32 Baran and Correia, “Student-led facilitation strategies in online discussions”


Baran, E., and Correia, A. (2009). Student-led facilitation strategies in online discussions. Distance Education, 30(3), 339–361. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587910903236510.


Online discussions are a critical component of online learning experiences. This learning activity differs, however, from the traditional discussion method delivered in face-to-face learning experiences. Instructors must take on a different role when delivering online learning experiences. Online discussions do present students an environment to engage in constructive dialogue that affords them the opportunity to create new knowledge. However, the facilitation of online discussions must be intentional.

To address this, strategies have been developed that focus on the instructor as the discussion facilitator or moderator. Research supports instructor facilitation as an effective learning strategy for online discussions. However, there are limitations for this practice such as time constraints required to facilitate the entire discussion and the capacity to actively engage in all discussions.

To help in the construction of learning and to share responsibilities of facilitation with the instructor, peer facilitation in online discussions is explored by the authors. In the context of peer-facilitated discussion, each student takes on a different role to support interaction amongst peers and create learning.

To build upon and expand the current research, the authors investigated “(a) what peer-facilitation strategies increase participation and foster meaningful dialogue and (b) how these strategies accomplish that” (Baran & Correia, 2009, p. 430).

Key points

  • The grounding theory for this study was the naturalist research paradigm by Lincoln and Guba (1985).
  • For context, this study was conducted with a graduate level, online, co-hort based class at a large university. Online discussion was a requirement of the class and contributed to 20% of the student’s final grade (Baran & Correia, 2009, p. 343). Expectations for student participation and facilitation were shared at the beginning of the course.
  • The participants in the study included 16 students. Each student led at least one weekly discussion. The instructor also engaged in weekly conversations but not as a discussion leader (Baran & Correia, 2009, p. 344–345).
  • The primary data source for this study was weekly online discussion threads that were conducted in a learning management system. Other course artifacts were also used.
  • Both quantitative and qualitative data was analyzed. For quantitative analysis, the naturalist inquiry framework was used to code the discussion threads (Baran & Correia, 2009, p. 345).
  • The trustworthiness of the study was established through credibility, transferability, and confirmability.
  • The findings were presented via three mini cases. Each case exhibited a successful student-led facilitation strategy as they demonstrated an engaged dialogue with excellent participation rates.
    • Highly structured facilitation—an organized discussion with a systematic structure.
    • Inspirational facilitation—focused on sharing personal experiences and stories.
    • Practice-oriented facilitation—connecting learning and context to real-life situations.


This study shows that student-led discussions can be effective in an online learning environment. It is worth considering sharing the responsibility with the students to increase student engagement and learning. There are some things to consider when implementing this strategy.

First, the instructor outlined role expectations at the beginning of class so everyone was aware of expectations and standards. She also modeled these expectations and standards for the students early in the online discussion process so everyone had a clear opportunity to understand their role and expectation. This helped set the stage for success of the student-led facilitation.

The second thing to consider is that student participants in this study had a background and experience in education. They likely came to class with knowledge about facilitating discussion, but quite possibly only in a face-to-face setting and not online. What can the instructor do to set-up future students that may not have a facilitation background for success in the facilitator role? Intentional design of the learning activity needs to be developed in a way that allows students from all backgrounds to be successful.

Finally, the students were allowed to choose their facilitation strategy. This allowed them to be in control of their learning experience in the facilitation role while also allowing them to share their personal experience in a way that was comfortable to them.

Discussion questions

  1. What is one strength of instructor-led facilitation? What is one strength of student-led facilitation? Describe a personal example of participating in either an instructor-led discussion or a student-led discussion that exhibited the strength you mention.
  2. Of the three strategies presented in the findings, which would be your preferred facilitation method? Why?
  3. What role or roles do you think the instructor should take on in student-led facilitated discussion? Explain your answer.

Additional resources

Additional references

  • Lincoln, Y., & Guba, E. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


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