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Short Guide 5: Discussions for Online Learning

A cluttered tabletop with notebooks, papers, a glass of water and hands holding pens and phones

Discussions for Online Learning

Short Guide #5, July 2020

1. Why Discussions

Discussions can be used for a variety of purposes in an online environment. They help foster a sense of connection between students and teachers and encourage constructivist forms of learning from each other.

Participation in discussions can be markers of 'attendance' and can also be used as part of formative assessment. There are however a few things to consider before implementing discussions into your course.

2. Discussions - dos and don'ts

Best practice and good old fashioned experience suggests that many things can go right, and also go wrong, with implementing discussions in online learning.

Ensure you think about frequency of discussions in the design process - too many and learners can feel overwhelmed and 'out of ideas'. Too few and there can be a disconnect between peers and missed opportunities for applied learning.

Just as with a face to face setting, contributors to discussions need to feel 'heard' - this might be built into the task itself ('ensure that you read and respond to others' posts) or consist of a teacher/facilitator responding to discussion posts.

Providing a scaffold can also help learners and facilitator plan a response - you might consider the Compliment/Comment/Connection/Question prompt (Stewart-Mitchell, 2017).

Consider also the fact that if there is no face to face contact, students will not necessarily 'know' who is reading their posts. For this reason having an introductory ice-breaker activity (see Short Guide #3: Icebreakers) where learners introduce each other and post a picture of themselves can help.

Other more novel ways to break the ice can be 'post a picture of the view out of your window' or 'introduce your pet', 'take a photo of an object which is special to you'. There are numerous and more creative ways to engage students at the start of semester. This all helps to create a feeling of 'safety' and can help in breaking down the barrier often imposed by a screen.

3. Types of discussions to consider

There are of course a variety of ways to structure a discussion task.

Examples might be:

  • Read a text and respond to the prompt 'What resonated with you in this reading and why?'
  • Response to an artifact or case study also works well as it can help with the facing into the blank screen feeling and writer's block.

For example, you could post an image relevant to the content and ask learners to analyse/reflect/respond to the artifact.

Case studies also work well. If you present a number of up to three case studies, students can choose one and respond. This gives not only learner autonomy in choosing what to respond to but can introduce a nice level of variety in the responses offered.

Often students can read others' posts and think 'they have already said everything, I have nothing to add here'. Using artifacts, case studies and choice in responses can help alleviate this.

Further Resources

Gernsbacher, M.A. (2016) 5 Tips in Online Discussions. Available from

Stewart-Mitchell, J. (2017) 3C and Q model. *While this was developed for senior students in second level education, it is adaptable to any age and context. Available from

Verenikina, I., Jones, P. T. & Delahunty, J. (2017). The Guide to Fostering Asynchronous Online Discussion in Higher Education. Available from:


Section 5.4 of the Teaching with Canvas course deals specifically with Discussions. This course is available to all UCC staff and has been designed by the Centre for Digital Education. Available from

TeachDigi, the UCC series of digital educational training supports for UCC staff, is running a session on 'Discussion Boards' on August 5th. Details available from


Preparing for September

This section includes reflections from staff across the University on what worked well in the past and what they are planning in their future teaching:


I coordinate the MA in Strategic Studies, and we’ve put discussion boards at the heart of our curriculum. When developing the course, we thought it was really important to develop a sense of community for our students, who are scattered throughout the world in different time zones.

Because that sense of community was important to us, there were a few requirements that we built into our syllabi to help to promote it. Firstly, we give marks not only for student responses to discussion prompts, but for commenting on the posts of others as well. Secondly, we try to make sure that students post their initial responses early in the week, so as to allow for plenty of time for interaction and debate. Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, so there’s almost always something that catches the attention of the group and prompts a useful discussion. Finally, we prioritize asking open-ended questions, so that students aren’t simply summarizing the readings, but are hopefully bringing their own experiences to the conversation as well.

I also try to use my own presence on the discussion boards as a tool to promote good conversations. In the early weeks, I might be more present, making a point to respond to and affirm what I see as posts that move the conversation forward, but generally, I prefer not to jump into conversations immediately, so that I give the students the space and time to develop their own ideas.

When all of these elements work together, the students really take ownership of the discussion board, and the conversations take on a momentum of their own.  

David Fitzgerald, School of History



Training and Support

Getting Started webpage

This webpage introduces both academic and professional staff to the first steps in preparing to teach (and support teaching) remotely in September. Guidance is provided on how to teach remotely, the importance of Canvas, what tools to use and when, and signposting you to the relevant training and resources available in this regard.

Teach Digi Summer Training

Learn from academic and instructional designer Dr. Sarah Thelen as she delivers weekly asynchronous recordings structured around Think, Plan, and Teach and supported by Live Q&As. A great entry point for those who have their curriculum and learning activities already prepared.

Canvas training

Do you want to learn how to use UCC's virtual learning environment more effectively? Look no further. Sophie Gahan of the CDE is delivering weekly Canvas training over the summer.

CIRTL Learning Design workshops

Are you thinking about how you will teach in September, January, and beyond? The Learning Design workshop guides you through some collaborative structured exercises to provide a robust framework for curriculum and learning design. Patrick Kiely of CIRTL will host these workshops throughout the summer.

AVMS Guide to online video and collaboration

Panopto is not just about lecture capture you know? MS Teams is not just for meetings. Get oriented to the full capability of the UCC's video tools. A great starting point before pressing the record button!

ITS Teaching and Working remotely (tools)

Microsoft Office 365, Google Suite for Education, and everything else. A great resource for those who want to review and learn about all of the tools we have available in UCC. 

UCC Skills Centre

Supporting students through the closure and now a comprehensive resource for September and beyond. See where you can direct your students to help them reach their potential.

Centre for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL)

West Lodge, Main Campus,