Section 2: Course Communication

Symbol Key


Computer/Web Learning One or more of the references addresses an online, computer-based, or web-enhanced teaching environment.
Many Applications Best practice applies to a wide range of subject areas and teaching methods.
Best practice has been used or observed by Collegis staff, and comes highly recommended.


Establish clear goals for classroom or virtual communication, and share these with your students.

McKeachie (1999) lists the following objectives that can be addressed with effective discussions:

  • Help students learn to think in terms of the subject matter by giving them practice in thinking.
  • Help students learn to evaluate the logic of, and evidence for, their own and others’ positions.
  • Give students opportunities to formulate applications of principles.
  • Help students become aware of and formulate problems using information gained from readings or lectures.
  • Use the resources of members of the group.
  • Gain acceptance for information or theories counter to folklore or
    previous beliefs of students.
  • Develop motivation for further learning.
  • Get prompt feedback on how well objectives are being attained.

In Palloff and Pratt's (1999) Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace, Chapter 7 discusses establishing the foundations for an online learning community. They discuss the creation of goals and provide examples of syllabi for a variety of subject areas.

Incorporate electronic discussion forums into course design.

Students participating in a study by Karayan and Crowe (1997) were more likely to answer questions, think more before answering, develop positive relationships with their instructor and peers, and participate in class outside the normal workday as a result of participating in class electronic discussion forums.

Encourage peer-to-peer interaction between students.

Shuell and Farber's (2001) study of undergraduate and graduate students found that participation in electronic discussion forums increased learners' perceptions of the quality of interaction with their peers. The authors noted, "As students participated more fully with each other using more interactive forms of communication technology, their perceptions of overall learning and motivation increased as well" (p. 129).


Devise a plan for using conscious questioning to encourage, initiate, and guide student discussion.

An article by Wolf (1987) describes three attributes of questions: range, arc, and authenticity. The author defines several question types which relate to different level’s in Bloom’s taxonomy and discusses the use of an “arc of questions” to support inquiry. She recommends that the art of questioning be studied. She notes that many school environments are not conducive to the use of questioning and that it is very important for students themselves to have this skill.

Use cooperative learning techniques for small group learning activities.

Millis and Cottell (1998) authored Cooperative Learning for Higher Education Faculty, a book that provides a compelling argument for using cooperative learning techniques. It also describes the techniques and gives a plethora of examples. Finally, it provides a comprehensive literature review and bibliography. For a description, table of contents, and excerpts from the book, see the National Teaching & Learning Forum article.

Place students into small groups of 2-4 members (mixed gender and ability) for problem-solving and discussion-oriented activities.

Webb's (1985) chapter in Learning to Cooperate, Cooperating to Learn summarizes a body of research examining the specific interaction variables and sequences of behavior that predict achievement in small groups. Webb discusses non-specific interactions, peer tutoring, giving help, receiving help, and sequences of behavior. She also discusses predictors of interaction, such as ability, extroversion and introversion, intellectual achievement responsibility, group ability composition, and group gender composition. Webb summarizes by providing implications for the research.

Provide students with strategies for working in groups.

It is important to provide students with cooperative learning strategies when working in teams. A study by McDonald, Larson, Dansereau, and Spurlin (1985) on cooperative dyads found that exposure to a systematic cooperative learning strategy facilitated initial learning and also led to positive transfer on a subsequent individual learning task.

Use collaborative learning to support asynchronous discussion.

Hiltz, Coppola, Rotter, and Turoff. (2000) authored a report of a 3-year longitudinal study of 26 courses which showed that outcomes resulting from the use of collaborative learning techniques in asynchronous discussion are as good or better than that of traditional classes, and better than outcomes associated with students who worked alone.


For effective discussion teaching, encourage a partnership between the students and instructor, encourage the evolution of a learning community, form an alliance with students, and manage the content and process.

A text by Christensen (1991) provides premises and practices for discussion teaching. One chapter discusses each of the following four precepts in detail and provides examples.

  • A discussion class is a partnership between students and instructor.
  • A discussion class must evolve into a learning community.
  • Instructors form an alliance with students.
  • Instructors demonstrate the ability to manage content and process.

Use good listening skills to be sensitive to the messages being sent and to the multiple dimensions of what participants have to say, and to show respect for participants and their contributions. Create opportunities for participants to develop these skills as well.

One chapter (Leonard, 1991) in Christensen’s Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership describes a variety of good listening skills and the diagnosis and treatment of listening pathologies – both instructor and student. Finally, it deals with the all-important issue of how to develop a class environment that encourages listening that, in turn, supports meaningful discussion.

Use effective questioning, listening, and response to manage discussion.

Christensen (1991a) defines several question types that can be used to support different teaching goals. He also discusses the emotional dimension (tone, body language) and the level of abstraction of questions. He provides a list of what to listen for. Examples include student command of content, involvement, continuity of thought, use of value-laden language, and ability to listen to others. Response is the most complex of the three dimensions because it requires multiple, simultaneous, on-the-spot decisions. In preparing for what to say following a student comment, Christensen describes a decision tree that supports class objectives. This part of the chapter is very helpful for instructors wanting to incorporate discussion into their classrooms.

Help students develop good class participation skills.

Hertenstein (1991) states that developing good participative skills is an important learning goal. She discusses three dimensions to follow for each student and for the class as a whole: content, process, and frequency. She advocates developing a method for tracking participation, and providing individual and class feedback at regular intervals.