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Using E-mail and Online Discussion to Ehhance Learning
by Dorothy Frayer, Director, Center for Teaching Excellence, Duquesne University

E-mail and online discussion enable communication between instructor and student, and among students, outside the usual bounds of place and time.  These technologies can be used to enhance traditional campus-based courses as well as making possible interactive distance learning.

E-Mail for Student Questions to Faculty

Although faculty do their best to be available to students, most find that students do not take full advantage of office hours.  Also, it is clearly the case that office hours rarely coincide with that particular moment in time when a student has a critical question about content.  Many faculty find that e-mail enables out-of-class communication with a higher percentage of their students and tends to occur at times when it is most helpful to student learning.

To set the scene for use of e-mail to ask questions, you might require an e-mail communication to you from each student during the first or second week of the semester.  This assignment could be similar to one of the following: (1) “I’d like to get to know each of you as individuals as soon as possible.  By next Monday, please send me an e-mail message briefly describing your prior experiences in English, what you hope to gain from this course, and your interests and concerns.”  During the next class session, the faculty member could comment on ways that the course will build upon some of the interests expressed and allay anxiety about some of the concerns.  (2) “Today we discussed the concept of utilitarianism.  Prior to our next class, I’d like you to send me an e-mail message explaining briefly in your own words what utilitarianism means and what aspects of this concept are still unclear to you.”  The faculty member could then begin the next class session by clarifying the concept, based on students’ responses.  By requiring an e-mail message early in the semester and using responses, you can be sure that all students know how to connect with you, and you can demonstrate that you will be responsive to their messages.

Another way to encourage questions via e-mail is to let students know that e-mail questions provide you with feedback on their understanding and allow you to modify the class to meet their needs.  For example, a Duquesne University chemistry professor once received a message late at night from a student who was mystified about a concept.  This query, from a very good student, caused him to restructure the next day’s lecture to clarify the concept.  He mentioned to the class that a question from a student had made him aware that further explanation was needed.

Faculty are sometimes concerned that encouraging use of e-mail will lead students to be disappointed if they don’t receive an immediate response to a message.  A good way of averting disappointment is to set realistic expectations at the beginning of the semester (e.g., “I usually read my e-mail every morning about 9:00 a.m.  I’ll make every effort to respond within 24 hours to your questions.”)


E-mail for Pre-Class Writing Assignments

A powerful use of e-mail is to require students to submit pre-class writing assignments prior to class time.  These assignments may ask students to explain in their own words an idea from the reading, to give personal examples and perspectives on the material, or to describe what they found particularly difficult in the reading assignment.  Creed (1997) noted that a pre-class assignment informs students what the professor thinks is important and insures that students are prepared for class.  Perhaps more importantly, these assignments help students to master concepts at a deeper level.  Putting ideas into their own words helps students to transfer information into long-term memory.  Asking students to provide personal examples and perspectives helps them to actively construct knowledge, relating new ideas to that which they already know.

These pre-class assignments benefit the faculty member as well as the student.  By scanning the assignments before going to class, the instructor goes into class having a better idea of what students understand and don’t understand.  To insure that students complete the assignments thoughtfully and on time, Creed suggests that pre-class assignments contribute in some way to students’ grades.


Asynchronous Discussion to Enhance Reflection and Critical Thinking

Faculty often use large group or small group discussion to encourage students to reflect on the ideas they are learning and to stimulate critical thinking about these concepts.  In-class discussion, however, has notable limitations in meeting these goals.  In the case of large group discussion, there is frequently a low participation rate.  Typically, only a small percentage of students take part and these are often the same students, time after time.  In addition, “discussion” is frequently between the faculty member and a student, rarely among students.  If we chart discussion, we most often see a pattern such as Teacher-Student A-Teacher-Student B.  Small group discussion mitigates these two factors, engaging all students and leading to discussion among students.  However, even this approach has constraints, since there is little time for reflection during class time, and responses may not be well developed.

Asynchronous discussion (using a course management tool such as Blackboard) may, if appropriately structured, lead to high participation, dialogue among students, time to reflect, and well-developed responses.  Here are some suggestions for achieving these goals in an online discussion.


Create a Comfortable Learning Environment

For many students, the online discussion environment is a new one and they may hesitate to take part.  Consider making the first assignment an “engaging” one, interesting but not emotionally charged.  Set a conversational tone and both model and suggest reinforcing comments (e.g., “Mike provided a good example of reasonable accommodations.” “Your analysis of the Pillsbury case really helped me see it in a different way.”)  Explain the guidelines of “netiquette” so students know how to act appropriately. 


Structure Assignments to Enhance Thinking Skills

Some of the suggestions provided in the previous section on pre-class assignments can also be used in the online discussion setting: asking students to explain concepts in their own words or to give personal examples.  You should require a minimum number of original postings by each student.  The requirement could be, for example, to post a response to every assignment or to post at least once a week.  If you wish to encourage deeper thinking about a concept, you may also require each student to respond to another student’s posting (as well as replying to any responses received to their original posting).  This plays to the strength of asynchronous online discussion...the ability to allow time for students to engage with one another at a deeper level about subject matter outside of class time. At a workshop I once attended, Leslie Harris who taught English at Susquehanna College commented that he had for his entire career admonished students that they must provide evidence for their conclusions . . . seemingly, to no effect.  However, in exchanges among students, they quite naturally began to question one another’s sources (for example, “I don’t think that Hard Copy is a reliable source!) 

Various roles can be assigned to students to stimulate higher order thinking.  For example, a particular student can be asked to summarize a reading, post discussion questions, and moderate a discussion (role of “discussion starter”).  At the conclusion of a discussion, another student can be designated to reflect on archived postings and write a summary of the discussion, identifying unresolved issues (role of “weaver”).    Further, students may be asked to critique archived comments from a particular theoretical perspective.


Use Collaborative Work

Many course management tools will allow you to set up small groups, in which 4-6 students can work together online.  (In Blackboard, this can be accomplished by creating “Group Pages.”  Members of the group can participate in a private virtual chat, private discussion, and transfer files electronically.)  Small groups can be used for peer review of writing, to create databases such as annotated bibliographies, as well as for debates.  William Klemm (1998) of Texas A & M suggests that assignments for these groups emphasize doing: coming to a consensus, creating a prioritized list, formulating a thesis or question, formulating a group answer, solving a problem, preparing a report, or conducting a project.


Manage Your Workload

Use peer review for early drafts of papers. Specify limits on the length of postings and create small groups for discussions.  Each small group can then submit a consensus statement to the class as a whole.  In this way, the number of postings for each topic that you (and the students!) need to read is not overwhelming.  And, as noted earlier, indicate when you can be expected to be online.


Use Software Capabilities

Course management tools often allow you to organize separate forums for different topics.  Also, these forums can be made unavailable on a specific date, helping students to pace their work and avoid procrastination.  In addition, separate forums can be set up for social purposes or for technical assistance.


Bringing in the “Outside World” through Online Discussion

Interaction with students at other universities or in other countries can broaden students’ understanding.  In one project of the Annenberg/CPB Foundation, classes in small, rural colleges had electronic discussions with students enrolled in similar courses at urban universities with diverse populations.  Differences in perspective soon became evident, increasing the understanding of both groups.

At Lehigh, a forum was established among students enrolled in strategic management courses in Korea, Egypt, Finland, and the United States.  Students discussed topics specified by the instructors, such as advertising and the environment. They also completed a team project such as finding a solution to a real-world environmental problem, with each team including students from each country.

Finally, online discussion opens up the possibility of “bringing in” a guest expert at little or no cost and minimal inconvenience.  Faculty may request that an expert in a given area interact with their class for a given period of time.  This could entail being part of a synchronous discussion for an hour or an asynchronous discussion for a longer period of time.  This would make an excellent follow-up to in-depth study of a particular topic or theorist.



The opportunities for teaching and learning created by the widespread availability of e-mail, virtual chat rooms, and discussion boards are limited only by the imagination of the faculty member.  To be most effective, however, the purposes for using these technologies must be identified and the student assignments crafted to help students reach the learning goals of the course.



Creed, T. (1997).  Extending the Classroom Walls Electronically.  In William Campbell  and Karl Smith, eds., New Paradigms for College Teaching . Edina, MN Interaction Book Co. This book can be ordered from Interaction Books, Inc.,      (612) 831-9500.

Klemm, W.R. (1998).  Eight Ways to Get Students More Engaged in On-line Conferences.  The Higher Education Journal. 26(1) 62-64.  Available at:


            Retrieved on January 19, 2001 from the World Wide Web.


A Guide to Good Netiquette

Retrieved on January 19, 2001 from the World Wide Web.


Moderating Discussions in the Electronic Classroom

Retrieved on January 19, 2001 from the World Wide Web.


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