Online Discussions & Critical Thinking

Fostering Critical Thinking Using Asynchronous Discussions

"At present, asynchronous learning may be the ONLY path to critical thinking for most undergraduates…much of academic online teaching is done backwards. Instead of borrowing from classroom teaching, online education should be revolutionizing it."

Pyle, 1997, ¶ 1

Integrating Online Instructional Strategies

Research clearly supports the benefits of active learning strategies to promote enhanced understanding, retention and critical thinking over the shallow, passive learning that results from conventional lectures. As such, interactive class discussions, projects and debates are often promoted for their ability to increase students' critical thinking abilities (i.e., ability to evaluate empirical positions, apply relevant principles, and formulate logical arguments). The arguments favoring the asynchronous interactions available in an online classroom for the encouragement of critical thinking are centered on students' opportunities to actively process information, reflect and investigate questions prior to responding.

But, the educational benefits of interactive class activities rely on students' participation and preparation.  As such, one of your key tasks to promote critical thinking is to implement strategies that encourage increased student participation and preparation.

Tips for encouraging participation in threaded discussions:

  • model the tone and frequency of the type of interactions you expect from your students
  • integrate due dates that encourage early and frequent participation in the discussion boards
  • avoid answering all content related questions before giving students an opportunity to provide feedback
  • encourage content-relevant questions

Asynchronous discussion boards in the online classroom maximize the benefits of student-teacher and student-student interaction in an environment that encourages planned, meaningful, prepared discussion. In contrast to the immediate demands of a live discussion, threaded discussions create a forum for higher-order interactions that may require additional thought, investigation or research. While active-learning, constructivist theories would support any classroom interactions (synchronous or asynchronous) that encourage students to actively engage with course material, online threaded discussions may have increased advantages above and beyond the benefits fostered by traditional classroom discussions as they provide an asynchronous avenue for facilitating a more reflective form of critical thinking than can be produced through spontaneous interactions.

Watch the following video by Dr. Richard Paul on the role of questioning to foster critical thinking:

Personal Reflections

  • How do you teach?
  • What does your classroom experience look like?
  • What strategies are you currently using to promote critical thinking?
  • Are your current teaching methods effectively meeting your critical thinking goals?
  • How do you know that your students are utilizing critical thinking strategies?

Share your thoughts on these issues by posting your audio response to the VoiceThread discussing critical thinking. While at the VoiceThread, click on the other icons to hear what your colleagues think about this topic.

Instructor's Role in the Asynchronous Threaded Discussion

Threaded discussion boards provide an opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of student-teacher and student-student interaction in an environment that encourages planned, meaningful, prepared discussion. The key to promoting students' critical thinking in asynchronous discussions lies with instructor interactivity; how the instructor facilitates and encourages the discussion is more important than the delivery style or discussion mode. Enhanced critical thinking cannot be attributed to the simple process of discussion; rather the type of discussion and the instructor's level of interactivity within the discussion are central to the discussion's effectiveness. For academic discussions to be intellectually beneficial, it is imperative that they are structured and facilitated in a manner that effectively encourages critical thinking.

For a discussion to foster critical thinking, it is essential that threaded discussions are based upon discussable questions, problems, debates or situations (i.e., you do not want to utilize discussion questions that have a definite answer or require little investigation). To encourage on-going thought and in-depth analysis of an issue, it is recommended that instructors facilitate threaded discussions utilizing a range of convergent, divergent and evaluative questions. As recommended by Collision, Elbaum, Havvind and Tinker (2000), effective threaded discussions integrate full-spectrum questions that encourage critical thinking by:

  1. probing the "so what!" response targeting relevance, interest level, urgency and context;
  2. clarifying meaning or conceptual vocabulary as they challenge ambiguity, vagueness and common misconceptions;
  3. exploring assumptions, sources and rationale;
  4. seeking to identify causes and effects/outcomes including primary or secondary sources, and internal or external factors; and
  5. considering the appropriateness of various courses of action

Discussion questions should not be discrete questions that have a definite answer, rely solely on opinion, or require minimal insight and investigation. To maximize student engagement and participation in the discussion, discussion questions should be student-centered and relevant to the lives and interests of the students, but also directly tied to the content of the course. As recommended by Shaping a Life (2007, ¶3-4), good analytical discussion questions:

  • Speaks to a genuine dilemma in the text. In other words, the question should focus on a real confusion, ambiguity or gray area of the text.
  • Yields an answer that is not obvious. The question should allow room for exploration and not be too specific or answered too easily.
  • Suggests an answer complex enough to sustain a vibrant discussion. If the question is too vague, it won't elicit deep analysis and reflection.
  • Can be answered by the text rather than by just generalizations or emotional feelings.

In addition:

  • "How" and "why" questions generally require more analysis than "who," "what," "when," or "where" questions.
  • Good analytical questions can highlight patterns and connections OR contradictions, dilemmas and problems.
  • Good analytical questions can also ask about some implication or consequences of the analysis.

Once effective discussion questions are identified, instructors must strive to facilitate discussions in a manner that encourages on-going thought and in-depth analysis of an issue. To ensure an effective discussion, instructors should strive to be open, free-ranging and non-judgmental. As such, it is important to pose questions in a manner that avoids creating the impression that there is a pre-determined correct answer; rather instructors must clearly communicate that the discussion is to explore students' thoughts, views and reasoning in relation to course concepts.

The instructor's role in the discussion is to facilitate students' conversion, but not to dominate the flow of communication. Instructors can increase and deepen students' active engagement in the discussion by asking follow-up questions, explicitly pairing the comments of various students, or directly seeking the opinions of specific students or specific viewpoints. By treating students' opinions with respect, utilizing reflective comments, and reinforcing relevant discussion points, instructors can effectively direct classroom discussions in a manner that engages students in higher-order, critical thinking and advanced application of course concepts.

For specific guidance on effective Socratic responses to encourage critical thinking, read the article Move Over Socrates: Online Discussion is Here.

MacKnight (2000) highlights that online instructors should contribute to ongoing discussions via the use of scaffolding to maintain the focus of the discussion and guide interactions toward a more critical analysis of course concepts. Recognizing that there are a number of ways to achieve active discussions that promote a critical analysis of ideas in a threaded discussion format, MacKnight (2000) offers suggestions for a variety of approaches:

  • Creation of specific learning communities or workgroups based on interests or experiences
  • Introduce guest "speakers" who have invited access to a specific discussion topic
  • Utilize role playing by assigning specific positions or roles to defend within the discussion
  • Incorporate audio or video as the "spark" for a discussion
  • Small group activities led by student discussion leader
  • Buzz groups who focus on a specific topic for a designated, short period of time
  • In-depth analysis of a case study or simulation
  • Debate teams assigned to formulate ideas, defend assigned positions and refute opposing viewpoints
  • Jigsaw groups to divide learning tasks then re-engage to develop a comprehensive understanding of a given topic
  • Mock trials to investigate and debate assigned issues

Final Thoughts

The educational value of a threaded discussion depends upon the thoughtful interaction of both students and instructor. As such, it is important that instructors teach students how to participate in an online discussion (i.e., you will want to make recommendations concerning the number and frequency of interactions as well as the expected content of initial responses and peer replies) and that instructors contribute to ongoing discussions via the use of discussion scaffolding to maintain the focus of the discussion and guide interactions toward a more critical analysis of a given course concept.

An online instructor fulfills a number of roles within the threaded discussion: questioning, listening, responding, encouraging, challenging, reflecting and summarizing. The importance of an instructor's active, timely involvement in discussion boards is a critical component of the online learning experience as research finds that students gauge the importance and relevance of the discussion board based upon the instructor's level of participation. As such, you will want to continually monitor your own interactions as they will provide a guide for the students as to how they should be thinking about the situation and responding.

There is no single strategy for promoting critical thinking within asynchronous discussion threads. Rather, instructors should strive to creatively identify teaching and learning strategies that take advantage of the unique opportunities available in an asynchronous discussion environment. As described by Pyle (1997, ¶ 1) "At present, asynchronous learning may be the ONLY path to critical thinking for most undergraduates. . . .much of academic online teaching is done backwards. Instead of borrowing from classroom teaching, online education should be revolutionizing it." Central to this position is the notion that an asynchronous environment allows for prepared, individualized, thoughtful interactions that are free from the constraints of time, self-consciousness, learning style and other student learning variables.


To utilize the asynchronous discussions to foster critical thinking, instructors should:

  • Pose DISCUSSABLE questions, problems, or situations
  • Teach students HOW to participate in an online discussion
  • Foster specific learning communities or workgroups
  • Contribute to ongoing discussions
  • Utilize discussion scaffolding
  • Incorporate audio, video, case studies, simulations, guest "speakers", role playing, or exploratory prompts in the discussions
  • Utilize a range of convergent, divergent and evaluative questions

Applied Understanding

Faculty at Grand Canyon University who elect to receive faculty development credit for completion of this module must complete the following activity:

  • Select one course that you are currently teaching at GCU; within that course, randomly select a student's response to one of the weekly discussion threads. Using this student's post as the basis for your response, craft three different response posts that you, as the faculty member, could have made to promote critical thinking. Analyze the three different responses and categorize them as "good", "better," and "best" in terms of their ability to foster critical thinking and ongoing discussion in your course. Submit (as an email attachment) to [email protected]: your three responses, response categorizations (good, better and best) and a justification for each categorization.

Suggested Readings

  • Astleitner, H. (2002). Teaching Critical Thinking Online. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 29 (2), 53-77.
  • Bruning, K. (2005). The Role of Critical Thinking in the Online Learning Environment. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(5).
  • Bruning, R., Zygielbaum, A., Horn, C., & Glider, W. (n.d.). Online Tools for Enhancing Student Learning and Extending Resources in Large Enrollment University Courses. Available from the Center for Instructional Innovation at the University of Nebraska.
  • Collison, G. Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning: Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing. 
  • Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Dumke, G. 1980. Chancellor's Executive Order 338. California State University, Chancellor's Office, Long Beach.
  • Hanna, D. E., Glowacki-Dudka, M. & Conceicao-Runlee, S. (2000). 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Online Groups: Essentials of Web-Based Education. Atwood Publishing: Madison, WI.
  • Horton, S. (2000). Web Teaching Guide: A practical approach to creating course web sites. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.
  • Jones, D. (1996). Thinking Critically in an Online World. Retrieved Jan. 25, 2006 from
  • MacKnight, C. B. (2000). Teaching Critical Thinking through Online Discussions. Educause Quarterly, 4, 38-41.
  • Muirhead, B. (2002). Integrating Critical Thinking into Online Classes. United States Distance Learning Association Journal. Retrieved Jan. 25, 2006 from
  • Murchu, D. & Muirhead, B. (2005). Insights into Promoting Critical Thinking in Online Classes. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(6). 
  • Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2004). The Nature and Functions of Critical and Creating Thinking. The Foundation for Critical Thinking.
  • Peirce, W. (2003). Strategies for Teaching Thinking and Promoting Intellectual Development in Online Classes. Electronic Communities: Current Issues and Best Practices. U.S. Distance Learning Association: Information Age Publishing.
  • Pyle, R. (1997). Teaching Critical Thinking Online. Retrieved Jan. 25, 2006 from 
  • Savery, J. R. & Duffy, T. M. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational Technology 33(1) 31-38.
  • Walker, G. (2005). Critical Thinking in Asynchronous Discussions. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(6).

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