Asynchronous discussions – how and why

Asynchronous discussions facilitate deeper reflection and critical thinking about course content. Paul Moss explains how to ensure such online discussions benefit all students on their learning journey

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The University of Adelaide

The University of Adelaide
26 Feb 2021
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Advice on getting the most out of asynchronous discussions when teaching online
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How I fostered multilingual student discussion in asynchronous online classes

How to design asynchronous online teaching to foster high levels of spontaneous student discussion

“Discussion enables students to find expression for their own thought, to have it challenged, to place this new idea in relation to the first, and through the resolution of that potential discrepancy, develop a more elaborated or better articulated expression of their thought. That need for checking and confirming thoughts is fundamental,” explained Diana Laurillard of the UCL Knowledge Lab, perfectly capturing why class discussions are so important to learning.

So how can you make discussions work for you? There are four essential considerations:

  • Know why you are using them

  • Let your students know why you are using them

  • Define the expectations

  • Get the ball rolling and stay involved

Know why you are using discussions

Discussions greatly assist in the processing of content. As Laurillard states, the opportunity to articulate what students “think” they know helps to expose the reality of that thought. It is through this social evaluation that deeper construction of knowledge is made possible, if facilitated appropriately.

Asynchronous discussion offers students time to consider what they read and to generate a more composed and thoughtful response. When the response is based on the checking of what is read against personal thoughts, notes and readings from the course, this increases the student’s exposure to the content, strengthening their memory of it. It also encourages students to make connections with points offered by their peers, building contextual or comparable links for future reference.

This benefit of increased exposure to the content is why asynchronous discussion can be so useful compared with face-to-face discussion. As a general rule, higher education students can read significantly faster than they can listen to peers’ answers, so students will consume about 6,000 words in an average asynchronous task, compared with a quarter of that in a face-to-face discussion.

This is probably why research has found that increased discussion resulted in higher grades. All this in addition to the idea that discussion boards and forums generate a sense of community online, serves as compelling proof of their value.

Let your students know why you are using discussions

Like pedagogies employed in the classroom, it is important to explain the purpose of asynchronous discussion to the students. Teaching them about the processes you use is likely to foster greater resilience and perseverance when learning is necessarily challenging, or “desirably difficult”. Helping students adopt richer conceptions of what they stand to gain through discussion leads to improved student progress, research shows.

Students’ metacognition of discussions is strengthened when the type of discussion is made clear. There are several reasons for having a class discussion, including exploring open-ended questions, sharing examples, sharing opinions, sharing experience, asking for peer review or enjoying a debate.

When the purpose of the discussion is clear with the level of complexity you require students to engage in, maybe driven by a taxonomy such as Bloom’s or SOLO, the explicitness of the task facilitates a more directed engagement from students. Failing to provide students with a rubric or expectations for engagement can greatly reduce the discussion’s efficacy.

Define the expectations

Once the type of task is clearly stated, providing parameters will help reduce extraneous cognitive load. Modelling how to engage in each discussion is crucial to elicit the most efficient learning from students.

Developing students’ meta-communication from the start will mean less correcting of decreased or inappropriate engagement later on. Clear and explicit rules of engagement, how to be constructively critical, what tone and style are appropriate, should all be explained to students to avoid misinterpretation. This may involve providing an example via a pinned post in the discussion area for students to refer to.

Articulating what a good contribution looks like can include the length of response, and importantly, the linking of ideas to real-world contexts, likely workplace experiences or to other students’ posts.

Discussion etiquette should be covered, such as giving peers time to respond and how many interactions are necessary. Bear in mind that those who post early are likely to be at a disadvantage to those who post later, having read and evaluated more responses, so it may be necessary to demand more than one interaction. Don’t be afraid to use the discussion as an assessment to ensure such pedagogy is used.

Get the ball rolling and stay involved

Both you and your students having a clear understanding of what the discussion should involve is imperative. The depth of responses will be dependent upon students’ knowledge, but if application and evaluation of content is possible, initiating the discussion with such response sets the tone and expectations for future contributions. Without an opening comment, responses tend to be more random and less interactive.

By getting the ball rolling, the instructor removes the very real barrier of not wanting to be the first to post; not wanting to say the wrong thing; not wanting to look like a fool. This concern is directly correlated to the size of the group, which is why in early undergraduate courses, it is vital that the instructor kick off the discussions. In large groups, students can quickly become learning bystanders, acquiring knowledge but never testing whether they can express it.

Breaking large cohorts into smaller groups may work to ensure every student is getting the most out of discussions. One method to generate responses based on a range of views could be to have each member of a group use another group’s response as a stimulus.

Instructor presence

Teacher presence is vital in a successful discussion forum. But it is a fine art. Too much presence is time-consuming and stifles the chance for students to work through issues and misconceptions on their own. This is something they can do more easily in asynchronous discussions through the extended exposure to the content and ideas.

Too much teacher intervention can prematurely move the debate forward. However, sometimes intervention to alter the direction of discussions is necessary, for instance where there are ingrained misconceptions.

The right balance provides students with the scaffolding they need. When delivered with an encouraging and acknowledging tone, this makes students feel supported in the discussion and part of a community whose collective wisdom they can benefit from.

The conclusion is simple – discussions, when set up and moderated carefully, are likely to improve student learning.

Paul Moss is learning design and capability manager at the University of Adelaide.

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