Critical thinking exercises in online courses: How I incorporate them in lecture and production courses

Discussion forum is a major component of online education, so how can instructors imbues critical thinking in the discussions? I want to share the critical thinking exercises that I use in a lecture course and a production course, both are for-credit college courses and are taught online.

Critical thinking is a general teaching goal and outcome for both online and offline education. There are many ways to articulate the concept of critical thinking; to me, critical thinking is the ability to apply what they have learned in my classes to evaluate issues or solve problems.

The two online courses where I incorporate critical thinking exercises are Introduction to Mass Communication, a lecture course, and Media Tools & Applications, a production course. Both courses have weekly graded discussion forums.

In the production course discussion forum, as I described in a separate post, students write a post each week in response to the discussion question for that week. In their posts, students are required to make direct references to key guidelines in the lesson, as a way to show me that they have studied the lesson, and are able to apply what they learned in their evaluations.

To help with student discussions, at the start of the course, I usually distribute sample discussion post telling them what is expected of their discussions.

For the lecture course discussion forum, I developed some operational guidelines:

  • briefly summarize the relevant concepts you are citing from the book
  • quote relevant contents from the book, i.e., with quotation marks and specific individual page numbers for your quote
  • incorporate your own thoughts and opinions
  • incorporate external research such as a relevant web article
  • leave comments on posts by other students

These guidelines are explained, with examples and in more details, in the syllabus. For instance, the instructions on comments:

If you agree with the original post, use specific examples or information to explain why you agree. If you do not agree with something a fellow student said, also explain why with concrete information. The examples and information can be from the book, a relevant web resource, or it can be personal experience or real-world example.

A comment is also considered substantive if you build upon and integrate views from several other students to take the discussion deeper.

And it takes time for the students to digest all the requirements in their discussions. I will gradually step up my requirements by sending out weekly group emails highlighting issues that need improvements.

For instance, in a recent communication to the Intro to Mass Communication class, I highlighted two issues for the week:

1. Opinions and thoughts. Even if the discussion question itself does not explicitly ask for your opinion, for purpose of this class, you are required to incorporate relevant opinions or comments in the post. It can be a separate paragraph, or a few clear cluster of sentences in the flow of text. Please make it clear to me and to others which part of the discussion is your own opinion/thoughts.

2. Web article incorporation. Please know that you wont’ get credit if you do not make it clear how the cited article relates to your discussion. It can be a quote in the flow of your discussion, or it can be a summary. Either way, you are not supposed to just list a web link and do not have any clue in the discussion how that web article is relevant.

In other group email to the digital production class, I called their attention to associating lessons with their discussions:

So, a key requirement of our online discussion is that you relate to specific guidelines in the lesson. In doing so, you need to show me your “thought process.” For instance, it’s not enough when you say a particular photo makes use of rule of thirds; instead, you need to describe in details how you think rule of thirds is being used. It does not matter that much if your description is not quite “right,” what truly matters that you show me that you are trying to apply what you learned in evaluating a real issue.

About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (, a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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