Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen
Faculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities
Online learning classes commonly require students to read from electronic books, watch videos and listen to podcasts, as well as complete tests and write papers. In addition, these online classes also have a weekly discussion forum, where an instructor will post a discussion prompt that the students must research in order to provide a detailed response.
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In the online classroom, teachers rely on these discussion forums to generate engagement among students and expand learning concepts. In this episode of the Online Teaching Lounge, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides teachers five examples of creative forum prompts to ensure discussions are more educationally valuable, create psychological safety so students feel more confident sharing their ideas, and more effectively guide students to discussing and writing about things in greater depth.
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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 the 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:
- Introduce yourself: Where you are from, your profession, your family, your major, where you are living now generally and so forth.
- Have you had any experiences in other cultures or countries? Have you experienced music in your native land, in another country or in another culture?
- 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.
- What are your learning goals or expectations for this class, and what do you hope to gain from obtaining your degree?
- How might learning about music benefit you?
- 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.
- 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, 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 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), and develop an initial forum post that describes the music you selected. Be sure to include the following:
- 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.
- 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 of 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 trait,s 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 develops 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, [and it] 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.
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.
About the Speaker
Dr. Bethanie Hansen is a Faculty Director and Certified Professional Coach for the School of Arts & Humanities at American Public University. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is an educator, coach, manager, writer, presenter and musician with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.