Social discussions

As we have observed, purely social interaction between students is essential for helping build social presence in your course. Exclusively social interactions tend to take place only at the beginning of online courses, most often in the first week of class.

The most important strategy for fostering social interaction in your course is modelling. By fostering a sense of social presence between yourself and your students right away, you will naturally encourage students to extend the same treatment to one another. We have covered a number of techniques for doing this in Unit 3. Student-facilitator interaction; the strategies discussed there, like crafting effective announcements and greetings early on and letting your personality shine through, are essential for student-student engagement, as well. Signalling your own social presence in your course in this way has a positive impact on student experiences and their own interactions (Paquette, 2016).

Check and reflect

Kicking the course off with an invitation to introduce oneself is a nice way to break the ice. All co-facilitators and students should be invited to this activity. Consider being the first to post, as this encourages students to post and models for them what an intro post might look like. It also helps to alleviate students' anxiety about being the first to post ('what if I'm the only one who posts?!'). If you are a course author or instructor, you may already have a short bio page somewhere in your course. If so, what information or aspects of your personality would you like to add in this more social introduction?

If you do not currently have a bio page in your course, what information about yourself would you like to share with your students? What is interesting about you professionally and beyond? Do you have hobbies, a family, or a good funny story that helps capture your personality? What can you share that might spark some interest in you as a person or help some of your students relate to you?

If you have time now, create a short written self-introduction that you can post in your course discussion forums and/or a draft an 'About the Facilitator' or bio page to put in your course. Keep these handy and consider revising them when you complete this unit. You can then use these in your live course. If you'd like to save this task for later, add a reminder in your Facilitator Checklist.


Student introductions

The most common tool used to carry out social conversations at the start of an online course is a text-based discussion forum in which students introduce themselves. However, it is increasingly easy for facilitators and students to introduce multimedia instead of simply typing to one another, and this can now often be done using the same forum tools as would be used for text exchanges. In addition, most learning systems today allow participants to share photos of themselves with the class and to create a short bio or profile of some kind. Depending on the technological limitations involved, it is a good idea to introduce as much variety as possible in terms of how students first meet one another.

Strategies to encourage social introductions

Try to encourage students to share a little more than just their name and other surface-level details about themselves, such as the degree they are majoring in or what year of study they are in. Consider adding prompts that might get students thinking a little more creatively or that might stimulate some real conversation or interest among students. Below are some example “introduce yourself” prompts.

Ask students to share something about themselves that relates to the course topic:

  • Literature or poetry course: What is your favourite poem/play/novel (pick one) and why?
  • Geography course: Post a picture of your favourite natural place on Earth and tell us what you love about it.
  • Social psychology: Post a picture of something that you connect with, that captures something essential to who you are, that you feel comfortable sharing. Briefly explain the connection.
  • Human Biology: What biological process, that you know of, do you find most interesting and why?
  • Math: What is your favourite study/learning strategy or what will you do this term to set yourself up for success in this course? Your answer might outline some of the conditions you set in place that ensure you can focus when you work (e.g., an activity you do before hand, how you set up your workspace, or scheduling to work at a time of day when you are typically alert and/or relaxed). Your answer might reflect additional steps you will use to help you face challenge and overcome getting stuck (e.g., seeking out additional problem sets, posting regularly to the dicussion forum, etc.,).

Encourage students to engage with each other’s posts

What is something people often assume about you and what is something they are often surprised to learn about you? You do not need to reveal anything that is deeply personal or something you do not feel comfortable sharing. Read your peers' introductory posts, and respond to at least one person to whom you see a similarity and identify how you may be similar, or respond to someone who you are really intrigued by.

In addition to modelling and adding some variety to introductions, you can help foster student social interactions by providing a clear structure for these interactions early on. First and foremost, it is crucial to make sure that students are required to interact with each other and introduce themselves in the first weeks of the course. If course introductions are optional, many students may not participate.

Social ice-breakers

Social discussions can often benefit from the use of structured ice-breakers. While many ice-breaker activities can seem a bit corny at times, they are nonetheless a good option for overcoming some of the transactional distance of online courses by getting students to express their personalities beyond the mundane details of where they live and what they are studying. Ice-breakers can also introduce some humour early in a course, which is often helpful for encouraging bonding and friendship. Even if you do not use a formal or pre-set ice-breaker activity, it is worth considering how to draw out interesting humanizing information from your students; they may not think to share the most engaging aspects of their personality unless they have been prompted in some way to do so.

Supplementary resource: Strategies for breaking the ice

The following resource provides some great example ice-breaker exercises you and your students may enjoy.

Case Study

Sergei at computer

Sergei is a father of three who is currently working hard to finish a degree and get started on an exciting second career in your field. He shows a lot of talent in the area and has a genuine passion for the discipline. There’s a lot more to Sergei, too. An accomplished poet, he has published three award-winning books with various small publishers. Sergei loves canoeing and the outdoors, and his friends often remark on his abilities as a storyteller and his delightful sense of humour. In the introductory forum for your course, Sergei posts:

“Hello. My name is Sergei, and this course is required for my degree. Hoping I’ll be ready to graduate soon!”

The post is friendly in tone, but provides us with almost no picture of who Sergei really is. 

Check and reflect


What might you have done, or what prompts might you have provided at the start, to encourage Sergei to share a little more of his personality with the class? Jot down some ideas and refer back to these when you get started on your own course.

Whether or not you choose to introduce a structured ice-breaker, we encourage you to take interest and participate in the social discussions at the beginning of your course. Going out of your way to signal your presence, and interest in your students, helps set the tone for further engagement as your course shifts into the socially instrumental phase (usually in the second or third week).

Content discussions

Content-based discussions are a key part of many online courses. They can range from simple opportunities to ask questions of the instructor all the way to intensive seminar discussions where students engage in deep critical analysis to generate and share genuinely new insights regarding the material under consideration.

As we have already observed, content discussions can take place using a wide range of tools, though they most often use traditional web forums. Content discussions are typically most active and significant during the socially instrumental phase of an online course, in which students focus on learning from each other and exchanging ideas and insights. In small courses, these discussions may take place with the entire class. In larger courses, discussion groups often need to be created in order to keep things manageable for students and facilitators. The following advice, however, applies to either situation.

Facilitator-generated vs. student-generated discussion questions

There are two basic approaches to generating content discussions in an online course.

  1. Present facilitator-generated discussion questions, or series of prompts, and asking students to respond to the prompts and then to one another.
  2. Ask students to initiate the conversation themselves by responding to an open-ended discussion assignment and/or by creating their own student-generated discussion questions.

The table below outlines some advantages and disadvantages to using facilitator-generated and student-generated prompts.

Table 5.2: Advantages and disadvantages of different discussion approaches
Discussion approachAdvantagesDisadvantages
Facilitator-generated discussion questions
  • Helps direct students to essential information
  • Models good critical thinking and analytical skills
  • Can present some of the questions that most occupy experts and scholars in the field
  • May require a smaller time investment from students, especially at the outset of the conversation
  • May not present enough opportunities for variety in responses
  • Many students may feel that their point has already been made and they have little left to add
  • If a discussion prompt does not pique student interest, it may be difficult to shift gears in time to salvage a conversation
Student-initiated discussion questions
  • Can result in a wide variety of topics and perspectives for students to consider
  • Allows students to focus on what most interests them in course materials
  • Helps students practice critical thinking and analytical skills
  • Can require a substantial time investment from students
  • If student workload is not well-balanced, students may feel rushed and quality may decline
  • Some students may still be developing the skills needed to initiate quality discussions in their field

Supplementary resources for fostering enriching discussions

These are some resources that can be used to guide authentic and rich discussions.

This resource provides a list of questions that can be used to cultivate a Socratic dialogue in online discussions.

The next resource, from University of Waterloo, highlights several strategies for seminar and discussion-based courses. The links in the bulleted list below can all be found in this resource and are highlighted here to give you a quick reference.

Remote Teaching: Seminars and Discussion-Based Courses

For more detailed seminar assessments beyond discussions, have a look at these 4th year Social Development Studies courses:



  • Balance of individual and group assignments
  • The latter includes a group presentation and facilitated discussion
  • NOTE: the group presentation uses a tool called VoiceThread, and the approach/instructions must be revised in order to use a video/PPT presentation or Video assignments + Discussion boards.

Whether you are creating discussion questions yourself, or asking students to be more autonomous, the most important thing to keep in mind for encouraging good student-student interaction online is that online students need much more structure when it comes to discussion activities than in-class students typically require. Students who fail to meet expectations for collaboration and discussion are very often unaware that they have fallen short, a problem caused by a lack of clarity regarding discussion assignments and what constitutes quality engagement with them (Lowes, 2014). To improve the quality of online discussions, students need to have a very clear picture of your expectations in relation to all of the following considerations.

Ensuring your students understand what is expected of their discussion posts

Students should always have a very clear picture of:

  • How long their initial discussion posts or contributions should be.
  • When their initial posts or responses should be available to the class.
  • What key elements a high-quality initial post should contain (for example, you might indicate that posts should be argumentative, cite evidence, and/or offer a discussion question for the class, etc.).
  • How many times during a week you expect students to sign into a given discussion.
  • How many responses you expect students to give to their peers.
  • How long response posts (or other types of responses) should be.
  • What qualities you expect in good responses. For example:
    • Responses that advance the conversation instead of just affirming previous comments,
    • Responses that offer new arguments and perspectives, and/or
    • Responses that contain thoughtful critique or new evidence.

Saving time and improving satisfaction: Discussion rubrics

One of the most effective ways of making your expectations surrounding discussions clear is by using a grading rubric to mark the discussions in your course. Research shows that rubrics tend to reduce the overall time spent marking discussions in online courses (Bishop, Grubesic, & Parrish, 2015). More importantly, rubrics increase both student and facilitator satisfaction with online discussions by providing substantially improved clarity regarding expectations (McKinney, 2018).

If a rubric is already part of the design of your course, share it with students as early as you can and guide them through the expectations that it lays out. If your course does not already include a discussion rubric, you may want to consider adding one if possible (TAs may need to approach the course instructor first).

Discussion rubrics

There are many ways to create a grading rubric for course discussions. For instance, holistic rubrics simply rate students’ participation in the discussion on a single scale (usually 1-5) while providing a detailed description of each rating level. Traditional rubrics provide several criteria of participation, each with its own scale, again described in detail. It is the detailed descriptions of each rating level that make rubrics most valuable to you and your students.

To create a traditional discussion rubric, start by listing the 3-5 most important features of the discussion that you will be considering as you mark. Then take some time to reflect on how you would describe exemplary performance in those categories. From there, work your way down, describing each lower mark one by one. Remember, it is the descriptions that count most in the rubric. Now, using the overall value of the discussion assignment, tally the point values for the different rubric ratings. Then be sure to share the rubric with your students!

Supplementary resource

Discussion rubrics

The following resource provides additional information on online discussion forum rubrics with some templates to get you started.

Be present and guide without dominating

If expectations are clear and students have been successful in creating collegial relationships early in the course, it is often beneficial for facilitators to step back from course discussions to some degree during the socially instrumental phase of the course. Discussions really should be a student space, where students are encouraged to think for themselves and practice their communication skills. Sharing your insights is important, so it is often beneficial to participate judiciously (and certainly correct any factual errors you encounter). Yet, when discussion is going well in your course, allow students to communicate primarily with each other.

Keep in mind, however, that students benefit from knowing that you are reading their posts and that you value their input. If students detect that you have simply disappeared from the conversation in your course, their level of engagement is likely to drop significantly.

Signalling presence without dominating

There are a few ways to signal to your students that you are interested in a discussion, and following along carefully, without posting much — or at times, without posting anything at all. Consider the following possibilities:

  • When a discussion is going well, only post to raise questions that you think might drive the conversation forward.
  • Post just once at the very end of a discussion sharing what you consider to be the major take-aways or lingering questions that have arisen during the conversation.
  • Post nothing at all during a given week, but make an announcement at the week’s end thanking the students and describing what you most appreciated about the discussion.

Balance in discussions

It is important to keep in mind that online discussions typically require a much larger time investment on the part of students and facilitators than do in-person discussions. Crafting a thoughtful comment (in written form or using multimedia) takes longer than quickly weighing in on a topic in person, and reading the comments of others, as a discussion unfolds, also takes more time than listening to people speak.

The payoff of all the extra time is that online course discussions can often go deeper into a given subject and may offer opportunities for students to interact who might struggle to do so in a classroom (for example, owing to language barriers, shyness, or other reasons). However, this is only true if students have the time and cognitive space to participate fully in an online discussion. If students are overloaded, they may rush to simply make a minimum number of contributions without interacting deeply.

Balancing activities across the term

If you have control over the due dates for posting or responding in course discussions, be sure you are careful in picking dates that allow enough time to craft thoughtful contributions at the start of the conversation and also enough time to allow for quality responses. Also consider the three phases of the term, aligning your content-driven discussions with the socially instrumental (middle) phase, where cognitive and behavioural engagement with discussions is potentiated.

Moreover, consider whether you can vary the level of student-student interaction you are expecting from week to week. For example, a fully student-led seminar discussion requires a substantial investment of time and energy, while a casual chat about a course-related news article is much less demanding. Varying the intensity of student-student interaction (if you are able to do so as a facilitator) can help students catch their breath enough to interact more effectively. In some weeks, the best choice may be to have no discussion component at all!

Illustration of time commitment and cognitive load from low to high

Scale of time commitment and cognitive load from low to very high Description

The need for balance is especially important to keep in mind during the late stages of your course — the “withdrawal phase” that we described in the previous section. As students naturally shift their attention toward the time-consuming and cognitively demanding tasks of final assignments, they are less able to devote time to student-student interaction and discussions. Yet, as Downing et al. (2007) note, “provided students have engaged in reflective online discussion activity early on, and completed the online course materials, it might be counter-productive to try to sustain involvement through to the end of the course.” If you continue with discussion activities in the late stages of the course, it may be beneficial to try and decrease the intensity of these discussions to allow students to make the necessary room for their other responsibilities.

Check and reflect

If you have access to your course syllabus, now is a good time to go through the modules or course weeks with an eye to student workload in relation to student-student interaction. Which course weeks look busiest with regard to course content and individual assessments? For example, look for weeks containing a midterm, written assignment, or other graded project, or even just a particularly large amount of reading or content. Now, which course weeks seem a little lighter from the workload point of view?

Now, make note of the varying demands on student time that you are expecting for your course.

If you are able, consider introducing lower-intensity forms of student-student interactions during the busiest weeks. If you cannot change the schedule of discussions or interactions, see if you can be more flexible with your expectations during busy weeks. If you are a 'scheduler', consider making a note in your calendar signalling when student workload (and stress-levels) may peak. You may need to increase your availability during these times.

In some cases, you may not be able to make your own decisions about discussion assignments and questions if these have already been determined during the design phase of your course. In such situations, it will remain helpful to match your expectations for student-student engagement to the demands of a given week or module as much as possible and to be ready to help support students and signal your interest in their success especially during those weeks in which demand will be especially high.

Problems in online discussions

Serious problems in online discussions, such as damaging conflict, plagiarism, or harassment are rare in higher education. Less alarming challenges such as quiet students, or conversations drifting off topic are more common, but can create problems that need to be addressed. 

If your discussions are well designed, and your expectations for students are clear, it is most probable that you will run into few such difficulties, or none at all. However, if your course discussions are hitting a snag, and especially if you are running into any of the most serious problems mentioned above, it is important to know what to do.

Supplementary resources 

These two articles from Faculty Focus provide an excellent summary of common problems in online discussions, and best practices for addressing and resolving them. 

Group assignments and peer assessment

The decision about whether to include group projects and/or peer assessments in your course, and what they will be, is made at the design phase. However, if you are facilitating a course that involves group work or peer assessment, there are a few things you can keep in mind to help ensure that student-student interaction on group assignments is as effective as possible. These strategies are similar to those that we have described surrounding discussions in your course.

Four students working collaboratively

As we have already noted, the key difference between group projects and class discussions is that discussions centre on a defined input or prompt, while group assignments provide students with a defined output or project result and allow students to organize themselves from there.

For this reason, the strategies we have already outlined remain the heart of good facilitation in online group work. Once again, the most important technique for the facilitator is modelling. By creating a collaborative tone in your course and providing students with quality feedback on their participation and their individual work, you help guide students towards a more successful experience in their groups. In a similar vein, when you provide clear, consistent, and effective feedback with your own comments and assessments, students are better able to offer one another similar assistance during peer assessment exercises.

Value signalling and transparency (topics we discuss in Unit 4. Student-content interaction) are also particularly important when students are asked to carry out group work. When students experience a higher level of emotional and cognitive engagement with their material thanks to these techniques, they are more likely to interact productively and reach the intended outcomes of the assignment.

Three types of group interaction

Especially notable with respect to student-student interaction in group work and peer assessment is the importance of assessing groups in such a way as to encourage students to interact deeply and productively. Building from earlier work, Susan Lowes (2014) observes three major types of group interaction in online course assignments:

  • Parallel interactions, where the group members exchange comments about the task but do not monitor each other or share thinking. In the present context, this would mean that there would be no interchange of ideas, with the final product a cumulation of individual contributions
  • Associative interactions, where the group members share some information about the task but do not coordinate roles. In the present context, there might be some monitoring of others’ contributions, some interchange of ideas, but the final product would still be a cumulation of individual contributions
  • Cooperative interactions, where group members constantly monitor each other’s work and play complementary roles in completing problems. In the present context, there would be a robust interchange of ideas and the students would jointly create the final product.

These types of interactions are not necessarily better or worse in terms of learning experiences for students; rather, they differ primarily in the degree to which they generate student-student interaction surrounding certain assignments. In some cases, it may be perfectly acceptable for students to work primarily through parallel interaction, for example. However, if you would like group assignments to lead toward more student-student interaction, it may be helpful to guide students in this direction.

According to Lowes (2014), the most essential strategy for encouraging students away from parallel work and toward real interaction is to be sure that their final marks address the process of group work and not just the final product. To this end, it can be helpful to ask students to review one another with respect to their participation in group work and/or provide a self-assessment indicating to you their specific contributions. A rubric detailing how you expect students to contribute to the process of group work, or peer assessment, is once again a great way to clarify for students what they should be doing when they participate in these activities.

If you do not have control over how final marks are assigned for peer review or group activities and cannot create a rubric incorporating elements of the process into final grades, then it will be helpful at a minimum to describe in detail the expectations you have for the process. The more clear your expectations are for students, the better you can expect the student-student interaction to be during these activities.

Check and reflect

If your course contains group activities, peer assessments, or both, take a moment now to reflect on what you really expect from students in terms of the process of carrying out these activities. Write up a paragraph for yourself that describes how an exemplary student interacts with their colleagues during a collaborative activity. Consider the following questions:

For peer assessment activities:

  • What type of information does an exemplary student include in peer feedback?
  • How much critique is appropriate in this exercise?
  • What tone does an exemplary student take when providing feedback?
  • How do they respond to feedback on their own work?
  • What is the time frame for providing peer assessment and feedback?
  • What tools are students expected to use to share their feedback? Do they know how to use these tools, or will they need further instruction?

For group activities, projects, or assignments:

  • How will an exemplary group ensure that work is evenly divided?
  • What should an exemplary group member do if they detect a freeloader in their group or feel that someone is doing all the work?
  • How does an exemplary group member communicate with their colleagues?
  • How often will the members of an exemplary group communicate?
  • How will an exemplary group ensure real collaboration, such as to improve one another’s individual efforts, rather than simply working in parallel and combining elements into a final contribution?
  • How should group members indicate their specific contributions to the project?
  • What tools does an exemplary group use to communicate? Do students already know how to use these tools?
Now, consider how you will share your image of a successful peer assessment or group activity with the class. Can you use a rubric that captures your expectations about the process? If not, how and when can you communicate your expectations to students?

However you approach the issue in the end, it is important to keep in mind that group work and peer assessment can be carried out with surprisingly minimal student-student interaction if you are not mindful about guiding students to interact with one another. If you are relying on these types of assignments to provide much or all of the student-student interaction in your course, you should be especially cognisant of this problem and take steps to help maximize the amount of student-student interaction taking place through these activities.


Bishop, B. W., Grubesic, T. H., & Parrish, T. (2015). Collaborative development and assessment of student learning outcomes for LIS electives. Journal of education for library and information science, 56(4), 272-282.

Downing, K. J., Lam, T., Kwong, T., Downing, W., & Chan, S. (2007). Creating interaction in online learning: A case study. Research in learning technology, 15(3), 201-215.

Lowes, S. (2014). How much "group" is there in online group work? Journal of asynchronous learning networks, 18(1).

McKinney, B. K. (2018). The impact of program-wide discussion board grading rubrics on student and faculty satisfaction. Online Learning, 22(2), 289-299.

Paquette, P. (2016). Instructing the instructors: Training instructors to use social presence cues in online courses. The Journal of Educators Online, 13(1), 80-108.