eCoaching Tip 52 Course Middles and Muddles — Souped-up Conversations Help Build Community

Oct 25 2007 (Lightly revised Aug 14 2010; Checked Nov 30 2019)

eCoaching Tip 52: Course Middles and Muddles — Souped-up Conversations Help Build Community

It is easy to get bogged down in the middle of courses. Lots of things can be going on, but you may not feel as if the activities represent real learning.  Or the amount of interaction and discussion can be underwhelming and you may feel that everyone is just going through the motions. How can you energize your learners and/or channel and help support their learning?

Here are three ideas for souping-up your course middles. If you have others that work for you, please consider sharing in the sharing blog post.

1. Team up for a Brief Mid-Course Discussion and Create a Shared Experience

Team up your students for one short specific discussion.  Many adult learners are very goal-oriented and don’t like to spend time just on networking.  However, they will often enjoy a very specific assignment that requires them to collaborate and explore a topic more intimately and personally with one or two other learners.  How might you design this activity?  Create a set of two or three open-ended, related questions for the week and have each team of two (or three) learners select a topic to explore for 3-5 days. This results in a set of ongoing discussion threads. Then select one of those threads for the entire class to respond and extend further. The goal is that the results of such a conversation thread contributes to the course knowledge and content. These discussions can be most valuable if they are situated in specific contexts or situations.

This design also supports learners learning how to effectively respond to their peers’ postings, sometimes a difficult behavior for students. From a student’s perspective, it takes less time to read the assignment, and prepare one’s own post. Building a community of learners requires students to respond, comment, analyze, the comments and responses of their peers.

In the three-stage model of building community (Brown, 2001) stage 2 of building community requires a feeling of “sharedness.”  Brown found that a feeling of having shared an experience in online classes often follows a “long, thoughtful, threaded discussion on a subject of importance after which participants felt both personal satisfaction and kinship.”

It is this type of “long, thoughtful and reflective discussions” that we want our students to achieve.  And this often does take time.  So being patient and providing time for exploration and even confusion is sometimes the path to take.

2. Turn Questions Inside-out and Upside Down

Sometimes the most difficult cognitive work is figuring out what the question is. And this frequently happens as we approach the middle and muddled part of a course.  By this point, student’s heads are “getting filled up to overflowing, but they don’t know what they know or don’t know. There’s a lot of “stuff” in their mind gardens, but there is no path, sets of relationships or patterns that help make meaning of all the bits of knowledge. All students know is that they have “covered” a lot of material and the multiple-choice questions weren’t too hard.  But what can they do with this knowledge they have been so busily acquiring?

This is a good time to challenge the students to propose tough questions for the faculty member. Think of this as a variation of the “Stump the chump” challenge from NPR’s radio program, “Car Talk.”   Set up a time for a synchronous class discussion thread or maybe a session in the synchronous classroom and have students submit questions to see if they can either stump each other or stump the faculty member or teaching assistant. This can be a lively experience, highlighting for one and all what they know, what they don’t know and what they might like to know or be able to do.

Here are a few additional variations on this theme of having the students ask questions:

o  Post a statement, article, scenario, video news clip on the discussion board and ask students to generate a set of data-gathering questions that they would like to have answered to help address that problem.

o  Set up a discussion board, wiki or blog that students will use to describe problems that they have learned to address and problems that would still stump them. Students can research the net for examples of such problems.

o  Establish an open forum for a week and have the students generate questions and problems related to the readings.

o  Encourage students to question the information from a web search. Questions that should be encouraged include: Who asserted this? What are this person’s credentials? Who had the opportunity to critique this idea? Who supports and who disagrees with it? (Bruckman, 2005, p.36.)

More on upside-down questioning from the students is at eCoaching Tip 18:  Questions and Answers — Upside Down and Inside Out.

3. Construct a Round-Robin of Knowledge Construction Tasks

Another way of focusing on substantive knowledge building is to design a learning experience using the five phases of Knowledge Construction (Gunawardena, Lowe and Anderson 1997). Those five phases are:

o  Sharing/comparing of information (Researcher, Data-gatherer)

o  Discovering/exploring of dissonance or inconsistency among ideas, concepts or statements  (Analyst)

o  Negotiation of meaning and co-constructing of knowledge (Interpreter)

o  Testing and modifying of proposed synthesis or co-construction  (Proposer)

o  Agreeing on final statement and applications of newly constructed meaning or insights  (Consensus Builder)

Again, in a team of two or three, learners can choose a particular problem, scenario, case to examine and then assume roles as suggested by the knowledge construction model above.  Of course roles can be shared and switched according to learner’s skills, preferences. The end goal includes both the end product of a set of recommendations as well as the metacognitive awareness of the process of knowledge-builder.

More about this Interaction Analysis Model is in the reference below and in the eCoaching Tip 34 Threaded Discussions and Knowledge Construction.

Thriving in the Middle from Fresh Perspectives

Be sure to take time to enjoy the middle time of a course. This is the time for deep thought, exploration, sorting out confusions and getting to the real questions of your discipline. Students can bring a host of new perspectives, relationships and patterns from other disciplines. These varying perspectives can often illuminate hidden dimensions and approaches to tough problems for all of us.


Brown, R. E. (2001). The Process of community-building in distance learning classes Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 18 – 35. Retrieved from

Bruckman, A. S. (2005). Student Research and the Internet. Communications of the ACM. 48: 35-37.

Boettcher, J. V.( 2007, 2019)c eCoaching Tip 34 Threaded Discussions and Knowledge Construction. Retrieved from

Boettcher, J. V. (2007, 2012). eCoaching Tip 18:  Questions and Answers — Upside Down and Inside Out. Retrieved fromc

Gunawardena, C. N., Lowe, C. A. & Anderson, T. (1997). Analysis of a global online debate and the development of an interaction analysis model for examining social construction of knowledge in computer conferencing. Journal of Educational Computing Research 17(4), 397-431.

Palloff, Rena M. & Pratt, Keith. (2007). Building online learning communities.(2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.

Note: These eCoaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized, expanded and updated  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2016) coauthored with Rita- Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2020