Create Online Discussions Baked with Critical Thinking


The purpose of this practice is to help you realize how to create online discussions infused with critical thinking.

Aloha, this practice introduces the theory and application of critical thinking into online discussions. A primary focus in this practice is realizing the personal connection between content and your thinking. You will come to the self important realization that learning anything (e.g., content), requires thinking it through in a logical, sensical way (reasoning).

In this practice, you will be introduced to the primary theory in the Paulian conception of critical thinking – the Elements of Reasoning, Universal Intellectual Standards, and Intellectual Traits.  You will discuss learning the theory of critical thinking, and contextualizing this theory into creating online discussions.

You will practice infusing critical thinking into your own online discussions. This practice will help you to continue to continuously improve by making small changes in your online discussions each semester. As you increasingly improve over time, you will develop an understanding of critical thinking and your ability to create online discussions infused with critical thinking.  This online practice looks deeply into the concept of critical thinking and strictly applies the principles of fairminded critical thinking. Improvement form your practice will be directly related to the rigor of your work and your openness to provide critical feedback to other learners.

Organizing Idea

The approach to critical thinking, in this practice, is designed to transform your online discussions. The purpose of the practice is to help instructors begin to practice using intellectual tools, vital to developing intellectual skills, abilities, and characteristics in student thought, to create online discssions infused with critical thinking. A substantive conception of critical thinking is the foundation of this practice.  This practice not only highlights essential qualities of an educated mind, but also implies the proper design of the (online) educational process. The goal is continuous improvement by practicing and promoting the development of the standards, abilities, and traits of the educated person.

When learners practice using a substantive conception of critical thinking as the guide to discussing online, they learn to initiate, analyze, and evaluate their own thinking and the thinking of others (within all the content areas they study). Though practice, they begin to improve, by wanting to act more reasonably and effectively in every part of life. They are able to do this because they have acquired intellectual tools and intellectual standards essential to sound reasoning and personal and professional judgment.

Reflection and self-assessment becomes an integral part of their lives. They are able to master content in diverse disciplines. They become proficient readers, writers, speakers, and listeners. They use their learning to raise the quality of their lives and the lives of others. They become reasonable and fairminded persons capable of empathizing with views with which they disagree and disagreeing with views uncritically accepted by those around them. They are able to use their reasoning skills to contribute to their own emotional life, and to transform their desires and motivations accordingly. They come to think, feel, and act effectively and with integrity.

This concept of education and of critical thinking are the heart of this practice. The basic approach to your practice will be reading, reflecting on the readings, writing posts, giving and receiving feedback on posts, viewing videos, reflecting upon content in the videos, and contextualizing ideas to create  your own online discssions. All learners in the practice are expected to be teaching an online course (or will be teaching) ; the course can be in any subject. The material point is the content learned in the practice will need to be applied to your online discssions throughout the semester.


  • Design online discussions that encourage explicit critical thinking.
  • Design online discussions that are aligned with explicit critical thinking and thinking through your course content.
  • Design online discussions with an emphasis on the development of intellectual virtues and on the tools needed to improve as fairminded critical thinkers.
  • Explicitly use the elements of reasoning and intellectual standards to create critical thinking online discussions in your subject area.
  • Begin to realize how to help learners cultivate their ability to think within the key concepts in your course.
  • Begin to realize how to apply the foundations of critical thinking in your teaching.

Giving Feedback

An important part of your practice will be to read and give feedback on other learners’ posts. You will give feedback that will be fundamentally focused on essential intellectual standards. For instance, a sentence lacks clarity, or an example, though good, doesn’t seem relevant to the main point being made in the post.

As you move through your practice, you will want to work on continuously improving your ability to give and receive high quality feedback, based on critical thinking concepts and principles. At first the process will be awkward and you will likely make considerable mistakes. This is to be expected, just as you would make many mistakes when first learning the game of tennis. This process of giving and receiving feedback on posts can be used in most learning situations and when deeply internalized, can lead to improved thinking and learning. As you learn the process, you
should consider how you will bring this into your online discussions with students.

An important part of this process is that you will want to work closely together as a group to help one another grow and develop. One of the hallmarks of critical thinkers is their ability to assess their own reasoning accurately. We want to come ever closer to that goal as we move through this workshop. As you comment on each other’s posts, you will develop the ability to better critique your own thinking and work using intellectual standards. Remember that when we are giving feedback on posts, we are focused on a person’s reasoning, not
the person him or herself. We all should invite constructive critique of our thoughts and our work. This is an essential disposition of the critical thinker.

Facilitator Responsibilities

  1. To oversee the feedback participants are giving one another on their posts.
  2. To add feedback to individual posts.
  3. To give landscape feedback on “intellectual moves” made, or failing to be made.
  4. To probe beneath the surface into the deeper issues.
  5. To point out that an important viewpoint is being excluded or distorted.
  6. To ask for more details (precision) or point out to the class a post that exemplifies both clarity and depth of thought.
  7. The facilitator will not comment on all of the individual posts, but will comment on many.
  8. The facilitator will seek overall patterns that all students can learn from, and point those out to the class (such as general lack of clarity, or breadth, etc.).

Asynchronous Discussions

Asynchronous discussions  allow students to illustrate their insights, questions, and application of and engagement with the topics, concepts, and material being created, presented and discussed. Requiring students to actively participate in and complete individual form/discussion posts, as well as respond to several of their peers’ posts, nurtures student-to-student learning and promotes transparency and open learning.   Thinking critically through  the exchange of perspectives is invaluable in ANY online course.

Asynchronous discussions are also used to create regular  interaction between students and with the instructor. The instructor encourages participants to dig deeper into the topic as well as build community with their peers.

It is critical for successful discussions to be well-organized. Discussions should mirror the organization of the syllabus.  Typically, a course has some sequencing of units or by week.  Discussion forums flow from this organization.  We highly suggest sequencing your discussions by weeks of the course.  This format is the easiest for students to understand.

Finally, asynchronous discussions are  where the social presence of both faculty and students is most evident and it is the heart and soul of the traditional online course.

Benefits of Using Online Discussions

  • Promote student engagement with the course material, the instructor, and classmates,
    provide a way for ideas to be heard, shared, and developed,
    provide instructors with the opportunity to express their passion for their subject matter and inspire it in their online students, and
    encourage active learning.
  • Builds class community by promoting discussion on course topics.
  • Allows time for in-depth reflection students have more time to reflect, research & compose their thoughts before participating in the discussion.
  • Facilitates learning by allowing students to view & to respond to the work of others.
  • Develops thinking & writing skills.
  • Allows guest experts to participate in the course by posting information & responding to questions.

What is the purpose of your discussion?

Online discussions  activities can serve a variety of purposes and can be used to meet a wide range of instructional objectives. Discussions should be used to meet specific course objectives and should be aligned with course content. Well-designed discussion board activities can be used to encourage the following:

  •  Demonstration of Knowledge of Key Concepts – Using the discussion board to discuss key concepts allows students to learn from one another and share ideas. When students submit an assignment directly to a teacher, this sharing of ideas is lost.
  • Community Building – One of the primary reasons for using discussion boards is to build a community of learners. This tool allows students to become part of a vibrant learning community, rather than an just an independent learner completing & submitting assignments with no real peer interaction.
  • Reflection – Reflective activities require students to share a synthesis of the learning experience, or to describe how a situation or experience has personal value to them. These kinds of activities should allow for honest and open responses.
  • Consensus Building – Consensus building activities require students to work together to create a product or to come to an agreement on some topic.
  • Critical Thinking – through the use of higher order questioning techniques and activities, the discussion board can be used to encourage critical thinking skills.
  • Student Leadership: the effective use of discussion forums can encourage student leadership by giving them a voice in the classroom.

Introductory discussions

Here are a few examples of introductory discussions during the first week of an online course.

  • Prior Knowledge Warm­ Up Discussion
    • Ask about learners prior knowledge. Example: From your recollections of studying geography in grade school or high school, what tradition or traditions were most prominent in the material of your courses? Give some examples. (GEOG)
  • Icebreaker Introduction: Building a Community of Learners
    • Introductions – Introductions serve a dual purpose – as a way of building a learning community by getting to know each other and to practice using the discussion tool in a non-threatening way (no prior knowledge needed; not graded).
    • Ice Breakers – Ice Breakers are designed to get students thinking about the material or concepts and build connections with peers.  If these exercises are not assessing an objective, they are not graded.
    • Example: Please introduce yourself to your classmates. In addition to sharing your name, feel free to add information about yourself that may help others get to know you and work with you on various class activities. As desired, you may also want to let others know why you are taking this course and about your interest in this subject
    • Ask each student to introduce themselves on the discussion board at the beginning of the course. Respond to each student & encourage the class to respond to one another’s introductions.
  • Portrait
    • students create a portrait of themselves in any medium, digitize the portrait and share it on the discussion board.
  •  Interviews
    • Pairs of students interview each other on a given topic and post the interview results in the discussion board.
  • Cyber Cafe
    • The Cyber Cafe is usually put at the top of the Discussion forum.The purpose of this discussion is to provide the kind of interchange students might have outside of class. Threads posted in this area allows students time to practice talking to their peers. Your active participation in this helps students build relationships with you and other students, and serves as way for you to model the kinds of behaviors, both scholarly and socially. The instructor needs to carefully monitor this open space to head off any potential conflicts amongst the students. Students need a safe place to ask questions, and if one student has a question, chances are others have the same question.  Answering a question in a public forum covers both the questioner and those who wondered the same thing.  It is a good idea to empower your students that if they see the question first and know the answer, they should feel free to respond.
  • Introductory Icebreaker Discussion
    • They provide students with an opportunity to get to know one another and to interact in an Informal way. They should be fun and non-threatening and require participants to find something in common with others in the group.
  • Reflection Discussion
    • What, how and why?
  • Help Desk
    • The help desk is focused on building trust. They usually start out w.ith students populating threads with links to good information. As community forms, students will feel more comfortable about admitting a lack of knowledge, and requesting assistance. As an instructor, you can go two ways. By answering immediately, you show your willingness to be available. By standing back, you allow the students to start to become to view each other as supporting and a source of accurate information. The postings in the help area are generally non controversial and not graded.

The ability to learn asynchronously is one of the primary benefits of online learning. Students are able to reflect upon their ideas before sharing them with the class, leading to more reflective responses and in-depth learning.

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