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The Power Of Discussion: Activating Learning Online (And In Person)

Social Interaction In Online Courses
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Summary: Making the case for the inclusion of discussion spaces and other social interaction activities in courses and learning materials.

The Importance Of Social Interaction In Online Courses

It's surprising how many educators and learning developers don’t like engaging students in discussions. As a result, many courses and learning products lack options that allow students space to interact with other students or even with the instructor. And though it's remarkable, the rationale is easy to come by, people learn through lectures, contemplation, writing and researching, individual activities, and of course from simply reading. We are always learning, after all, absorbing knowledge and skills from pretty much anything! So why even bother with discussions? Why include interaction with other people? Especially online, where—if done poorly—discussions can often devolve into endless required posts that students slog through.

Discussion, along with other types of social interaction between instructors and students, is a necessary component to learning according to many learning theories. It gives students the chance to engage in active cognitive processing; it demands that they participate in making meaning out of content; and, it forces them to contextualize that meaning among a social group.

So, if you are trying to figure out how to create spaces for discussion and socially interactive learning or convince others that it's worth it, here are some key ways discussions have power:

  • Discussions require students to articulate what they are learning
    A discussion challenges students to engage, apply and externalize content. Contrary to passive activities like listening to lectures or reading texts, discussion spaces require students to actively interpret what they’ve learned in their own words. According to cognitive learning theory, this enhances the student’s learning process by requiring the student to actively wrestle the information they’ve received with what they already know and what others have experienced or interpreted [1].
  • Discussions create active participation in meaning-making
    According to constructivist learning theory, students need the opportunity to participate in creating meaning for themselves. Discussions are an excellent way to allow students to make meaning together by comparing and contrasting various perspectives of the content. Discussion forums online or time in the classroom can be “one of the most effective ways to make students aware of the range of interpretations that are possible in an area of intellectual inquiry [2].”
  • Discussions generate social interaction
    There are few better ways to get students and teachers to interact together than in a great discussion. Social interaction is in itself an important way for students to learn [3]. It allows the space for students to observe and incorporate the cultural aspects of the content and of the various perspectives of this content. Whether they agree with each other or not, in discussions students must relate, confront, challenge and support each other’s ideas.

Students Want To Interact With Other Students

A recent survey of online students at Moravian College—a private liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA—found that students were highly interested in connecting with other students for both educational and professional purposes [4]. This desire to engage wasn’t true of all students; there are people who would rather not engage or who aren’t comfortable with the forum. Yet it is helpful to see that many students are genuinely interested in interacting with others online.

Graph showing result from Moravian College Survey "Online Learners Community Survey." Response to question: How interested are you in connecting with other students in order to learn the content of the course? 37% very interested, 26% somewhat Interested, 26% a little interested, 11% not interested.

So how do we make it happen? Discussion and social interaction can be tricky. That’s as true in an in-person context as it is online. Here are 4 ideas that can get you thinking about incorporating discussions and social interaction into your online, hybrid, or digitally-enabled on-ground course:

1. Encourage Media Responses

Rather than asking students to respond to you or each other with text, ask them to respond using video, audio, or images. This can make the discussion feel more personal, like a real conversation, rather than just another assignment [5].

For example, perhaps you want students to demonstrate a technique in a health sciences or art class, this might lend itself well to a video response. We’ve seen instructors in language classes ask their students to post an oral presentation via a discussion board and allow other students to comment on it. This works particularly well for asynchronous courses. You might also consider asking your students to post audio-only responses. This can be helpful for students who are a bit camera shy. It works well for music courses or other subjects where sound plays a big role. Finally, images can certainly have their place in discussion board posts. We’ve worked with faculty that have asked their students to go on “scavenger hunts” and post images of the items they find. These are just a few ideas to get the ball rolling. With a bit of creativity, the sky is the limit.

2. Discuss Using Role-Playing Or Alternative Perspectives

You can get your students thinking more critically about a topic by asking them to respond from a perspective other than their own. Consider assigning students different roles, asking them to respond as they if they were that person or part of that group. We’ve seen this work particularly well in history and literature courses, though this can work in many different situations.

3. Engage In Debates

Using your discussion board as a forum for a debate has two potential benefits. It creates an atmosphere for a lively and engaging discussion. It also gives you, the instructor, the opportunity to guide students in how to respectfully and intelligently engage in a debate—a skill that sometimes seems to be dwindling in today’s political and societal atmosphere. If using a discussion board as a debate forum, you have the option of assigning students to debate from a particular viewpoint or you can allow them to debate from their own view. Either way, it’s helpful to have a rubric or guidelines set up to guide students toward respectful, well-developed responses. Expect that you or an assigned student will play the moderator.

4. Allow Student-Led Or Moderated Discussions

If you feel this is the right fit for your particular group, consider giving some control and responsibility to your students. Several LMSs and other platforms allow students to start the discussion. You might consider assigning a student to be the discussion leader each week or for a particular topic. You might even leave it more open and allow the student to choose the topic themselves. Either way, you should have guidelines and a rubric in place so students know exactly what is expected of them.

These are just a few ideas to get you started thinking about the power of discussion in your courses or other learning products and experiences. Keep in mind that social engagement is a powerful way to help your students more actively participate in the learning process!


[1] Thomas, Mike. "Cognitive Learning Theories." In Key Concepts in Healthcare Education, edited by Annette McIntosh Janice Gidman and Elizabeth Mason-Whitehead, 23-27, SAGE Key Concepts. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2011. doi: 10.4135/9781446251744.n5.

[2] Brookfield, Stephen, and Stephen Preskill. 2005. Discussion As a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 22.

[3] Okita S.Y. (2012) Social Interactions and Learning. In: Seel N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA

[4] Vallera, Farah, and David Castaneda. 2019. Online Learners Want Community: but, are we really giving it to them? Presentation for OLC Accelerate 2019.

[5] Lieberman, Mark. “Discussion Boards: Valuable, Overused? Discuss.” Inside Higher Ed. 27 March 2019