Are you searching for a way to increase student-to-student interaction in your teaching? Would you thrill at the idea of more creative online discussions? This post describes a well-tested approach that supports strong inter-student interaction and avoids the typically mundane discussion activity. Best of all, this approach works effectively in multiple STEM disciplines, including mathematics, engineering, coding, and other problem-solving orientated subjects.

Creative Discussions

Since I always look for ways to make online discussions more engaging and meaningful for students, I like to share instructors’ creative and fun approaches. Several years ago, I wrote a blog post explaining how a math instructor engaged students, asking them to find examples of parabolas they were studying that week in their local environment and post pictures on the discussion board. It was a huge success and had students enthusiastically sharing their discoveries.

I’m currently working with an engineering instructor to develop a series of graduate-level online courses. The challenge is how to approach a series of homework activities. The assigned problems are difficult, so solving in small groups is beneficial. However, the instructor also wants to make sure that all students independently develop a firm grasp of the principles and processes, but without worry about right answers.

Enter the two-step problem solving approach. Here’s how it works:

First, students review a complex scenario-based problem, which they attempt to resolve individually. Students are assessed on accurate application of the proper processes, formulas, or steps to solve the problem, not on whether they come up with the correct answer.

In the following week, students work in 3- or 4-person teams, uploading and sharing their individual responses on the group’s private discussion board. This leads to the second step, where students review the logic and processes taken by team members. To reach agreement on the correct answer, they collaborate and discuss all the proposed approaches, actively engaging with and educating each other, citing resources that support why their approach is correct. Ultimately, each small group must interact and debate until they reach a consensus, which is submitted and graded for a correct (or not) answer.

Successful Outcomes

The engineering instructor has implemented this approach for several terms and finds it successful in several ways.

  • The individual first attempt minimizes the potential of a student shirking their duties or not giving their full effort to the group activity.
  • Being assessed on approach and application of appropriate principles eases the anxiety of getting the right answer, which minimizes the temptation to use shortcuts or unethical options.
  • The group discussion supports active learning and requires students to present their solution. When the student believes their answer is correct, they confidently cite evidence and reference applicable resources to explain their rationale.
  • Given today’s global business environment, the ability to succeed as part of a team is an essential skill to master, requiring effective communication, persuasion, and negotiation to arrive at a consensus.
  • Working as a team alleviates pressure and allows everyone to contribute, more or less evenly. Students must interact with peers and learn to respect and appreciate individual differences, skills, and perspectives.
  • Although most problems have a “right” answer, solutions often include a more nuanced response that highlights the need for some degree of subjective judgment.

Using this two-step approach has been valuable for students. It reinforces their efforts to grasp the formulas and processes related to the problem, while simultaneously providing the space to learn from their peers. And as noted earlier, this method is easily adaptable to many disciplines and subjects. If you are searching for a way to increase student-to-student interaction in your teaching, you may want to give this two-step approach a try.

We’d love to hear your feedback and comments, so please post if you want to share your experience with this or other creative approaches. Good luck!

Susan Fein, Ecampus Instructional Designer,

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