ION | Illinois Online Network


Specific Activities That Promote Online Discussion


Various types of online discussions:

Break the ice:

On the first day of Virtual Class, send a short biography sketch describing yourself and interesting things about you that pertain to the course. Require your students to do the same during the first week. It could also be helpful to include a photo (although not necessary). This activity creates a sense of community, gives the instructor the opportunity to have a profile of the students in the class, and helps students find common links among themselves. For example bios, see the ION Making the Virtual Classroom a Reality instructor information pages.

Form learning teams:

In an open and communicative online environment, students can find peers with similar interests and form study groups. The advantage for promoting online interaction is that learning teams should bond and thus make each student in the group want to do his or her share. Here are some activities for small groups working online:
  • Provide each other with mutual support and advice on a variety of topics, including test preparation and administrative matters.
  • Critique each other's written work, for example: term papers.
  • Develop a team presentation or report on a specific topic.
  • Collaborate to produce a group answer to an open-ended discussion question.
  • Develop an analysis of a case study.
  • Write a joint research paper.


The instructor or a visiting professor presents material, asks questions, reviews students' answers/comments, and makes summary comments.


Students  interview a person whose profession is related to the course content and then present a summary of the interview to the Virtual Classroom, with ensuing class discussion.


Several guest panelists each provide a small amount of material, engage in discussion among themselves, and then open up discussion to the students.


Students to post a position on a topic to which others respond with pro or con supporting arguments, followed by critique of the arguments.

Discussions Questions:

Use pre-class study questions and advance organizers to encourage critical thinking and informed participation. Assign specific discussion questions (requiring a 1-2-screen response) to individual students with ensuing discussion from all course participants. This ensures that all participants have opportunity to interact. Recycle some of the most important discussion questions throughout the course. This gives students the opportunity to consider more in depth responses to key questions as the course progresses.

Problem Solving/Case Study:

A short problem or case can form the basis of discussion.

Brainstorming Sessions:

First students generate a list of ideas, and then re-think the list by creating a sense of order, structure, or relationships. Finally, participants evaluate each item to produce a short-list and reach a consensus on the best choices. This activity is particularly productive as a pre-writing exercise in preparation for a term paper or essay.


Individual students or groups of students present a project or paper, with a general discussion afterward.

Weekly Summaries:

Have students submit a 1-2 screen summary of what they feel to have been the most important points covered in the course that week and relate this to their work environment (if appropriate). This exercise has four functions:
  1. It helps the students reinforce and synthesize the material covered.
  2. Each student  personalizes the material adapting it to his/her own specific professional, academic, personal needs.
  3. Students get a multitude of perspectives on the week's subject.
  4. It gives insight to the instructor regarding the parts of the course have been effective and maybe what to cover in more in depth next time.

Weekly Critiques:

Require students to submit weekly critiques of an online article or Website relevant to the course content. This activity has three functions:
  1. It allows students to choose what to focus on and take control of their own learning experience.
  2. It brings outside resources into the course.
  3. It provides participants with an extensive list of summaries of related resources which they can choose to read, or archive for later use.

Student-led discussions

Each student submits one critical thinking question to the class discussion forum about the reading material for that week and is then responsible for leading the discussion that generates from his/her question. In other words, the students become the facilitators of their own discussion thread. In order for this to work, students must also be required to participate in at least 2 or 3 discussion threads in addition to their own (they can participate in more if they want).

Office Hours:

If a student comes to your office hours (either online or onground), with an important question relating to the course content that you are able to help resolve, ask that student to summarize the question, your conversation, and the solution for all members of the Virtual Classroom to read. This is helpful for three reasons:
  • Usually, if one student has a question, there will be others wondering the same thing.
  • In summarizing the office visit conversation, the student will reinforce what was learned.
  • If it is an important issue relating to the course content, all members of the class will benefit from the posting.


Use the discussion function to upload class exams, with answers sent privately from each student to the faculty member and results returned privately.