Many faculty at UW Extended Campus use discussion strategies to engage their students and push them into higher levels of learning. From research, we know such strategies are necessary because most discussions do not naturally lead to higher levels of thinking (Darabi et al., 2011). Many instructors we have talked to have noticed this problem in their own courses—discussions can often feel like busywork or small talk. To achieve deeper discussions that show evidence of critical thinking and promote student engagement, research shows that your best bet is to provide the structure to make that happen (Brokensha & Greyling, 2015; Jarosewich et al., 2010). How do you create that structure? The Framework for Student Engagement and Critical Thinking can be used to provide the structure and support that will guide students into a deeper and more meaningful discussion and engage not only with the content but also with their peers. This five-component framework, developed out of research performed by Laurie Berry and Kristin Kowal (Berry & Kowal, 2022), can be used as a guide to help you add more dimension to your discussions.
Framework Component 1: Detailed Instructions and Clear Expectations
What is it?
Just like we can set up someone for success on a cross-country road trip with a good map, we can set up students for success with detailed instructions and clear expectations on how to approach the discussion. Research shows that when clear guidelines are in place, students can reach higher levels of learning (Gao et al., 2009). Now, this is not new. In online course design, there is a strong need for having clear expectations.
Below is what clear and detailed instructions might look like in a course:
The main idea of this framework component is to provide more guidance before the discussion starts, much like the detailed map for the road trip. The goal is to get students to show evidence that they are thinking more critically. Adding a purpose statement and criteria for success encourages students to push further and move beyond superficial discussion.
Framework Component 2: Share Thought Process
What is it?
The next framework component invites students to share their thought processes in their posts. This is comparable to the think-aloud process that you might already be using in your courses. Urging students to share their thought processes can uncover more detail and depth, which, in turn, can create more opportunities for meaningful discussion.
How does this component transfer to an online asynchronous discussion? The following is an example of language you can include in your instructions: “You can show evidence of critical thinking by sharing your thought process in doing the activity for all to see.” With this framework component, students are encouraged to share their thought processes from the start.
Framework Component 3: Prompt Discussion with Questions
What is it?
The third framework component asks students to pose questions to invite more discussion with their peers. Asking students to probe deeper and include questions in their posts can uncover areas that they may be struggling with or thinking about. By directing students to do this, you will help invite others to easily join in the discussion conversation and enable students to not only engage with the content but also with each other. You may even notice the discussion including elements of problem-solving and critical thinking, which are strong indicators of the students digging deeper. It can be rare to see students asking questions in their posts. However, when you ask students to include questions in their posts, they will answer the questions posed. Posting questions opens the door for others to easily join in the discussion.
You can invite students to ask questions or share their reflections by including language like the following in the instructions: “Ask questions of others in your post or reflect on something you may be struggling with or thinking about.”
Framework Component 4: Weave Evidence into Post
What is it?
You may have noticed this, but often when students are asked to use sources with their discussion, they merely post a link at the bottom of their post without referencing it in the discussion itself. This framework component focuses on weaving evidence or sources into the body of the discussion. Research has shown that most discussion prompts do not ask students to refer to materials to support their answers (Jarosewich et al., 2010). Directing students to weave their references into the discussion allows you and others to quickly identify where or how they learned the information rather than assuming the information is tied to something the student may have read.
Here is an example of language that can be added to the instructions: “Post an opinion or solution from your point of view and weave in evidence to support it. Remember to reference the resources used to provide the evidence.”
Framework Component 5: Reflection
What is it?
After a learning activity, students have developed so much new knowledge and connections, and you want to capture that gained information. This final framework component invites students to share what they have learned or experienced from the activity. It can be powerful to ask students to reflect on how they might have changed based on a learning experience. Adding a reflection component to your discussions can illuminate where construction of new knowledge has occurred. Including this component will take more time for students, but it is helpful for them to be able to synthesize not only their thoughts but also the thoughts and perspectives they gain from others.
In a discussion post, you can include a reflection component with questions like these to uncover any kind of transformation that has happened during the activity: “Did you learn anything new? Did you change your mind about anything? How have you deepened or expanded your own thinking?”
The process of digging deeper and constructing new knowledge commands a level of attention from students that signifies their engagement. Whenever students can interact with content in ways that allow them to construct new meaning, they form a deeper connection to the content itself and are able to interact more meaningfully with others (Brokensha & Greyling, 2015; Galikyan & Admiraal, 2019; Jarosewich et al., 2010; Wang & Chen, 2008).
Download a PDF handout of the Framework for Student Engagement and Critical Thinking to use as a resource.
Berry, L. A., & Kowal, K. B. (2022). Effect of role-play in online discussions on student engagement and critical thinking. Online Learning, 26(3), 4-21.
Brokensha, S., & Greyling, W. (2015). Dispelling e-myths and pre-empting disappointment: Exploring incongruities between instructors’ intentions and reality in asynchronous online discussions. South African Journal of Higher Education, 29(4), 50–76.
Darabi, A., Arrastia, M. C., Nelson, D. W., Cornille, T., & Liang, X. (2011). Cognitive presence in asynchronous online learning: A comparison of four discussion strategies. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 216–227.
Galikyan, I., & Admiraal, W. (2019). Students’ engagement in asynchronous online discussion: The relationship between cognitive presence, learner prominence, and academic performance. The Internet and Higher Education, 43, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2019.100692
Gao, F., Wang, C. X., & Sun, Y. (2009). A new model of productive online discussion and its implications for research and instruction. Journal of Educational Technology Development and Exchange, 21(1), 65–78. https://doi.org/10.18785/jetde.0201.05
Jarosewich, T., Vargo, L., Salzman, J., Lenhart, L., Krosnick, L., Vance, K., & Roskos, K. (2010). Say what? The quality of discussion board postings in online professional development. New Horizons in Education, 58(3), 118–132.
Wang, Y.-m., & Chen, V. D.-T. (2008). Essential elements in designing online discussions to promote cognitive presence – A practical experience. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 12(3-4), 157–177.