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November 2012
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Student-Led Online Discussions in TESOL
by Luciana C. de Oliveira, Larisa Olesova, and Alsu Gilmetdinova

Asynchronous online discussions have been considered the “beating heart” of online course activities (Sull, 2009, p. 65). By providing time to read and respond to a message, they can support greater student reflection, interaction, and critical thinking, and become a focal part of students’ learning experience. However, the role of instructors in structuring questions is key, as questions can be aligned with either higher or lower levels of critical thinking (Ertmer, Sadaf, & Ertmer, 2011) so that higher levels of knowledge construction can be created (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).  Instructors can design an activity that requires students to create their own questions and facilitate a discussion session. Guidelines are provided here to help instructors structure online discussion questions that have the potential to lead to higher levels of critical thinking.

The context for this contribution is the English Language Learning (ELL) Licensure Program at Purdue University, which provides an additional certification for mainstream content area teachers. The activity described was part of the online course entitled “English Language Development.” In fall 2011, 29 students, including teachers and graduate students, were enrolled in the course. Students’ language backgrounds included Bulgarian, Chinese, English, Greek, Hindi, Korean, Russian, and Spanish.

Planning Online Discussions
To help students create questions, use twelve different types of questions (Ertmer et al., 2011) and post sample questions on Blackboard or a similar online learning management system. Additionally, use Bloom’s Taxonomy and the scoring rubric by Ertmer and Stepich (2004), which provide specific guidelines for determining the levels of higher-order thinking within students’ online postings. The following levels of critical thinking align with the different types of questions:

  1. High Level: Questions which require students to integrate ideas, make decisions, or take a position and justify it could promote higher levels of thinking based on Bloom’s Taxonomy (“synthesis” or “evaluation”). The examples of those questions are analytical convergent, focal, and lower divergent, which require reflective thinking that students can go beyond facts to judge and construct knowledge (Ertmer et al., 2011).
  2. Medium Level: Questions which require students to analyze information and/or to provide personal examples could move to medium level (“application” or “analysis” in Bloom’s Taxonomy). The examples of those questions are shotgun, lower divergent, critical incident, and playground (Ertmer et al., 2011).
  3. Lower Level: Questions which require asking students to give a wide range of responses on a given topic, exchange ideas, search for explanations, and use their personal opinions to support their arguments could demonstrate students’ basic understanding of an issue (“knowledge recall” or “comprehension” in Bloom’s Taxonomy).  The examples of those questions are invitation and brainstorm (Ertmer et al., 2011).

Assessment of Online Discussions
During the week, you’ll need to facilitate online discussions—but only when it is necessary, for example, when students look for help, guidance, or support from the course instructor. You’ll also need to model the first two online discussions to demonstrate how online discussions should be facilitated and what quality of postings could be considered appropriate.

Then, when online postings are graded, send the comments to each student with recommendations on further improvements of the online posting quality; for example, ask students to integrate readings, provide evidence, or justify their positions. Online discussions should be assessed every week and all students should receive individual comments on further improvements. The scoring rubric and Bloom’s Taxonomy will help you be consistent in grading. It will also help students move to the desired level of critical thinking, which they should strive to achieve by the end of the course.

Tips for Student-Led Online Discussions
Students must be actively engaged in all stages of online discussions: planning, conducting, and reflection. This section presents a student’s perspective and tips that can be shared with students:

Planning for Online Discussions

  1. Read directions. This will guide your work, helping to focus on the main objectives of the assignment; it can also clarify expectations and contain all the information about the content, format, and deadlines.
  2. Read the sample questions. Before starting the reading of articles/books or other assigned materials, looking through the sample questions can give you an idea of what kinds of questions you could write.
  3. Carefully read the assigned material. Jot down questions and comments as you read to develop your understanding of the texts and to use them as a starting point to formulate the discussion question and more meaningfully participate in the discussion. 
  4. Write a summary of the readings. Before the discussion begins, the process of writing the summary can help you explore main ideas from the readings, further develop questions and answers generated during the reading process and formulate several problematic areas to focus on for the online discussions.
  5. Formulate the question. Review previous discussions, sample questions, and readings; think about the questions that might generate interesting discussions among other students in your group. For example, if you have international students in your group, your questions might evoke dialogue on issues of interest to people from different cultures and teaching contexts.
  6. Don’t get stressed if you need to reformulate the question. Some students may have to change the wording of their questions several times. At first, this might seem a little bit frustrating, but with the instructor’s help, the final questions can be more succinct and relevant than the first draft.

Conducting Online Discussions

  1. Be proactive. Once the question is posted, check the discussion platform once a day to see if other students responded. Read through their postings carefully, with a critical eye. It is worthwhile reading and commenting on almost each student’s post, as it will urge others to continue thinking and writing about the topic.
  2. When responding, consult the readings. If students quote the readings, it is helpful to review that part of the reading to have a more specific comment/question. This can develop students’ understanding of the topic and connect it both to theory and to their life experiences. On the other hand, if students’ responses are too general and vague, using a quote from the readings in your response to the post can encourage more critical thinking and interpretation of the topic.
  3. Post positively and critically. The responses to other students’ posts can include a few positive sentences as well as encourage further questioning, analysis, and discussion. The collaborative discussions can continue for a long time, and over time new layers of meaning will be unveiled. Online discussion ends with a deadline.

Write a final summary. This can be a very time consuming, yet very rewarding learning experience. Review all the postings from the online discussion and identify main ideas, questions, and comments. It may be helpful to consult the readings again in search of new connections and to identify more complex issues. The summary should be content specific and succinct as it will help other students remember the learned content more easily.

Sample Assignment

This activity will increase students’ engagement with online discussions. To increase group interaction and engagement, assign students to groups of 6–7 (depending on your class size). The activity will allow each student in a group to lead a discussion session.

Each group has an assigned leader for the weekly discussion who is responsible for developing the weekly discussion question based on the readings for the week, writing a summary of the weekly readings, responding to at least five students in the group, and submitting the weekly summary of discussion postings. Students in each group read the same weekly readings but respond to different types of questions developed by their leaders. The participation in online discussions can consist of 25% of their final grade. Download the assignment (PDF).


This kind of activity helps students to become much more engaged with online discussions because they have to know the material well to be able to be leaders and can enhance critical thinking and greater reflection on course content. As your online discussions develop, you will see that the relationship between question type and level of critical thinking can be modified to move online discussions to higher levels of thinking. For example, questions at lower or medium levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy may be modified by adding challenges so that students can compare opinions, look and critique for evidence, and make decisions based on the evidence found. 

Ertmer, P. A., & Stepich, D. A. (2004, July). Examining the relationship between higher-order learning and students¹ perceived sense of community in an online learning environment. 2004 Proceedings of AusWeb04, the 10th Australian Worldwide Conference, Gold Coast, Queensland. Retrieved from

Ertmer, P., Sadaf, A., & Ertmer, D. (2011). Designing effective question prompts to facilitate critical thinking in online discussions. Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal, 5(4), 1–28.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 7–23.

Sull, E.C. (2009). The (Almost) complete guide to effectively managing threaded discussions. Distance Learning, 6(4), 65–70.


Luciana C. de Oliveira, PhD, is an associate professor of literacy and language education at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA. Her research focuses on the linguistic challenges of the content areas (English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies) to English learners (ELs) and teacher preparation for ELs. She is the recipient of the Early Career Award (2012) for the Bilingual Education Research special interest group of the American Educational Research Association.

Larisa Olesova, PhD, is an instructional designer specializing in distance education at George Mason University. She recently graduated from Purdue University and is a faculty member at North-Eastern Federal University in Russia. Her research focuses on the effectiveness of instructional strategies in online learning environments. Currently, she serves as a coordinator of “Becoming a Webhead,” one of the Electronic Village Online sessions at the TESOL annual convention. 

Alsu Gilmetdinova is a doctoral student in literacy and language education at Purdue University. Her interests include bilingual education, educational linguistics, and CALL. She has presented at several national and international conferences and is the 2012 recipient of the Leadership Mentoring Program Award of TESOL International Association.

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