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This content was published: July 18, 2016. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

Looking for more in-depth discussions?

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picture of someone writing on computerDoes the technique of asking students to post to a discussion and then respond to two classmates work for you, or do only a few students always seem to contribute to the bulk of the discussion? One of the most common concerns online instructors talk about is the lack of depth they are able to achieve in their online discussions. What can instructors do to design discussions that will inspire more thoughtful posts that dive into the topic at a deeper level?

I know that a number of online instructors at PCC have been successful with this, and I hope that some of you will share your strategies in a response post. I’d like to offer one technique recently shared by Julie Moore in her article “Using online protocols for discussions” (Online Classroom, May 2016 – access information below). Julie Moore, associate professor of instructional technology at Kennesaw State University, has adapted a number of “protocols” that help to engage students by asking them to express their thoughts from different perspectives. One of her favorites for getting students to engage and read more deeply into texts is called “The 4As.” It’s a protocol that has also been used widely by Critical Friends groups. Here are Julie’s steps for using the “4 As” approach.

Using the “4 As” in the online environment

The instructor sets up five separate discussion threads, one each for the 4As and one for reflection. Pin these threads so they stay at the top of the discussion board. Use the following prompts as discussion topic titles:

picture of student blogging on computer

  1. Assumptions—What does the author assume in the text?
  2. Agree—What do you agree with in the text?
  3. Argue—What do you argue with in the text?
  4. Aspire or Act Upon—What in the text would you like to aspire to or act upon?
  5. Reflection

Read the text. Respond to each of the 4As threads.


Read others’ texts in each of the threads. Do you notice any commonalities or similarities? What “Ah ha” ideas did you gain from reading others’ 4As? What was it like to read a text in this way?

If you give this a try, let us know how it works for you. I also encourage you to share your own favorite strategy for inspiring students to discuss at a deeper level in a response to this blog post.

Online Classroom logo

To learn about more protocols that Julie uses, please see the full article “Using online protocols for discussions,” available through our PCC subscription to “Online Classroom.” Here’s how to access these articles. Yes, the first time you access is cumbersome, not intuitive, but subsequent visits each month are easy. While you’re there, for a good read this summer check out some of the recent articles in the archives. Here are some sample articles…

May 2016

  • Using online protocols for discussions
  • Virtual reality in the classroom
  • Digital storytelling for enhanced learning
  • Teach reading skills with student-generated questions
  • Add interactivity to live sessions with “Dotstorming”

June 2016

  • What documentary filmmaking can teach us about course design
  • Green screen videos made easy
  • Continuous assessments for better learning
  • Snapchat for education
  • Benefits of video discussion

July 2016

  • Improve learning with student interviews
  • Tips for effective video instruction
  • Best systems for student collaboration
  • Scaffolding learning
  • The benefits of peer review

About Greg Kaminski

Online Learning: online course design consultant, coordinator of Online Faculty Mentors, Quality Matters facilitator, interactive teaching practices enthusiast. more »