Photo by Cameron Venti on Unsplash

See the Forest Discussion (aka “The One”)

This is possibly the easiest online discussion type or “template” to implement. It is also absolutely indispensable in any new or recently redesigned online course. I personally call it “see the forest discussion” but most people call similar activities “exit tickets.” The interesting part is that it isn’t really a “discussion” in the strict sense of the word (we’ll circle back to the name, and why it isn’t really a discussion, but still is so useful, at the end of this post).

If I could only use one type of discussion in any future course, this is “the ONE.” 

I could argue that because it requires students to recall and reflect on previously studied content it is proven to increase learning by virtue of the extremely well-researched and evidence-supported retrieval effect (Roediger & Karpicke 2008, Dunlosky et al. 2013 , Weinstein & Sumeracki 2018, and many, many others).

But it’s actually NOT the point here, and not its main strength.
Yes, it likely enhances learning due to retrieval effect, but most importantly, it is to every instructor what a compass is to a hiker on a distant and less travelled trail: an indispensable tool, a life-saver. This is especially true of new or recently redesigned courses: exciting, but uncharted, vast territories, with tricky thickets; read students’ posts carefully – it will keep you on track, and tell you when / if you’ve strayed off-course (pun intended), before it’s too late to fix it.

It’s surprisingly simple, fast, and “five-point rubric” can be easily applied if you need to grade it. And its success depends mostly on you, the instructor, using it as your guide to gently adjust the course as your students and you travel along.

Important set up considerations (if you can’t bring yourself to do A and B, don’t use this type of discussion: without these conditions it becomes busy work):

  1. Set this up as “Must post first, before seeing the posts of others” (or whatever the analogous option in your LMS is called). For why, see point #5 in my previous “Never, never, never…” post.
  2. Make sure post editing is OFF (see #6 in my “Never, never, never…” post).
  3. There is really no need for students to reply to anyone else, although they should be encouraged to see what others posted, and hopefully are interested in comparing notes. If you are very uncomfortable with this type of non-discussion-discussion (or information-sharing discussion, technically speaking), you can ask students to find one post that is most similar to, or different from their own, and to comment on the similarities and the differences; this alone, forces them to review other posts.
  4. Following logically after #C, above, it’s OK to have just one deadline for this post, unless you require students’ response. If you do, #3 in my “Never, never, never…” post still applies (you’ll need both post-by and reply-after/by dates).

Ask students to post answers to four questions (you can just copy & paste my text, and edit as you see fit): 

  1. What are the key, central, or most thought-provoking concepts or ideas in this [module, film, chapter – pick ONE]? Mention at least ONE, but no more than FIVE (more isn’t necessarily better; better is better; if you have seven, or ten, and they all seem “key”, prioritize, and reduce to five).
    Make each one complete sentence / statement and not just a phrase (meaning that it must have a subject + a verb, and it’s optional, but good to include modifier/s). 
  2. Based on this content [module, article, film] only (and not on your general knowledge), for each point you listed in answering #1, above, explain  WHY? or HOW? Just ONE complete sentence. (I know, enjoy the “pun.”)
  3. What question(s) were suggested by this content, but remained unanswered (and you expected that they would be answered…)? List between 1-5.
    These are questions that clearly occurred to you / came to mind as you were reading/watching/listening this, but never got answered in a satisfactory way.
  4. Was there anything contradictory, or muddy / unclear in this material? List between 1-5. You must include at least ONE.
    This is different from #3, above: think of something in this material that was stated or implied, but made you pause because it doesn’t seem to fit with what this content states elsewhere, or with what you know about this topic in general.


There are THREE slightly different ways to use this type of discussion, and you can decide on using it in just one consistent way in your course (for example, as a module closer), or mix-and-match these three approaches. My personal preference is to use all three (I have no research data to support it, just practical considerations), and to give some thought to the balance among them, which I found to be slightly different for every course:

  • ONE (most common use), it can be used as a module closer, and bring all elements of the module together. Very helpful in finding out if students developed some strange misconceptions about the material, if they found things you find important, to be important, and to generate a list for your closing of the module (or opening of the next one), to address misconceptions, gaps, and unanswered questions.
  • TWO, you can apply this to a specific, particularly difficult or important piece of course content (for example the central lecture video, article, textbook chapter, documentary film, of a module). I’d use this infrequently (maybe once or twice in a 4-15-week course), but consistently, for complex content which introduces several concepts that are essential for understanding what comes later in the course; or for a long (1.5 hour) and complicated documentary film that I’d intend to use as a backdrop theme or point of reference for several modules, or even for the entire course.
  • THREE (useful, if used sparingly): Undergraduate students and beginning grad students (and students in post-grad professional programs) often find it very challenging to answer #4. They usually understand the question as “list something you did not understand.” But in upper-division or graduate courses, assuming that the content was carefully selected and “vetted” as level-appropriate by the instructor, such lack of understanding is likely the result of unclear writing or presentation, and not of student’s knowledge gap or deficiency.
    In other words, if the piece was well written, and carefully selected for the course, students should be able to understand it. It is useful to help students develop critical judgment that allows them to discern when their failure to grasp something is due to their own lack of background knowledge, and when it is due to imperfect writing or presentation (in other words, it’s the author’s, and not the student’s fault). That’s why it is the only prompt that says “You MUST include at least ONE,” which at first glance seems redundant, but without it, you’ll be surprised how often it will be left blank!
    So here is how this use is different from #1 and #2, above: sometimes it is helpful to assign a deliberately less-than-perfect (but still useful) piece of content, (and experimental design without a control group; a piece that fails to address a seemingly obvious gap, a contradiction, etc.) so that students get used to finding fissures, inconsistencies, and weak points in published content. Many students arrive to grad school accustomed to treat their textbook, or other published content as gospel. It’s your job to change their mindset. 

Let’s circle back to the beginning of this post: by now it should be obvious why I like to call this “see the forest” discussion. The expression, originally used by Sir Thomas More in 1533 (he used “wood” not “forest”), and catalogued by John Heywood in his collection of proverbs and sayings in 1546, means that you must de-focus from sharp detail (trees) to a higher level to see the full picture (the wood). This is exactly the point here: condensing a 1.5 hour documentary, 30 minute lecture, or 20 page complex research article to 5 statements, followed by 5 “why/how” statements is meant to be challenging; it’s also necessary if you want to see the forest. Otherwise it’s trees, trees, and more trees…

If you want to be very technical, you can insist that this is NOT really a discussion: there is no knowledge / opinion gap here, no careful time-sequencing, not even a  requirement to reply at all; it clearly violates points #1, 3, 5, and 6 of my own, very opinionated “Never, never, never…” post on discussions.  If it bothers you, call it “See the forest activity” instead. Discussion or not, it’s the one online type of assignment I could never give up and not use. 🙂

Technically this is an assignment (not a discussion) which uses the discussion feature of the LMS to share information: if students posted this as an assignment, other students would not be able to see it; it is important for them to see what others posted, so discussion “technology” is used. Students learn by thinking what to post. If they take the time, also by comparing what they posted with what others posted. You learn a lot by comparing what you think they should have posted. with what they actually did. If those two things (should=did) align, your compass indicates you’re on track.

Nicely done.

Other similar “activity” posts: