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This content was published: December 9, 2013. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

Why are my online discussions so boring?

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Many faculty who teach online classes are dissatisfied with the quality of online discussion. Discussion in our face-to-face classes seems so robust and interesting. Why is it so much harder to facilitate a satisfying discussion online? A couple of reasons:

  • Information-gap discussion doesn’t work well online: Most discussion in the face-to-face world involves what are called “information-gap activities”: I have some information; you don’t have the information; so you ask me for the information and I provide it. You are then satisfied. But this type of activity doesn’t work well online – in fact, it curtails discussion. Online discussion tools are tailored for more expansive discussion, which many instructors find more challenging to facilitate.
  • Everyone has to participate online: If you were to audit your face-to-face classes, you’d most likely find that a core group of 5-10 people actually does most of the talking; the other 20-25 people are mostly silent. So your face-to-face class only seems to have more robust conversation – the majority of your students don’t actually get much from it. But herein lies an opportunity: the quietest, most withdrawn students in your face-to-face class can be the most talkative and interesting online. Still, it’s challenging to involve everyone in an online discussion.

Here are some tips for getting the most from online discussion:

  • Require a product of discussion: The best discussion, online or face-to-face, involves negotiation between and among participants, brings in strong evidence to support points, and reaches a conclusion. These good things rarely happen when the goal of discussion is merely … discussion. The traditional discussion prompt – “Make your point and respond to one other person’s post” – is practically a recipe for boring discussion. I like to require a “consensus document” as a product of online discussion, which forces students to come to agreement on a problem or controversial issue and then justify their agreement or lack thereof.
  • Use small groups: Group activities in the online environment are more work to set up – assigning students to small groups takes a bit of effort and organization. But most online instructors swear by the quality of small-group online discussion. How much can you really add to a discussion between 25 or 30 people? Not only is it intimidating to talk in front of that many people, there’s usually nothing new to say after 10 or 12 people have had a say. But in a group of three or four students, it’s much easier to venture a fresh opinion or offer a new perspective or point out neglected evidence.
  • Use the “post before reading others’ posts” setting: Version 10 of D2L has a new setting for discussion topics. The setting keeps a student from being able to see anyone else’s posts until they have posted to the discussion board for that topic. This setting should help to cut down on some of the “lurking” and “loafing” behaviors you see on discussion boards, and allow you to assess an individual student’s contribution more accurately.
  • Use a grading rubric that emphasizes quality over quantity: Students will give you what you ask for. If you ask for a certain number of posts, students will provide it – and usually no more. But if you set a number of postings as a baseline and then establish criteria based on quality of postings, you’ll get higher-quality postings. A rubric is a great way to communicate these standards.
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x by Martha Hirsch 8 years ago

could you provide an example of a statement in a rubric that would encourage higher quality postings and one that encourages quality over quantity.

also, how would you recommend dealing with a class of 50-75 students

x by Peter Seaman (author) 8 years ago

Hi Martha: You asked about a statement in a rubric that would promote quality over quantity. Here’s an example: “Your posting must contain at least 150 words and apply the concepts introduced in chapter 2 and use the vocabulary from that chapter. It must also paraphrase the original posting to which you are replying.” Some might argue that an emphasis on number of words takes us back to quantity, but I’d argue you’re always going to need some quantitative elements. The key is to use them as a baseline, not as a final measure. I see way too many directions like “Post once and reply to one other post,” which shares no expectations around quality of posting.

You asked about managing a class of 50-75 students. I’d recommend using small groups. With a class of that size, you’d want students to sign up for groups (so you don’t have to worry about assigning them). If you have, say, groups of 4 with four discussions, you could have each person take a turn as discussion leader with certain assigned duties such as summarizing, coordinating, etc. And there should be a PRODUCT of discussion, like a report or consensus document, not just discussion itself. It’s more work but you get deeper learning and also better discussion. Thanks. – Peter

x by Kristen Fink 8 years ago

I’m intrigued by the “post before reading others’ posts” setting. Which version of D2L are we using? How does on access this setting?

x by Peter Seaman (author) 8 years ago

Hi Kristen: Thanks for your questions. Version 10 of D2L, which we started using in summer 2013, has the new feature (though Moodle and probably other LMSs have had the feature for years). To find out about it, you can visit this page on our web site – also new since 2013:


Happy new year! – Peter

x by Matt Matteini 7 years ago

I’ve found that engaging stimulating/debatable topics is often a great way of engaging students in the online educational community. But, that said, teachers need to make a conscious effort not to engage confirmation bias and grade based on agreement in opinion but rather on the quality of work that the student has presented. In the WR 122 course that I took with Kristen, I greatly appreciated being able to respectfully disagree with articles and other postings and present my opinions around hotly debated topics.

x by Matt Matteini 7 years ago

I’d be weary of “posting before reading other’s postings”. The idea is solid in that it encourages independent thought, but that comes with the disadvantage of students not being able to build on each other’s ideas. And for the participants who have difficulty with reflections, sometimes it might be useful to see how someone else has reflected. But that said, I can understand why it might be a useful tool.

Also, just wanted to say that I really appreciate the quality over quantity grading rubric idea that was presented here.

–Matt Matteini

x by Peter Seaman 7 years ago

Hi Matthew: I take it you are presenting a student’s perspective on online discussion, which is good for instructors to hear. Teaching is one of the most difficult professions, I think, because the teacher has to make the student slightly uncomfortable. Vygotsky’s idea of “the zone of proximal development” describes this discomfort really well, I think. Good luck with your studies! – Peter

x by Joe H. 2 years ago

What is frustrating to me is the use of acronyms or abbreviations e.g. Version 10 of D2L What is that??? If people want to use the acronym or abbreviation then they need to spell it out first and then use later in the article, but for those of us who do not know it – please spell it out. Thanks.

x by Joe H. 2 years ago

Most of my discussions that that the student has to respond to the initial post with at least 5 full lines. That they need to use the Netiquette Gudelines. Their second posts needs to be a substantive response to the other student’s post of at least 5 full lines. I inform the students that I will copy and paste any post to a word document using Times New Roman font size 12. If it does not meet those specifications they they will lose points. Most of the time I get good replies, but once I take off points those who did not meet the specifications improve in the future.

x by Sue Martin 1 year ago

I agree with Joe that acronyms and abbreviations should only be used after first spelling it out, explaining what is meant. I am not very computer literate so sometimes when I’m reading and come to an acronym or abbreviation that I’m not familiar with it becomes a road block and prevents me from moving on in my understanding of what is trying to be conveyed. For example, in child development we often talk about DAP, which is Developmentally Appropriate Practice. For students who are unfamiliar with that terminology they might feel clueless and unsure about how to respond in the discussion.

x by farrell Foreman 1 year ago

I agree that discussion without direction or goals is probably not
valuable at all. We need to nudge folk in the right direction. Small groups
seem to be the best with an appointed leader or coordinator(by the group)
The key would be to set the stage, develop a prompt for discussion that
can lead folk in a “creative direction”. Sometimes a quote can generate the
right stuff. “Only fools and madmen are please with themselves. No wise man is
good enough for his own satisfaction”. Benjamin Whichcote

x by Mary C.Ross 1 year ago

Thanks for focusing on the basic nature of learning which is interactive and engaging. In my communication courses, the Break Out Rooms on Zoom are the greatest for keeping a greater semblance of face to face interaction in the synchronous-remote format.