How You Can Engage Students in Meaningful Class Discussions

Class discussions can be very rewarding but also time-consuming for an instructor in any learning environment. This is especially true for educators when there is a large class-size, complex course topics, the instructor is an adjunct and has other responsibilities, or it is the first time an instructor has taught the course.

There are two possible options available when an instructor is faced with the demands of facilitating an online discussion. The first is to go through the motions and meet the minimal requirements needed to facilitate the class. From my experience working with online faculty, that approach usually results in posts that appear to be talking at students, rather than trying to engage them in a conversation, along with telling them what they need to know instead of prompting them to explore the topics further.

Another instructional option, one that is likely to be more successful, is to devote the time necessary to be actively involved in the ongoing conversations. This requires prep time, for the development of talking points, or initial instructional posts prior to the start of class.

Regardless of the option chosen as an instructional strategy, class discussions need an instructor’s active engagement and involvement so that students remain focused on the topic and actively engaged in meaningful class discussions.

An Instructor Sets the Tone

During any class discussion, it is an instructor who sets the tone and models what it means to be present and fully engaged in an ongoing and productive conversation. Students look at their instructor’s involvement for guidance and feedback, especially when they are struggling with articulating their thoughts or working with the required subject matter.

An instructor who posts well-developed and well-researched participation messages, or has provided thoughtful and meaningful discussion prompts, will add in supplemental resources and share their experience so that the topics come to life and are applicable to the real world.

Since this can be a time-consuming process, instructors need a strategy to make the process both manageable and intellectually significant for the growth and development of students. Instructors can cultivate engaging online class discussions with the use of a process I’ve called guided ANCHORS.

Developing Discussions with ANCHORS

The first step in developing ANCHORS is to Acknowledge a student’s post in some manner, whether it is their attempt to answer the discussion question or their perspective of the topic. I will begin by acknowledging the student’s name, and then highlighting something they have written, to build a conversation.

For example: “Hello Student and Class: Thank you for posting a thoughtful response. I would like to discuss the following point from your response, which helps to address the topic being studied this week.”

The next step involves Nurturing the ongoing growth and development of your students, by being supportive when responding to their posts, rather than calling them out on something they have written. You do this by building from something they have written, rather than diminish their attempt, and/or their initial idea.

For example: “You have made a very important about ___, as this reminds the class there is ___.”

The third step is to respond in a manner that prompts their Critical thinking about the subject. This can involve taking the course concepts and guiding them through the process of analysis, synthesis, and application of the material to the real world. The inclusion of questions at the end of your response is one of the most effective methods of prompting the development of critical thinking skills. This ties into the last step, as you will soon read.

For example: “You took a step and enrolled in a doctoral program. Does this give you evidence of your initial self-efficacy, based upon the definition provided, which you can continue to cultivate? Why or why not?”

The next step is to Highlight important points in the course materials and address any aspect of the readings that students are struggling with as they post their responses.

For example: “One of the topics this week is ___. The following is an important point from the assigned reading this week ___. What this excerpt tells us is that ___.”

The fifth step in the process of developing ANCHORS is to take an Organized approach to the development of instructional responses. Instructional participation posts and discussion prompts should not be reactive responses. Instead, those posts should be carefully crafted and developed in a manner that builds from what the students have stated or posted.

For example: Begin by acknowledging the student’s name and something they’ve written to build upon. Then decide how you can nurture their development, which in turn will help all students. You may use a course concept to guide them through the process of critical thinking, and then highlight important points from the course materials.  

This leads into the next step and that is the inclusion of Research and/or supplemental sources to strengthen the instructor’s responses. Up to this point, you have considered what course concepts to use, along with highlights from the course materials. Now you can think about your expertise, and the additional resources you can share. Perhaps you have written a resource that can be shared, or you have a relevant resource that will add depth to the discussion. The purpose of including additional research is to develop a substantive, or substantial, instructional response.

The last step is to create a Springboard or end with a follow-up question that will help to further the conversation. A response that simply acknowledges something the student has written, or provides professional expertise without a specific context, may not be enough to create a meaningful and ongoing discussion.

For example: “Do you believe you are in control of your own learning, based upon the processes described? Why or why not?”

Developing a Substantive Instructional Strategy

The use of ANCHORS as an instructional strategy can be done to enhance your current approach to class participation, and it can also serve as a means of critiquing what you currently post or have prepared for your facilitation of the class discussion.

To make your contributions more meaningful you may want to consider your students’ perspective of the discussions and keep in mind they are trying their best to respond and be engaged. If the subject is too difficult and there is no active instructional presence or meaningful contributions during the class, students may disengage from the discussions. Utilizing ANCHORS will help to prevent this from occurring and it is also helpful when you have a new class, a subject you have never taught before, or a topic that does not align with your professional background.

The development of substantive instructional responses takes time and practice. It also requires the development of an effective time management plan. Every message posted in an online discussion represents your level of commitment to the learning process. When you respond to your students, consider their needs and the purpose of the discussion.

Use ANCHORS to make the process of instructional participation more engaging and meaningful, which can also help you when a discussion may not be appealing or interesting from your own perspective. This process will allow you to encourage, nurture, challenge, and support your students’ progress and development. When you take the time to develop class discussions that are engaging, all students can benefit from the potential to learn more about the course subjects. It is through meaningful discourse that a group of individual students becomes a community of learners who are involved in intellectual conversations.

About Dr. Johnson

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has 35 years of experience teaching and training adults. The first half of his career was spent in the field of Corporate Training and Development, with his last role as Manager of Training and Development.

Then in 2005, he made a transition into the field of distance learning. Over the past 19 years, he has been an online instructor, Faculty Development Specialist, Faculty Director, Faculty Development Manager, and Dissertation Chair.

Dr. Johnson is also an inspirational author, writer, and educator. His life mission is to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others. He has earned a PhD in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement (TPI), a Master’s in Adult Education, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal, and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference, along with presenting at three faculty conferences. He has also published over 230 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and mindset development. Dr. J published three books related to higher education, including two about online teaching.

Getting Down to Business: A Handbook for Faculty Who Teach Business.

Transform Adult Education: Expert Teaching Strategies for Educators.

Transform Online Teaching: Expert Strategies and Essential Resources Every Educator Needs.

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• Any time of the day, visit this group to find your source of motivation, to be inspired and more importantly, have your mindset transformed: Motivation for Transformation

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