Facilitation Strategies and Pearls


Facilitation Strategies and Pearls

From the students’ perspective within the community of inquiry (COI) model (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007), effective teaching presence influences overall satisfaction, perceived learning, and sense of community. In the online environment within discussion boards, where the learning takes place, direct teaching and facilitation are the key faculty strategies that serve to move the discussion through the phases of critical inquiry and to support coconstruction of knowledge. Describing the types of facilitation, understanding the roles of the educator when teaching online, and developing effective facilitation strategies that can be implemented in a transparent manner are an art and the focus of this chapter.


Facilitation allows faculty to drive and shape the discussion without being at the center of it, moving the students toward understanding. Garrison and Arbaugh (2007) explained the requirements:

Facilitating discourse requires the instructor to review and comment upon student responses, raise questions and make observations to move discussions in a desired direction, keep discussion moving efficiently, draw out inactive students, and limit the activities of dominating posters when they become detrimental to the learning of the group. (p. 164)

Formative feedback occurs in the process of facilitation. Recall that formative feedback is feedback for learning, whose goal is to move students toward deeper learning and to meet desired outcomes. While reviewing students’ posts and employing facilitative strategies, faculty are also evaluating students’ understanding of the content based on the discussion questions (DQs) map (see Chapter 7), which includes specific outcomes of each 242discussion. In fact, any strategy faculty uses to move the discussion forward or deeper will be with predetermined outcomes in mind.


Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (1999) differentiated between facilitation and direct instruction, an important distinction. In other words, facilitation does not involve offering additional information in response to the content of a post or directly answering a question posed by a student. While that approach is sometimes useful and appropriate, it is not considered facilitation. One of the benefits of the text-based nature of online education, and posting in discussions in particular, according to Hmelo-Silver and Barrows (2006) is to “place the students’ knowledge in public view and help them see the limits of their understanding” (p. 29), allowing them to self-correct or others in the discussion group to suggest an alternative explanation.


In the early days of distance education, Moore (1989) clarified the meaning of interaction by defining three types of communication patterns: learner–content, learner–instructor, and learner–learner. This was undertaken because at the time, distance education was not well defined and consisted of correspondence courses, television-based courses, e-mail, and synchronous chats in which minimal interaction took place with the instructor and limited interaction between and among learners occurred.

The learner–content interaction is at the foundation of learning and adult education, which Moore (1989) described as the “process of intellectually interacting with content that results in changes in the learner’s understanding, the learner’s perspective, or the cognitive structures of the learner’s mind” (p. 2), possibly a provocative statement at the time, but one that cognitive science now fully supports (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). This type of interaction includes reading and learning from various media in independent study, where both cognitive and metacognitive strategies are employed.

As in the classroom, learner–instructor interaction is an essential component of learning. Moore (1989) described the role of teachers, which is “to stimulate or at least maintain the student’s interest in what is to be taught, to motivate the student to learn, to enhance and maintain the learner’s interest, including self-direction and self-motivation” (p. 2). Teachers also had the responsibility to “organize students’ application [emphasis added] 243of what is to be learned” (p. 2), underscoring not only this important function, but also the desired level of learning. The role of developing assessment strategies and evaluating students’ progress toward meeting learning outcomes rounds out the learner–instructor interaction, in which Moore underscores the value of individualized feedback.

Learner–learner interaction is now recognized as the heart and soul of online education, which follows constructivist and social constructivist paradigms. Since Moore’s (1989) seminal editorial, research has confirmed the value of coconstruction of knowledge in a COI. And it is through the art of facilitation and instructor–learner interaction that learner-to-learner discourse flourishes, remains purposeful, and ultimately achieves the desired learning outcomes.


Frequency of Facilitation

The question of how to operationalize Moore’s three types of interaction effectively and efficiently to maintain balance of students’ needs with workload expectations is paramount for educators. Boettcher (2009) suggests using the rule of thirds. This rule states that interaction in the discussion board should be:

     1.  One third learner to content

     2.  One third learner to learner

     3.  One third instructor to learner

The number of credit hours for the course will determine how many hours outside of the classroom students are expected to spend reading, researching, and, in terms of online education, composing an initial post and responding to classmates. Posting and being active in the discussion board is equivalent to seat time in the classroom. How much time students spend on preparation is time that you, as faculty, cannot control. How student and faculty workload are computed for a course is discussed in Chapter 3, as it directly affects the amount of content you will have time to teach in a course. Consequently, faculty’s concern should be on the ratio of learner–learner and instructor–learner dialogue.

When considering that faculty cannot control time spent in learner–content activities, Boettcher’s formula takes on a slightly different meaning. It then appears that time learners spend in discussion and faculty spend responding to students’ posts should be equal. However, that is not the 244intent. For this reason, the recommendation of Burge (2008) is perhaps easier to operationalize. Referred to as the 80/20 approach, the intent is for 80% of the interaction to be learner–learner and 20%, instructor–learner. The rationale behind the limited faculty presence is that posting more often may shift the focus of the discussion to you. You will recognize this is occurring when students respond to your posts more often than their classmates. Another more destructive outcome is that the discussion will come to an abrupt halt as students acquiesce to the expert.

A study by An, Shin, and Lim (2009) provided interesting insight into the effect the frequency of faculty’s posts had on students’ postings. They divided the study group into three discussion groups in which the frequency of faculty facilitation differed. In Group 1, the instructor responded to each student’s initial post and students were to respond to at least two classmates. In Group 2, the instructor responded to each student’s initial post, but did not require students to respond to classmates. However, they could respond if they so desired. In Group 3, the instructor did not respond to each student’s initial post, but required students to respond to two classmates. The results showed that even though faculty responded to every student’s main post, the interaction among students did not increase. Instead, when postings by the instructor were minimal, students’ postings of thoughts and opinions increased.

Expectations of Facilitation

This brings up the issue of students’ expectations of faculty posting. This topic is a bit of a slippery slope, because faculty are often unhappy with the current recommendations. Rovai (2007) likened posting in an online discussion from the student’s perspective to “writing a message, placing it in a bottle, and dropping the bottle in the ocean” (p. 82). Unless faculty comment on a post, students may think it has not been read. However, responding to every post will not promote interaction among students, which is essential for coconstruction of knowledge.

Daily posting by faculty seems to be the recommendation from online teaching experts. Although Boettcher and Conrad (2010) recommended logging into the discussion 4 days each week to review student posts, they note that a daily presence in terms of replying to posts, offering encouragement, and/or posting an announcement is associated with higher student satisfaction. Rovai (2007) concurred with daily review in order to keep up with students’ posts, avoiding infrequent, time-consuming marathon sessions to catch up. He also recommended posting at least one message per day in each group’s discussion board to communicate to students that their contributions were being recognized. Postings whose intended purpose is to indicate presence need not provide formative feedback and 245can be as simple as expression of appreciation, agreement, support, and/or encouragement. However, keep in mind that these postings do not take the place of facilitating the discussion.

I must agree that daily review is often the best approach. If there are 25 students in the class, for example, and each is required to post initially in response to the DQ and subsequently reply to two classmates, faculty will have at least 75 posts to read in every discussion over a 10-day to 2-week period. And, students often post more frequently, increasing the volume of posts one must wade through. Because of the volume of posts to be read, I find it useful to categorize the types of responses I can make to student posts.

     1.  Supportive posts serve to acknowledge students’ posts and encourage others to comment. Wording like “The discussion is moving along nicely—keep up the good work”; or “Interesting thoughts, Mary, Ted, and Jane. I look forward to hearing what Mike has to say.”

     2.  Inquiry posts are posts that ask for clarification, additional information, or point out differing perspectives, asking two or more students to comment. This approach should not take the discussion deeper or in a different direction. Stavredes (2011) referred to this as weaving.

     3.  Outcome-oriented posts ask probing or thought-provoking questions to stimulate deeper discussion with the goal for students of meeting the learning outcomes as outlined in the cognitive case map discussed in Chapter 6.

The reason I make this distinction is because all daily posts by faculty need not and should not be lengthy. Given the multiple demands placed on faculty’s time, it may not be possible to create daily outcome-oriented posts, which are often time consuming to write as they require reading a post, assessing the contents, reflecting on the contents’ relationship to learning goals, and composing a reply. However, intermingling supportive, inquiry, and outcome-oriented posts will send the message to students that your presence in their discussions is a daily event. Remember that daily presence communicates to students that you are reading their posts and results in higher student satisfaction with the course (Rovai, 2007), which translates to students being happier with you when the end-of-course surveys come around. This recommendation should be taken to heart. Other means of demonstrating daily course presence are possible, such as posting an announcement or a reply to a student’s question in the Cybercafé, which is discussed in Chapter 12.

Because of the volume of posts, checking the discussions daily is beneficial in another way and that is to avoid marathon post-reading sessions. I personally find it discouraging to go into the discussion boards and see that I have 30 unread posts, for example. What typically occurs is that many students require most of the first week allotted for a discussion to complete 246the readings, assimilate the information, and compose an initial post. Thus, the posts straggle in with most of their initial posts appearing toward the end of that first week. If you start the discussion on a Monday with the initial post due by Friday, you may find yourself reading posts all weekend. And, if you have not replied all week, the students most likely have been wondering where you are. I find that pacing myself by spending an hour or two each day in the discussions, posting a combination of the supportive, inquiry, and outcome-oriented posts keeps me engaged and avoids burnout. Plus, my weekends are not spent reading posts. The discussion-tracking tool helps me keep track of where and what type of posting I have done and is discussed in the section that appears later in this chapter, under Tracking Posts.

Timing of Facilitation

The timing of faculty’s posts during the discussion is important. The approach I take when facilitating student discussions and the advice I give to faculty is to sit on your hands early on, avoiding the strong urge to correct misconceptions, or ask probing questions to encourage deeper engagement with the content. I take that approach because students require time the first week of each discussion to read and prepare their initial post, which must be completed by the end of the first week, typically. Until all students in a small group post for the first time, I recommend restricting your type of daily faculty posts to those that are supportive or inquiry-based only. You may also want to mention that additional comments from you will be forthcoming after all students have posted initially.

Having all group members’ initial thoughts on the table before faculty step in to ask questions to stimulate deeper discussion will ensure that students who have yet to post will not feel as though they were arriving late to the discussion. I try to wait until students begin replying to each other before stepping in. That is why my advice of sitting on one’s hands is necessary, as the temptation to jump in is strong—and faculty often feel guilty not doing so. However, we want students to take the lead and drive knowledge coconstruction unless, of course, their ideas need clarification or additional information to fully understand their perspective. If a student’s post contains incorrect information or assumptions, other students within the group will often provide needed clarification or correction. Faculty should allow time for that to occur. Early on in a discussion is also the time when it is obvious by the contents of a student’s initial post that he or she has entered the zone of proximal development (ZPD), so lurking in the discussion at this juncture is important. Strategies to help you recognize the ZPD are discussed later in this chapter.

247Tracking Posts

Because of the volume of posts that must be read, tracking the timing of the initial post, the timing and number of replies to classmates, and the quality of each post is essential and, if consistently done, is an efficient practice. To do so, I developed a discussion-tracking tool and a system of documentation. This tool can be found in the Appendix (Template 11.1). The students’ names are added in the far left column, and two columns are added for each discussion—one for the initial post and one for the reply to classmates’ posts. I print this form and use it as a worksheet throughout the course, adding symbols in pencil. It can also be copied into an Excel spreadsheet if you prefer that software. I use the following symbols to indicate performance.

       Initial post—When a student’s initial post meets criteria to earn all points, I will add a “5” or the highest possible number of points that can be earned to indicate that I do not need to revisit that post for quality. I use lower numbers (0–4) to indicate that additional grading will be necessary. The lower the initial number, the more attention the student’s work will receive. As I will typically reply to a student who has not met the quality expectations with an inquiry or outcome-oriented post to give him or her another opportunity to expand or clarify his or her original thinking, I will reread all posts by that student at the end of the discussion. A checkmark next to the number indicates I have replied to that student. Hash marks (one or more) through the checkmark indicate additional times I have responded.

       Replies to classmates—In the replies column, I use a series of checkmarks and a +/– system. If a student’s reply to a classmate meets the expectations set forth in the rubric, I will place a checkmark in the replies column. Two checkmarks mean that the student has met the expectations of replying to two classmates and the quality of those replies is also on point. If a reply has not met expectations, instead of a checkmark, I will add +/– to indicate that. If I reply to the student who has not met expectations, instead of a forward slash in between the + and −, I will add a checkmark. That indicator will look like this: +√–

       I do not track supportive posts that I make, but I do track inquiry and outcome-oriented posts by indicating “I” or “O” above the checkmark, +√–, or +/– in the replies column.

       I do track when a student replies to one of my posts by adding a hash mark through the checkmark or forward slash.

Examples of this type of documentation on a discussion-tracking tool are shown in Exhibit 11.1.

248EXHIBIT 11.1
Discussion-Tracking Tool


I, initial post; R, response post.

Note: See the Appendix for a blank version of this template.

You may find a system that works better for you. However, keep in mind that you want to keep track of:

       Initial posts—timing and quality according to your rubric

       Replies to classmates—number, timing, and quality according to the rubric

       Replies to you—to track students’ response to your posts. This should not be counted as one of the required replies to classmates, so you may want to make that clear in the rubric and in an announcement prior to the first few discussions.

       Whom you reply to—you want to spread out your replies so that all students receive equal attention and feedback throughout the discussions in the course. This reflects mutual awareness and recognition of social presence (Garrison et al., 1999).

       Type of post—inquiry or outcome-oriented


Student Issues

Key to choosing the appropriate facilitation strategy is accurately assessing what is occurring in the discussions. Questions to ask are listed in Box 11.1. These questions and other student issues are discussed in this section.


249BOX 11.1

Questions to ask:

  Do students’ posts reflect an understanding of the content?

  Are students responding to the DQ at the level required?

  Are they demonstrating the use of higher cognitive functions in their responses?

  Is there evidence of their perspective in their posts, or do they include only that of published authors?

DQ, discussion question.

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Jul 29, 2018 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Facilitation Strategies and Pearls
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