five ideas today are case studies, alternate histories, and debates.

Using Case Studies in Discussion Forums

We’ll start out here with the case study idea. And in their suggestion of a case study, it was suggested that the learners will read a real-life case, then answer, discuss, or argue open-ended questions. A question might be something like: What would you do in this situation? Or you might come up with other questions to apply that pertain more to your subject matter. Or they could develop solutions with accompanying data to analyze. Case assignments can be done individually, or in teams so your learners can brainstorm solutions or ideas and share the workload.

A major advantage to teaching with case studies is that the learners actively engage in figuring things from the examples. This develop skills in problem-solving, analytical skills, quantitative or qualitative analysis, decision-making and coping with ambiguity.

Another thing we know students love about case studies is that they’re connected to real life. They’re storytelling. They’re informative. The examples help them to apply the concepts they would otherwise be reading about in the class. A case study can be particularly useful if you want students to be able to apply this knowledge later on outside of class. If your subject matter is particularly applied, that’s a great way to go.

Case studies could involve more than one example, or students could have to come up with their own example, and then share it with classmates who then discuss their case study. Either way, you want to be very clear about what they should discuss, what should they bring in, how they should apply it, how they should approach it, so that you don’t end up with students who are all discussing the exact same example in the exact same way.

You would evaluate the forum posts, basically using your criteria that you establish and advance. Now, the presenters here who shared this example discussed connecting the assignment to previous posts, also drawing insightful links between the case study and professional practice, and application to the real world. Some explanation of their own personal lives, or practice as they apply and also connecting ideas with classmates. Case studies are a fantastic way to bring in all kinds of new ideas, especially if they’re not specifically illustrated in the course content. Good stretch opportunities as well.

Using Alternative History in Forum Discussion

Next, we have the idea of alternate history and in this forum kind of prompt, you would ask students to discuss the way something might have unfolded if something in history had been done differently. The overview of this one is that in an alternative history, that you’re going to pose questions to your learners, like “what might’ve happened different if,” or simply “what if?”

This is going to help your students gained some understanding of the significance of a historical event and also the cause and effect relationship, the chain reaction of the way history unfolded afterwards, and also help your students discuss past and current conflicts. An even better way to write the alternate history is to then say, “After you’ve suggested all of this, how does that connect to things that are happening now?”

The idea is that an alternative history discussion works really well in a discipline that studies and analyzes historical events that already occurred. It can be really difficult to determine what you want to do with some historical topic if you’re not a history teacher. This one is a great way to get your students involved and be really creative about your approach.

Setting up a Debate for Discussion

Lastly, we have the example of a debate. Now the debate can be online. It can be synchronous in real time, or it could be done in your threaded discussions that are asynchronous.

A debate online can be set up between two or more groups or teams, or it could be between students who have been assigned one side of the topic and everyone can be discussing at once. Debates work really well to practice critical thinking skills, argumentation, support for ideas, details, and critical thinking, and it also, of course, actively engages your students.

Some suggestions about when this might work for you are leadership, when students have had limited exposure to different kinds of forums and need some kind of leadership themselves to lead out with ideas. Not everyone’s going to be saying the same thing, so this is an opportunity for them to take a leadership role.

It could also work really well when students need to interpret some kind of literature. It’s a great way to pull out some different interpretations of the texts. This is appropriate for not only texts that have clearly defined opposing views, but also something that could be situated that way. And you might have to provide some context in doing that.

Another time this works well is in theory. The forum discussion might have differing schools of thoughts. Maybe there are several theories within a discipline, or maybe we’re talking about different philosophers and their theories of how things are. This could be exciting for them to engage in the challenge of a typical wisdom exchange or Socratic discussion, or full-on debate within the structure of the formal discussion forum.

Another time it might work well to have a debate would be when you want students to consider ethics. Maybe the best way to explore this idea without controversy would be the devil’s advocate approach. This could be for sensitive subjects. May be difficult for students to remain objective when topics are emotionally charged. You have to be really involved as the instructor and help navigate that debate as it’s occurring.

And another one would be current events. If there’s a current event happening, we might want to debate the implications of it, or how it could be organized differently, or how things might unfold in the future. There are a lot of different angles you could take for relevant topics, and also ways to help students engage in an academic way, supporting their thinking without just throwing personal opinions around and accusing each other.

When you set up debates, you want to give clear instructions about the guidelines. It can be very difficult to get students to argue things from an academic perspective, especially if they have heated emotional feelings on the matter.

You want to choose something fairly simple at first and move up to the more complex, but also I suggest using a debate after they’ve already written a few discussion forums and engaged with each other, where they have practice supporting their ideas in a non-debate situation.

A lot of practice, a lot of context, and you can have great success with debates, where your students will be able to overcome limiting thinking, expand the way they see something, take on different perspectives, and see things from a number of points of view. Debates are a good thing.

Share Your Own Creative Forum Discussion Experience

Today we’ve looked at five different ideas for creative ways to use your discussions, creative discussion prompts. I hope you will try one or more of these and definitely stop by the feedback area at bethaniehansen.com/request. Share your ideas about whether these work for you and if you have suggestions about topics we could cover about discussion forums for the future.

The goal here is that we all know discussions are a great way to connect students to each other and to their faculty member who is teaching the class, but we really want to get out of that rut of having things being repetitive and using the same prompts all the time, where students are likely to just repeat their own ideas, or worse, use the ideas of someone from a previous course. Maybe it’s their friend, or something they found online. Changing your prompts is also a great thing.

If you continue to use the same discussion approaches over time and never try a creative approach, that might work for you just fine. But if you continue to work for the more creative and applied ideas, thinking about the way students move from factual recall up to synthesis and analysis, and scaffolding that process in your discussions, you’re going to have a lot more success with your students.

You’re going to be giving them a little bit more nurturing and mentoring along the way, and students are going to walk away from your class with some real insights and a lot more learning. Creative discussions can really win for your students and for you. I hope you’ll try it this week, and I wish you all the best in your online teaching.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

 

Resources:

 

Hansen, Bethanie. Teaching Music Appreciation Online, Oxford University Press, New York: NY, 2020.

Kelly, Rob. How to Foster Critical Thinking and Student Engagement in Online Discussions, in Teaching Strategies for the Online College Classroom: A Collection of Articles for Faculty, Magna Publications, p. 108-111, 2016.

Kidder, Lisa C., and Mark Cooper. Alternative Discussion Structures. Quality Matters Webinar. 2020.

Orlando, John. Generating Lively Online Discussion, in Teaching Strategies for the Online College Classroom: A Collection of Articles for Faculty, Magna Publications, p. 150-152, 2016.

 

This podcast content initially appeared on OnlineLearningTips.com.