Mayo's Clinics

May 26, 2020, 0:05
Challenges of Managing Online Discussion Groups

Challenges of Managing Online Discussion Groups

26 March 2020

Avoid the black hole of time being drawn away by discussion groups.

By Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT

Online teaching can be an adventure that teaches you about the subject and opens new ways to communicate with students. It can also be very frustrating and confining since there is much to be typed and many of us do not live at our desks.

Through my online teaching experience, I discovered a real challenge I did not expect: discussion groups take up a lot of time. (I was teaching asynchronously or when students could do their work any time, as in there was no online meeting with everyone participating simultaneously. Synchronous teaching, where everyone is simultaneously online, is different.)

Time Involved in Answering Questions and Responding to Discussion Prompts
Since there were several students in the course and each one was expected to respond to several discussion questions or prompts, I found myself reading similar responses from several students and needing to comment on each one. When I designed the course, it seemed like a good idea to provide the prompts to simulate group discussion in class and keep students thinking about the reading and lecture for the week. Students could answer my questions or comment on my prompts or comment on other students’ statements.

It was a great idea, but I had not thought of the amount of time it took each week to comment on their statements. Thirty students making three comments each week meant I needed to comment on or respond to 90 students’ statements a week. In addition, many students commented more times than required. As a result, I spent more hours in front of my computer than I care to admit.

One way I coped was to stop keeping track of the comment’s quantity and quality. If I was worried, I could count how many times a student made statements and I reminded them to keep up. However, keeping a record of what they said and how significant seemed to me unnecessary and a waste of my time.

Strategies to Reduce Time Spent
Some of the strategies I later learned to manage this black hole of time included:

  • Creating some common comments and saving them to a Word document so I could copy and paste whenever relevant. Even if I provided a personalized sentence or two, I could add some central comments more quickly by cutting and pasting. Of course, I had to make sure the fonts matched so it did not look like a stock response.
  • Complimenting students when they commented on each other’s posts instead of individual comments.
  • Making peace with uneven comments. Sometimes I would make several comments about a particularly insightful post and at other times, I would simply write, “Good point.” Or, “Have you thought of x?” At first, I felt like I needed to make all the comments about the same so I would treat all students the same, but that became too cumbersome. I just made peace with the fact some posts needed more comments than others.
  • Using encouraging comments and provocative questions to keep a student thinking about what he or she wrote. This activity continued the conversational nature of the discussion. Hopefully, it promoted more critical thinking and did not stop the conversation. Unfortunately, that meant more comments, but it was like facilitating a discussion in class since everyone could read all the posts and comments.
  • Making comments that everyone would read by making a group message to help provoke more thinking. Each student had access to the discussion prompts and every other students’ comments, and I encouraged them to read them all to simulate a group discussion in class. I also sent several group messages.
  • Suggesting that I might use some of the comments in the final examination for the course. That notion encouraged everyone to pay attention and stick with the discussion. Of course, like any other assignment, some students took participating in discussion questions more seriously than others.

I hope these suggestions will assist you with discussion groups as you shift to online teaching. The next Mayo Clinic will discuss evaluating student work in an online format. If you have comments on these ideas or suggestions for other topics or teaching practices you want discussed, send them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I will include them in future Mayo Clinics.

Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT, is retired as a clinical professor of hotel and tourism management at New York University. As principal of Mayo Consulting Services, he continues to teach around the globe and is a regular presenter at CAFÉ events nationwide.