10 top tips to get online discussions going

The following tips highlight key features of effective online discussion strategies, whether for discussion groups or live chats. 

  1. Encourage discussion: If you’re the first to post, strive to encourage discussion. Get others thinking (and writing) by making bold statements or including open-ended questions in your message. Those who post first are most often responded to and referenced by others. Remember to check back and see if and how others have responded to your ideas.

  2. Make postings short, clear, and purposeful: In general, write one to two meaningful sentences because long messages are difficult to read online. Another rule of thumb is to make only one main point in each posting, supported by evidence and/or an example. Be concise. 

  3. Remain consistently active and visible: When facilitators participate frequently in online discussions, the quality of participants’ experiences often improves dramatically. Taking part in the conversation demonstrates how much you value it; it also helps to model engagement with the ideas of others. Try to check in regularly, even if you only have time to post one or two very brief responses.

  4. Ask probing questions: Ask open-ended questions; always include a general question that prompts participants to react to an aspect of the session that caught their attention. Consider using the following questions when trying to extend a discussion:
  • What reasons do you have for saying that?
  • Why do you agree (or disagree) on that point?
  • How are you defining the term that you just used?
  • What do you mean by that expression?
  • Could you clarify that remark?
  • What follows from what you just said?
  • What alternatives are there to such a formulation? 
  1. Have a discussion leader: The discussion leader (who could be yourself) is responsible for adding a discussion question and moderating the answers either during or after a session.

  2. Feel free to disagree: To air different perspectives or help others clarify their thinking, you may need to contradict another participant by offering a different interpretation. Your contribution should help to make the discussion more productive for all involved.

  3. Work to create group cohesion: Discussions are about group learning. Give positive feedback to participants, use light humour, use first names, respond promptly, and offer assistance. Also remember the lack of nonverbal and vocal cues in the online environment. Specific emotions will need to be labelled e.g., “I’m confused about this”.

  4. Engaging in online chats: Online chats, including those on Twitter, can provide an opportunity to ask questions or make comments before, during and after an online session. Try to make your comments concise and clear and avoid clogging up the chat with links to extraneous resources. For additional links or resource materials to be shared, please contact the Making an Impact organisers who will ensure that they are published to the Making an Impact resources page.

  5. Be open to new ideas: Discussion is about hearing what others have to say and working to shape and re-shape your own thoughts and perspectives, even as facilitators. Different perspectives can further everyone’s understanding of the issue or concept being discussed—they represent opportunities for learning.

  6. Enjoy yourself: The online environment comes with many benefits, including peer-learning in addition to that from the facilitator. Use the opportunity to refine your ideas about the session content.