Breaking the ice – 5 tips for getting your discussions started in myCourses

Welcome to our first post of the 2015 academic year! Keep an eye out for lots more in the coming weeks. And now onto some great tips on using discussions in myCourses.

Classes start in just over two weeks, so it’s the perfect time to start getting your myCourses pages ready for the semester. The Discussions tool can be a great way to add an online component to your course. This blog post contains recommendations for creating exciting online discussions, with a focus on how you can leverage online icebreaker activities as an opportunity to introduce students to the Discussions tool.

1. Add a photo

It’s hard to communicate with faceless avatars. Photos add a personal touch and allow students to associate a face with a name. It doesn’t need to be a picture of you—it could even be your cat! Encourage your students to add a photo, as well. This can be done by updating your profile.

2. Run an icebreaker activity

Run an icebreaker activity in the online discussion board to allow students to introduce themselves and so that they can get to know their classmates. This can take the form of some guiding questions that you would like students to answer. Designing activities that are engaging, productive, and – most importantly, worthwhile – can be difficult. But to get you started, here are some recommendations for running an icebreaker activity to get your online discussions going:

  1. Relate the questions to the course material. If students end up doing an icebreaker activity in each of their courses, you want to design it such that their responses are related to the course context and thus cannot be copied and pasted from one course to the next. For example:
    • Why did you register for this course? What do you expect to learn?
    • What is your interest in this material?
    • What do you already know about X?
    • What do you want to know about X?
    • What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear of X?
    • What’s the most confusing thing (muddiest point) you hear in the news about X?
  2. Model ideal responses. Be an active participant in the icebreaker. Some things you can do are:
    • Put yourself in the students’ shoes: answer the questions as you would when you first took a class like this;
    • Set expectations and provide resources: let students know where they can get more information about their muddiest point;
    • Address misconceptions: for example, if a student expects to learn something that won’t be taught in the class, let them know.
  3. Connect the questions to any upcoming activities. Many classes feature a group work component, so asking questions about general interests (food, hobbies, etc.) helps students get to know each other. Also, in group-work intensive courses, consider asking students about their most memorable and/or most positive group work experiences and what made them as such. This can help you establish the protocols for upcoming group work activities.
  4. Design the activity so that interaction is necessary. By adding a requirement that students reply to one another – for example, to at 3 least classmates’ posts, this changes the “introducing yourself” model from one-to-many to many-to-many. In that sense, the discussion board becomes not only a place to post one’s thoughts but instead a hub for peer-to-peer interaction. It’s also easy to view discussion statistics, so you can see at-a-glance how many of your students have authored, replied to, and read the various discussion posts.
  5. Integrate photo, audio, and video. myCourses makes it easy to include photos, audio, and video. Students have access to the text box editor while using the discussion board. By integrating photo, audio, and video, your icebreaker activity becomes an audiovisual experience, bringing the level of discussion to one that exceeds text. In disciplines that are particularly visual, you could ask students to post a photo or video of the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the topic and explain why they chose it.
  6. Use the information from the icebreaker activity to make slight modifications to your course. The answers to these questions can help you design your course materials, choose examples to meet students’ interests, and to address students’ muddiest points.

3. Take advantage of the options in the Discussions tool

There is an option in which “Users must start a thread before they can read and reply to other threads.” This means that students will not be able to read others’ posts until they write one of their own. After students author their posts, ask them to review their peers’ posts and reflect (through a reply!) on how their peers’ reactions to the course material differed from their own.

4. Have the class set guidelines

Have the class set guidelines as a group on how they would like to use the discussion board. When students become part of the process of creating the rules and expectations, they are more likely to become invested in the tool and see it as a vehicle to achieving the course’s learning outcomes. This could take place in the form of a 10-minute in-class (or better yet, online!) discussion on “How do you envision using the myCourses discussion board in this course?” As an example, discuss whether your students feel comfortable with enabling the “up-vote,” “up-vote or down-vote,” and/or “five-star rating schemes.” In some circumstances, using the five-star rating scheme in a discussion on controversial topics could make things very interesting, very quickly—provided protocols on decorum are first established.

5. Aim to be an active participant

Being an active participant doesn’t mean you need to monitor the board 24/7. Modelling the participation you expect from students is another way to keep your discussions thriving. With that said, one of the biggest concerns from instructors about using the discussion board is that it is going to take a lot of time and energy to monitor. Let students know when and how often – and which parts of it – you plan to check. Make this expectation clear from the beginning. For example, you may wish to create a “Questions for the Instructor” topic that you check regularly. Note that you may also subscribe for email alerts for the discussion topics you don’t want to miss.


Have you run an exciting icebreaker or online discussion activity? Let us know so that we can share it with the community!

More tips about the Discussions tool is available in one of my previous blog posts, “Making the Most of Online Discussions in myCourses.” To request a one-on-one consultation or a custom group workshop to learn more about any of the tools available in myCourses, please fill out this form.