How to Promote Critical Thinking with Online Discussion Forums

ImageCritical thinking is an expected learning outcome of higher education along with mastery of a studied discipline. Yet several studies including one outlined in Academically Adrift, suggests that a significant percentage of students are graduating after four years of college with little intellectual growth; critical thinking gains barely budging from the ‘before’ to ‘after’ assessment. Whether the studies are valid or not is not the focus here, but how to teach higher order thinking skills in online learning environments is. I make a case for asynchronous discussions and their value in developing higher order thinking. I recently facilitated a webinar How to Promote Critical Thinking Skills in the Online Class targeted to educators teaching undergraduate or high school students virtually. I include slides from the presentation at the end of the post. Below I highlight the required learning conditions for effective online discussions, and include excerpts from peer-reviewed papers that describe how asynchronous online discussions can promote deep, rich learning.

Critical Thinking Defined
There are numerous definitions for critical thinking. In the slides there’s a lengthy, but comprehensive definition from The International Center for the Assessment of Higher Order Thinking (ICAT).  I prefer the simplified version—critical thinkers know what they don’t know, and know how to learn what they don’t know. This description is also known as metacognition—“knowing about knowing”.

Some may speculate that it’s not feasible for higher order thinking skills to be developed in undergraduate students studying in online environments. But it is possible in small online learning environments, and there’s research to support it. On the other end of the spectrum of online learning are massive open online courses [MOOCs] where developing or honing critical thinking skills via discussion forums is improbable. From my MOOC experiences I’ve found discussion forums to lack focus, continuity and contribute little to the courses’ learning objectives. It appears that I’m not alone.

Most MOOC discussion forums have dozens of indistinguishable threads and offer no way to link between related topics or to other discussions outside the platform. Often, they can’t easily be sorted by topic, keyword, or author. As a result, conversations have little chance of picking up steam, and community is more often stifled than encouraged… excerpt from Phil Hill’s post, MOOC Discussion Forums: A Barrier to Engagement?

Elements of Effective Online Discussions
In contrast to massive courses, effective discussion forums in small online classes are focused, structured and purposeful places for learning. Online forums don’t scale well. Specific learning conditions are required for closed, small online classes that include:

  • teaching presence as per one of the three dimensions of the CoI model
  • structured learning through purposeful course design
  • planned and guided student interaction that generates thoughtful and meaningful discourse
  • guidelines for students that include concise instructions for participation, expectations and assessment criteria
  • consistent feedback from instructor.

Research Highlights
Below are highlights of research focusing on asynchronous online discussions that  address strategies and guidelines for fostering deep and meaningful learning.

“If students are to reach a high level of critical thinking and knowledge construction, the interaction or discourse must be structured and cohesive.” D.R. Garrison & M. Cleveland-Innes, (2005). Facilitating Cognitive Presence in Online Learning: Interaction is not Enough

“We identify motivations to learn that are generated by the dynamic discussion and show how effective moderating can help to sustain conversation and advance it towards pedagogical objectives.” Xin, C. & Feenberg, (2006). Pedagogy in Cyberspace: The Dynamics of Online Discussion

“Compared with spontaneous and transitory face-to-face class discussions, online discussions are text-based and more structured, providing students time to formulate thinking and compose postings, thus helping to promote student higher order learning…The textbased feature of online discussions makes student thinking visible and leaves a permanent written record for student later review. “Text-based communication may actually be preferable to oral communication when the objective is higher-order cognitive learning.” Wang, Y. & Chen V. (2008). Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence – A Practical Experience


35 thoughts on “How to Promote Critical Thinking with Online Discussion Forums

  1. Hello Debbie,
    Thank you for posting this! I was trying to find more about distance learning as I just started a distance course in management at a school named Open School of Management. They have on their website plenty of information on how to study from at home. But I needed some more input as all of this is new to me. I am working part-time and have a little 2 year old kid. So it’s really tough at times. But I am so thankful for being able to study from at home. What a great idea it is! I can improve my skills in management, comfortably from my couch! I have to say, thank you for this discussion forum. For me personally, it was very informative and affirmative that I am doing the right thing! 🙂


    1. HI Katy,

      So glad you found this post helpful. Congratulations on taking the step to further your education with online learning. You already see so many of the benefits; especially with having a family, online is ideal. The key I find is to set aside blocks of time to study (work on your course work) each week. This I found most helpful, as the week would often slip by and I hardly seemed to have time to study! The planned block approach helped me considerably. Good luck to you Katy. Happy holidays to you!


  2. Hi Debbie..First a big thanks for this post and second thing is that how can we incorporate critical thinking in school students so that they by themselves start thinking logically at a very young age.


  3. I do appreciate the research done on students that emphasize the imminence of online education, period – why are so many students dropping out of school? This research done is really helping my students by properly giving them necessary people-skills to do their jobs in the workforce upon graduation. Thanks for your support!


  4. Hi Debbie,

    I notice you have some fairly recent activity in this thread, so I hope you might get a chance to read this.

    I am intrigued by the possibilities of online learning for my (high school) chemistry students, and was glad to stumble across your blog. Needless to say I shall be staying tuned. I would like to read more of the research you have linked to in the ‘Research Highlights’ section of the blog, but can’t seem to get two of the links to work (D.R. Garrison & M. Cleveland-Innes, (2005). Facilitating Cognitive Presence in Online Learning: Interaction is not Enough and Wang, Y. & Chen V. (2008). Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence – A Practical Experience).

    Would you, by any chance, be able to help me access these papers?

    Thanks again for your blog, and in advance for any help you might be able to give me.


  5. Thanks for posting this information about critical thinking. I found the examples questions very helpful. As an instructor, students rely on your ability to facilitate learning by promoting solid critical thinking and analysis throughout the course. By asking thoughtful questions, a student can expand their learning as they dig deeper into the knowledge of each topic. Critical thinking doesn’t have to be complex, just meaningful.


    1. Hi April,
      You make an excellent point about students looking to their instructors for development — essentially pushing them to learn. Love your point that critical thinking doesn’t have to be complex, just meaningful! Thanks for your comment. Debbie


  6. Debbie,
    This is my first post I’ve read from you, and I’ve got to say, I am impressed! It is informative, relevant, reliable, and best of all…interesting! I appreciate how you break down to the specifics of how to get the students thinking critically when it comes to online forums for the course.

    I also really like the quote from Scriven and Paul in your slideshow. I don’t think there could be a more accurate definition that still maintains the clarity. It makes perfect sense!

    Having just recently graduated from college myself, with experience in some of those Blackboard discussions, I would say that the most important thing is for the students to WANT to participate. Unfortunately, that is also probably the hardest thing to do, but until interest is aroused, it is pretty easy to regurgitate answers to fulfill the requirements. However, if I understand correctly, your methods are one way that could possibly result in maximum participation, and therefore, critical thinking.

    Thanks for your post!


    1. Hi Chris,
      So glad you found the post helpful. I too like the quote from Scriven and Paul, lengthy but descriptive!

      I agree with you on your point about discussion boards — that the goal for the instructor is to motivate students so they want to participate, this is the where the careful and thoughtful creation of questions and assignments is critical. Unfortunately, there are still some students who will not participate, no matter how interesting the discussion is. This is where the need for assigning grades to a discussion forums comes into play. However, you are right, the ultimate goal of the teacher is to create that desire.

      Thanks for you comment.


    1. Hi Carolyn, Thanks for your question. A small class that I refer to here is between 10 and 30 students. Over thirty students can work in this type of environment, (up to forty), but between 10 and 30 is ideal.


  7. Debbie
    Critical thinking is a really important aspect of education and the current move to resource based learning – either through technology in the classroom or via a MOOC; tends to push educators towards a delivery mode rather than a conversational mode.

    I would like to see a much clearer articulation of the ‘higher order’ skills we expect from graduates – I understand that there has been some work in Australia on Graduate Skills and other areas where they use the term graduate capabilities.

    Many thanks for your post.


    1. Hi

      This information that you have stated here sums up a lot of things for me as an educator new to online delivery.

      Online has been a real shift in my teaching theory, which has been very challenging but also enjoyable. I am also studying online and have learnt many new trick of the trade and been given some great advise.

      Online education is definitely the way of the future and very important that we all as educators get much better at it to benefit our students.
      Thank you
      Vicki Robertson


      1. HI Vicki,
        As a new teacher to online, you are already well on your way. You identified the critical factor to creating successful online learning experiences for your students, which is acknowledging that online teaching requires a completely different skill set than face-to-face instruction.

        Thanks for reading and commenting Vicki!


      2. Hi Vicki
        I am also currently studying online and this has made me aware that it is really important for teachers to expand their knowledge and skills in developing and monitoring online learning. I recently developed an online forum first the first time. I was surprised at how well it worked, students were engaged and able to share ideas and resources.

        Online teaching is the way the educational future is heading and comes with great benefits although some disadvantages. When I made my forum I noticed later that some people had internet connection problems as I teach in a regional area. In addition, I have had feedback form other teachers saying some students will not use the form unless it is a compulsory assessment.

        Thank you
        Abbey Rintoule


        1. Hi Abbey, I find your comments very valid. I too have had students that flatly refuse anything to do with IT and online learning. Unfortunately, as you would know that once they get past that initial barrier they actually excel and often find themselves saying ‘that isn’t that hard’.
          Online teaching and learning is the way of the future and those that aren’t able or don’t get on board could possibly get left behind! A lot does depend on their level of critical thinking and their attitude.


      1. Debbie: Thanks for a wonderful and extremely useful post. I found great “take aways” which I have found lacking in other critical thinking discussions.


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