Interaction and critical thinking in online Discussions: some considerations by Lee Ming Cherk


With its ancillary interactive functions, the online discussion forum is an effective platform for Vygotskian collaborative, constructivist, and social learning. Ideally, online discussions on substantive content encourage students to do research, share and learn from peers, reflect, and synthesize ideas (Smith, 2019). And through such a process, students’ reasoning abilities can be developed (Williams and Lahman, 2011).

However, on the ground, the quality of student postings is often a concern. It has been reported that the level of interaction and critical thinking skills is typically low (Wang, 2019). Students, usually undergraduates, often think of online discussions as a “burden”, and this perhaps explains why their online posts tend to be superficial (Clark, 2003). There -are also inherent issues. For example, the design of prompts might inadvertently constrict the pattern or level of interaction and influence the willingness of students to engage in an in-depth manner. This study compares the output of two online discussion prompts: one being open-ended, and the other being specific and structured. The study also aims to reflect on the intrinsic and extrinsic issues surrounding online forum participation and suggest ways for engaging students.

The context of this study is Writing Academically (FAS1101), a module offered to first undergraduates in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. This module requires students to participate in an online discussion on a topic they would eventually develop into an argumentative essay. The purpose of this online writing task was for students to explore and share ideas, as well as to rehearse their writing. Therefore, it was not graded.


In this study, the online discussions of 66 first-year undergraduates taking the module, Writing Academically, were examined. 30 students of these students responded to prompt 1 and 36 responded to prompt 2. In total, there were 141 entries.

The prompts are as below:

Prompt 1

Read the material and watch the videos in the content package that interests you and identify a topic that you would like to explore for your academic essay. Then share the topic that you are interested in by defining key terms and identifying some leading claims and arguments for your topic. Finally, respond to a classmate’s post if you have a similar area of interest or a different perspective about it by using the “Reply with Quote” function.

As can be seen, prompt 1 does not specify the medium or number of sources that students should consult. The prompt simply requires students to share what they understand of key terms and leading arguments given in the sources that they have consulted and to respond to the post of a classmate who has done the same. This prompt therefore allows for a fair amount of latitude for discussion.

Prompt 2

Annotate one reading from your chosen content package. • Summarize the main ideas and key concepts in 4-5 sentences. • Highlight what is interesting/confusing about what you have read. • Say whether you agree or disagree with the arguments • Consider how the information might be relevant to your chosen essay question. Share this with a classmate who is writing an essay on the same subject as you. Comment on another classmate’s entry using the “Reply with Quote” function.


Unlike prompt 1, prompt 2 is far more structured. It specifies that students should annotate one text only. Instructional verbs (annotate, summarize, highlight, say, consider, share, and comment) are used so the task requirements are clear. As a result, students are closely guided through the process.



The main areas that were investigated in this study were interaction and critical thinking. The dimensions under each of these two areas were adapted from Williams and Lahman (2011) and selected based on the high-frequency count found in the samples.

Under the area of interaction, the dimensions of interaction studied were “question”, “referential statement” and “engaging”. Explanations of each of these dimensions are given in the table below.


Dimensions of Interaction Explanation
Question A question that is posed with the expectation of an answer, an indication of wonder, or simply, a surmise (which may or may not be taken up and addressed by a reader).


Referential Statements


statements referring to a previous post, comments on the discussion, or suggestions




facilitating the process itself, or making friendly remarks

          Table 1: Dimensions of Interaction [adapted from Williams and Lahman (2011), pp. 150-151]



Under the area of critical thinking,  the dimensions investigated were “assertion”, “justification”, “outside knowledge” and “breadth of understanding”. Explanations are given in the table below.

Dimensions of Critical Thinking Explanation
Assertion stating an idea, evaluating, assessing, and inferring.


Justification Providing proof or examples, justifications for judgments, discussing advantages & disadvantages


Outside Knowledge –


drawing on personal experience; previous knowledge; or new information
Breadth of Understanding


Putting problems in perspective, linking ideas, and generating new data from existing information


Table 2: Dimensions of Critical Thinking [adapted from Williams and Lahman (2011), pp. 150-151]



Dimensions of Interaction

Chart 1 (See below) compares prompts 1 and 2 for the distribution of the dimensions of interaction: “referential statements”, “questions” and “engaging”.  It can be seen that in the more open-ended prompt 1, a higher percentage of students (45.4%) made referential statements, for example, by commenting on a statement, referring to a previous post, or making suggestions. This favourably compares prompt 1 against prompt 2, which saw a smaller percentage of students (33%) doing the same.

In addition, in prompt 1, a higher percentage of students (29.8%) engaged others with friendly remarks or by steering the discussion. In prompt 2, a lower percentage of students (11.7%) did the same.

Although more students were asking questions in prompt 2 (54.9%) than in prompt 1 (24.6%),  upon closer examination, it was found that many of these questions were simply surmises, and few developed into further discussion.

Chart 1: Interaction: Distribution of Responses

One possible explanation is that prompt 1 is more open-ended, and therefore encourages more self-expression and sharing of ideas. On the other hand, prompt 2 is more structured, so students tended to concentrate on regurgitating the information that they had found in their readings and answered directly to the prompt.


Dimensions of Critical Thinking

Prompt 1 and prompt 2 were compared in the distribution of the four dimensions of critical thinking:  “assertion”, “justification”, “outside knowledge”, and “breadth of understanding”.

What was most significant here is that the proportion of assertions in prompt 2 (87.9%) far outstripped that in prompt 1 (65.5%). And yet, despite the seemingly ‘stronger’ results for prompt 2,  the number of responses classified as “outside knowledge” was only slightly higher in prompt 2 (8.3%) than in prompt 1 (8.1%).  This oddity arose because the students in prompt 2 were told very specifically what to write. Being too focused on content, students who responded to prompt 2 were therefore too blinkered to draw on outside information or to reflect on their own experiences.

For other dimensions, prompt 1 had more students justifying their views (22.9%) than prompt 2 (3.6%). In addition, in prompt 1, a small percentage of responses were classified as “breadth of understanding” (3.2%) but none were recorded in prompt 2 (0%).

The distribution of responses according to dimensions is illustrated in chart 2.

Chart 2: Critical Thinking: Distribution of Responses

Conclusion and Recommendations

This study compared two types of prompts: one open-ended and one specific and structured. From the results, the open-ended prompt (prompt 1) yielded a higher level of interaction than the one that was too specific (prompt 2). It is also clear that students did have something to contribute about their topic, but their questions and musings did not develop into further meaningful discussions.

However, although an open-ended prompt might give more latitude for discussions, it would still be necessary to have some guidelines, so that students are clear about what is expected of them. Only then can they write in a productive, relevant manner that is appropriate to the goal of sharing, collaborating, and social learning.

Wang (2019) lays out a set of guidelines for participating in online discussions. This includes initiating and contributing ideas, evaluating and expanding on previous postings, making reference to course materials, providing evidence-based contributions, and asking prompting questions that may extend to a discussion of different perspectives and topics.

However, even with such guidelines, undergraduates (freshmen in particular) may still be at a loss for what to do because they are not familiar with the expectations of academic discussions.  Thus, some form of modeling and explanation is necessary. For example, samples of exemplary online discussions could be provided and explained.  Giving students a clear set of expectations would ensure better interaction and better-quality postings. It would also stimulate critical thinking and develop the writer’s voice.

Additionally, intrinsic interest in participating online may be heightened if the prompts were more personable. For example, instead of simply stating an idea, a student could end his or her post with something worth responding to, such as inviting readers to agree or disagree with some ideas or even trying to change the writer’s perspective (Smith, 2019).

Apart from issues with the design discussion prompts, there are also extrinsic factors causing interaction to be sluggish. Most students are transactional learners who are extrinsically motivated. Given their heavy workloads and outside commitments, students tend to focus on what matters to them. Often, this means completing work that contributes to their GPA computation. In our context, the online discussions were not graded. Hence, it was unsurprising that many students simply entered some information based on their readings and stopped short there without attempting to engage others.  For such situations, Wang (2019) strongly advocates assessing online discussions,  for only then would students pay closer attention to the expected standard of their postings.


Clark, Ted. (2003). Disadvantages of collaborative online discussion and the advantages of sociability,  fun and cliques for online learning. 23-25.

Smith, T.W. (2019). Making the Most of Online Discussion: A Retrospective Analysis. The International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 31, 21-31.

Wang, Y.-M. (2019). Enhancing the Quality of Online Discussion—Assessment Matters. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 48(1), 112-129.

Williams, L. & Lahman, M. (2011). Online Discussion, Student Engagement, and Critical Thinking. Journal of Political Science Education. 7. 10.1080/15512169.2011.564919.


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