Building an online community - Tier 4, Construction

Group discussion activities to help learners co-construct skills and knowledge.

Caitlin Foran avatar
Written by Caitlin Foran
Updated over a week ago

This article is one in a series about how to build an online community. For a description of online communities and tiers of involvement and interaction, see the first article in the series: Building an online community.

What happens at tier 4?

By this stage, you've involved learners in some low stakes activities. They've had a chance to get to know each other, form connections and have some initial back and forth. Now we're ready for construction and genuine discussion. Constructing happens through learners negotiating theirs plus others ideas on something. It typically looks something like this:

  • Generating - essentially brainstorming, seeing divergent thinking within a group

  • Organising - learners compare, analyse and categorise the different ideas

  • Converging - synthesis of ideas (some may be discarded), understanding and consensus (including agreeing to disagree), 

Convergence can happen informally via the facilitator (or a learner) summarising the discussion. Or, it can happen formally through the joint construction of some piece of work, such as an essay or assignment.

Learners are… working together. They’re asking: How can I build on what others have said or done? How do I work with others in this group? What is my role? How does others' understanding differ from mine?

Facilitators are… giving guidelines on making constructive comments, supporting groups that are stuck or not engaging, asking questions rather than answering questions straight away.

Support for learners 

Before we move into the different types of activities. We want to add a disclaimer that even though we've scaffolded learners into making connections so they can discuss... they still might not know exactly what discussion ought to look like. It doesn't hurt to be explicit about this. You can give them sentence prompts to really help them form constructive discussion.


  • When you say _______ what do you mean with regards to _______?

  • Is what you say about _______ from the perspective of _______?

Give kudos

  • I really liked _________ because __________

  • Your comment about _________ was interesting because _________.


  • I have different thoughts on _____________ because __________.

  • I have concerns about _______ because ________.


  • I think you could add to ___________ by __________.

  • A different approach might be ____________.

  • Have you considered _______ from the perspective of _______? 

Make connections

  • Adding to your idea about _______, I think _________.

  • What you've said about _______ seems to connect well with ________ because ________ .


  • Your point about _______ changed my perspective because _________ .

  • What you've said about _______ makes me reflect on ________ .


Discussion is a very broad activity. And of course, it depends on the ideas within your course. We hope these different categories of discussion might kick-start some ideas for you.

Give learners a dilemma or contentious issue, and ask them to explore concerns and/or things they'd need to take into account. This could be a case study scenario or just a quote from someone with strong opinions relating to ideas in your course.

Issues get learners thinking about the topic from multiple viewpoints which broadens their understanding. In some context, you might want to look for convergence in discussion. Asking: "What is the root cause of this issue?".  

Instead of (or as well as) exploring a dilemma, learners could look at different ways to solve it. 

Solutions help learners build problem-solving and evaluation skills as they analyse the problem and weigh up the pros and cons of different actions.  

Compare and contrast
Ask learners to explore similarities and differences between ideas, articles, videos etc.

Comparing and contrasting supports pattern-making and helps learners to explain those ideas better as they can say how they are distinct from one another.

Give learners an idea, approach, article or video then ask them to evaluate it. They could be evaluating it on accuracy, effectiveness, whether it should be trusted and so on. You could also ask learners about the intentions or goals of the author or approach. 

Evaluating is a great way to get learners thinking critically about what they read (or see). This is especially helpful in academic courses that require reputable sources for assignments.

Co-create a resource

Use collective wisdom to have learners work together to create a summary sheet for a topic that they can all use for study or assignments. This could be in the form of a mind map (or similar) or infographic. Having a useful resource at the end of their work should be a good reason for learners to engage.

Web apps for collaborative mind maps

Web apps for collaborative infographics

If you have a larger group, you will want to break them up into smaller groups of say 4-6 learners. To extend this you could also get learners to present and/or provide other groups with feedback on their resource. 

Group task

Group tasks are best suited to complex ideas or projects. Things that are better understood or achieved with the minds of many. Group tasks based on things that are easy to understand leads to more focus on the execution of the group work than on understanding the ideas. 

One way to do this is through rigorous projects where learners identify a problem (for example, balancing business growth in with existing work spaces) and agree—through research, discussion, debate, and time to develop their ideas—on a solution.

Concerns about group work often relate to how to ensure everyone in the group contributes. Here are a few tips to help that:

  • Keep groups as 4-5 people, so there's less room to "hide".

  • Use meaningful team roles that relate to the content and to the task. Teaching centre has some great suggestions for roles to use in group tasks.

  • Give learners a short form where they evaluate their own contribution as well as and the contributions of each other group member.

Create a sub-group

If you've got a larger group of learners you might find that they have "pockets of interest" where a particular sub group is interested in how ideas in your course apply in their specific context. Great! Suggest to those learners to start a (well-named) thread on that interest and freely discuss there.


Genuine discussion and collaboration (when learners are prepared for it) deepens and broadens learners' understanding. Improve the chances of success my making sure the activities are relevant to the course and that they're things too complex for learners to do on their own.

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