Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon Portland Community College

This content was published: November 26, 2018. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

Take your discussions out of the box

Posted by

Tired of reading the same tedious responses to your discussion topics? Do your students tire of following the same formula, resulting in the same types of message posts? Are the replies shallow, lacking in substance? In the recent The Teaching Professor article “Five new twists for online discussions,” Kristin Kowal and Laurie Berry offer five unique ideas for creating a fresh approach to getting students engaged in the topic at hand.

Add images of examples

Encourage a creative spark by promoting the addition of images with student discussion posts. Images can speak volumes in exemplifying ideas. They can potentially let one’s personality shine through, and can grab attention in ways that are impossible for paragraphs of text. Images are great for building connections and bringing meaning to concepts expressed through text.

External discussion and reflection

Students are asked to have a half-hour live discussion with someone outside of the class and then post a reflection to the online discussion. The difficult part about this one is that it requires a comfortable level of background knowledge on the part of the student in order to engage someone in such a discussion. In many cases it would require the student to explain a concept or background knowledge as part of the conversation, which is an excellent approach to building meaning, internalizing a concept or forming an opinion. I can imagine a number of subject areas where this would be a useful activity, especially where there are opportunities for critical thinking.


mock debate clip art

Copyright: Corina Rosu, 123rf images

Students choose a viewpoint on a particular topic and articulates an argument to support that viewpoint. They receive responses in the form of an opposing viewpoint, and then write up a rebuttal. Presenting one’s opinion with a well-crafted argument is an important skill to have. As a follow up to this, other students could comment on which direction their opinion shifted (as opposed to which opinion they agree with) due to the arguments presented. A twist on this would be to conduct this through an anonymous poll, e.g. using Kahoot or Poll Everywhere.

Role play

A bit of a twist on the debate post, students are assigned a viewpoint on a topic, or perhaps they are asked to support the opposite viewpoint from what they supported in the debate. They do some research to support a post from this new perspective. Students review the various perspectives and write a reflection based on the various perspectives. This activity is particularly useful in that it creates safe opportunities for students to view issues from different perspectives.

drama theater masks - comedy and tragedy

Copyright: Bruno Passigatti 123rf images

On a related note, a similar activity I enjoyed using with an upper level ESL course was to have students enter our “virtual party room” in the role of one of the characters in a novel we were reading, roles secretly assigned by me ahead of time. After some discussion “in character,” students tried to identify the characters represented, a bit of a masquerade party. It was a hoot!


Image of cats watching fish in a fishbowl


This method allows learning to take place through observing the discussions of others engaged in discussion, and they can be asked to reflect on their observation in a separate topic area. Students switch roles for the next discussion assignment, thereby giving everyone a chance to be in the fishbowl. It strikes me that this technique could be used in connection with the Debate method described above.

Read more in The Teaching Professor…

These are only a few highlights. For the detailed article complete with examples and more about how these techniques are used, please see “Five New Twists for Online Discussions” in The Teaching Professor. While you are there, be sure to puruse some of the other artcles of high interest to educators (online, classroom, or hybrid), e.g.

Included with our PCC subscription is a monthly “20-minute Mentor” video. For a few more days (through November) we can view “Copyright Crash Course: How Can I Stay on the Right Side of the Law?” (presented by Thomas J. Tobin, PhD)

Access to The Teaching ProfessorThe Teaching Professor logo

Please take advantage of our PCC subscription to The Teaching Professor. It’s an excellent resource. There are two ways to access the latest content or browse the archives:

  1. On-campus: Just follow the direct links in the message above, or go to www.teachingprofessor.com to peruse the content. It is not necessary to create an account or log in to access the subscription when on-campus.
  2. From off-campus, and/or to sign up to receive email notifications as new content is published online… activate your own personal account to use with our PCC group membership. (Note: At this time, you must be off campus in order to activate your own personal account.)
    1. Follow this link to activate your personal account.
    2. Fill in the required fields under Account information, then click Submit and Confirm.

As an alternative, just send me an email letting me know you’d like to activate a personal account so you’ll receive notifications from The Teaching Professor. I’ll compile a list and send your name and PCC email to Magna Publications, and they’ll take care of the rest.

With The Teaching Professor you can read the most recent articles, search for content, or drill down by topic category. To view previously published articles by date, use the Monthly Archives feature in the right-hand column.

About Greg Kaminski

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