Academic journal article Higher Learning Research Communications

Instructional Design and Facilitation Approaches That Promote Critical Thinking in Asynchronous Online Discussions: A Review of the Literature

Academic journal article Higher Learning Research Communications

Instructional Design and Facilitation Approaches That Promote Critical Thinking in Asynchronous Online Discussions: A Review of the Literature

Article excerpt


Asynchronous online discussions (AODs) are a common instructional feature of online courses used to promote interaction and critical thinking without the constraints of time or space (Arend, 2009; Bowden, 2012; Klisc, McGill, & Hobbs, 2009; Spartariu & Winsor, 2013). AODs typically consist of a discussion prompt to which students must respond with an initial post, followed by a series of response posts in which students comment on, challenge, and/or question their peers (Chavira, 2011). There are several benefits to using AODs compared to traditional, face-to-face discussions, including increased opportunities for all students, rather than a select few, to contribute to the discussion and more time for information processing, reflective thinking, and the construction of high quality responses to peers (Alamro & Schofield, 2012; Cain & Smith 2009; Rizopoulos & McCarny, 2009; Rollag, 2010). However, challenges continue to persist related to effectively designing and facilitating high-quality AODs that promote critical thinking (Armstrong & Manson, 2010; Spartariu & Winsor, 2013), particularly because the consensus on what critical thinking is, as well as the specific guidance on how to effectively teach critical thinking skills is elusive (Garrison, 1991; Mulnix, 2012).

Cognitive constructs that are similar to or that promote critical thinking (cognitive domain, cognitive presence, knowledge construction, and perspective-taking) frequently appear in the AOD literature and often are used interchangeably with critical thinking. While each cognitive construct is distinct, all reflect the progression of thinking from low levels (e.g., recalling/restating facts, offering an opinion, recognizing a problem) to high levels (applying new knowledge, testing ideas, making judgments), the latter being associated with critical thinking (Table 1). Despite the myriad constructs in the literature, the scope of existing articles often is limited to examining the efficacy of AOD approaches in the context of only one cognitive construct (Darabi, Arrastia, Nelson, & Liang, 2011; deNoyelles, Zydney, & Chen, 2014; Hou, 2011; Richardson & Ice, 2010). Therefore, the purpose of this article is to present a review of the literature related to the efficacy of AOD approaches for promoting critical thinking, as reflected across multiple cognitive constructs.

The search for articles included in this review was limited to 2009 to 2014. Some articles published prior to 2009 were included to address historical aspects of AODs or because they were frequently cited in the existing literature. The following databases were searched: Academic Search Complete; Computers & Applied Sciences Complete; Education Research Complete; ERIC; Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts; PsycARTICLES, PsycINFO, and Education from SAGE. The keyword used to search the databases was online discussion. The keyword was intentionally broad given that the aim of this article was to conduct an exhaustive search of the literature in order to identify themes related to instructional design and facilitation strategies that influence critical thinking. Using more specific keywords, such as problem-based discussion or instructional design strategies, may have produced narrower results given that educational terminology varies. Any additional articles included in the review were identified by scanning the references of the articles gathered from the initial search of the databases. What follows is a brief background of AODs in the context of the distance education movement followed by a discussion of the instructional design and facilitation approaches that promote critical thinking in AODs.


The first generation of distance education courses began in the late 1890's to increase access to education in response to the growing demand for an educated workforce during the Industrial Revolution. …

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