This article was originally published in Net: An eJournal of Faith-Based Distance Learning.


Many cannot imagine that real character formation can be achieved in any format other than in the traditional brick-and-mortar model of residential education with in-class face time. Profound character formation, however, can and has happened through quality and effective learning in online education. Good pedagogy toward fostering character formation begins with an understanding of the heart and soul and their relationship to one another. Allowing this knowledge to inform the creation of well-framed questions and prompts while fostering mutual engagement between students and between students with their instructor provides not only higher levels of learning but also lasting character formation in the student. This article addresses a foundational approach to character formation in online classes and some practical, user-friendly techniques to facilitate deeper learning and character formation. These are applied to various features of a learning management system, particularly discussion threads, video conferences, and collaborative documents.

The content for this blog series is drawn from my book, Character Formation in Online Education:A Guide For Instructors, Administrators, And Accrediting Agencies (Zondervan 2015).


The four elements addressed in Part 1, the heart, soul, well-framed question, and learning community, can now be applied to three collaborative features found in a learning managements system (LMS). Two are found here and a third in Part 3.

Collaborative Learning Tools and Ways to Use Them

Collaborative learning focuses on both content and the process of learning. C.S. Lewis stated, “It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can” (Lewis, 1958). Participation, dialogue, and reciprocity are key elements necessary for students to sense and know they are included in something greater than themselves. Meaningful dialogue in a variety of formats inspires critical thinking and reflection, combats mental inertia, and fosters transformation. Students may come curious, but they leave inspired.

To simply “make conversation” would mean to speak in an artificial way, but there should be nothing artificial with the ways conversations can now be fostered to involve students in their learning processes. The design of an online course must be formed by the intent of the professor to foster student engagement with their peers, instructor, and the content (Brinthaupt, Fisher, Gardner, Raffo, & Woodard, 2011). Involved faculty and students’ peers have important roles in building relationships for a strong learning community. The use of various means of communication must be employed (Milheim, 2012). Instructors can use any number of tools to create a natural online learning environment.

Three key features of a learning management system (LMS) are highlighted below. Each is designed to give students the opportunity to process and reflect on their learning in community. The use of well-framed questions and prompts in any of these tools allows students to be reflective, challenging them to apply their knowledge to their own experiences. These specific features in an LMS provide easy access to increased learning through conversation: discussion sessions, collaborative documents, and video conferences.

Discussion Forums: Give Your Students Something to Talk About

Discussion sessions have become a mainstay for online courses. Here students engage with course materials in combination with well-framed discussion prompts or questions that stimulate dialogue among students in a given small group with input from the professor and teaching assistant. Students are typically required to respond first to professor-generated prompts and then to at least one other group member’s response. The discussion thread created reveals the depth of engagement and understanding of course material. Not only is there more student participation when using this feature, but the professor can also observe, contribute to, and guide these discussions in meaningful ways.

Effective, well-framed discussion prompts stimulate formational changes. Here are three categories of varying quality discussion prompts: low, mediocre, and transformational.

Low quality discussion prompts do little for character formation. These questions result in responses that require no depth and give little or no evidence of deep thinking or meaningful reflection of material. Simple, one-word responses or “search-highlight-copy” responses contribute little to learning. For example:

  • Did you read Psalm 139?
  • What did you think about the reading assignment?


Mediocre quality discussion questions begin to address character formation but at a surface level.

  • What evidence of both good theology and human emotion is found in Psalm 139? How might this resonate with you?
  • What was an uncomfortable or unexpected reaction you had from your reading of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15?


Transformational discussion prompts promote character formation

  • How does a truth found in Psalm 139 impact how you relate to God? To yourself? To others in your community? Substitute the name of a person you are having difficulty with as you pray Psalm 139 over them. What change do you notice in yourself as you do? Be specific.
  • In Luke 15:20, the forgiving father runs to his returning son. The word translated “embraced” means “fell on his neck.” Have you experienced this kind of forgiveness from God? Explain.


Through the careful and prayerful use of discussion prompts, students can profoundly discover the graces of God as he nourishes their souls. Students do not live in a vacuum, so take the opportunity to step into their lives. How is the truth of what they are learning being expressed in their lives? This can be approached with questions such as “What does this particular truth look like in your life?” or “What God-given opportunities might be clothed in this challenge?” or by commenting on how you observe God working in an individual’s life. Press students to be specific, avoiding superficial, cliché-ish, or cosmetic answers. Take the opportunity to leave either written or recorded comments for students. These validate their efforts, and the encouragement can be deeply meaningful.

Here is a student’s reflection on using discussion threads:

  • I absolutely loved the discussions. It was such a fun way to interact and learn about each week’s lessons, and I already feel like I know everyone in the group. :P The discussion posts were an encouraging and fun way to learn and help each other learn about each concept. I have to admit, checking back and finding a reply or two to something I posted was just like getting a notification on facebook :P I know it's silly, but it was a great motivation to get those posts out so that we could interact more in order to build such a community feel with God's community.                         

Collaborative Documents: Collected Thoughts and Ideas

Collaborative documents. As implied, this is a feature where more than one person contributes to the creation or building of a document. A document can be reviewed, edited, and evaluated between assignment partners or small group members. These electronic documents are available 24/7 for students to add their research, input, or opinions as required by the instructor. The completed document can then be submitted to the professor upon its due date.

            The professor can also pose well-framed questions or prompts in a collaborative document. Students can then post responses, reflections, or findings in either an asynchronous or synchronous setting. Here are two examples.

1.  The following explanation and prompt was used to elicit responses from a time spent in prayer:

You may be familiar with using the acronym A-C-T-S for prayer. “A” for Adoration, adoring God for who he is. “C” for Confession. As we recognize who God is, it places us in a position of how we “miss the mark” and we respond in a time of confession. “T” is for Thanksgiving, where we often jump to thanking God for his blessings in our lives. Perhaps the first matter to be thankful for is the forgiveness received having confessed our sin before God. “S” is for Supplication, where we ask for things.


Christians commonly spend most of their time in prayer in supplication, asking God for what we want or need in our lives. This can negatively impact our idea and understanding of God. So, here is the brief exercise:

  • Spend 10-15 minutes in praying A-C-T, without the S.
  • Afterward, collect your thoughts on this experience.
  • In this collaborative document, anonymously add your brief reflections/takeaways from this exercise.

Here are a few of the online responses to the above prompt:

  • I thought about it as going to a friend or my dad and spending a second saying hello and then spending the rest of my visit just listing everything I needed them to do for me. They wouldn’t really feel loved by me or feel like I even wanted to spend time with them.
  • In praying using ACT, I was able to realize how often I think of myself over God. I found that many times my mind would break away from God and I would start talking about myself and my problems. Without supplication, I thought about myself a lot and I need to change to give glory to God. I understood how much God appears in my life, even when I don’t notice him.
  • It was brought to my attention that my view of God is most likely distorted, I do spend a lot of time in prayer actively using the "Supplication" part. I was glad that was something I could focus on not doing but it sure was hard! Taking that part out of my prayer with God reveals to me that there is SO MANY THINGS I have to be in complete and utter thankfulness of Him, quite the opposite of asking for things! I love being in adoration of God but I feel that I need to be trained somewhat in this area, I think that by better understanding who God is (and clearing that distorted view) and His attributes I will be able to better apply this to prayer.

These responses help further discussions on our relationship with God and the role of prayer.

2.  The collection of students’ responses below reveals thoughtful reflections having acted on their readings and discussions on confession. Consider the depth of these responses, representative of many more, collected in the matter of a few minutes. Rarely can these two aspects, the quantity and quality of responses, be experienced in a typical classroom setting. You may be surprised by the quantity and transparency of the responses when using well-framed prompts.

  • It granted me freedom from the guilt that clung on to me.
  • I am much more aware all throughout the day of my thoughts and attitudes and where I need to confess the bad/negative and ask Jesus to forgive me and help me to change.
  • It helped me to be free from the weight of the guilt and shame and to gain accountability and support from a friend who pointed me to how God’s hands were working.
  • There was a sense of vulnerability and repentance. It was a weight lifted off my chest and it felt good to give it to God.

Anonymous comments give students the freedom to contribute without concern for image management. Depending on the topic and the relationship you have built with students and they have developed with one another, you may have great success in asking for names to be added along with comments. When the professor acknowledges those comments, it affirms students’ input and thus their thinking process.

A meaningful prompt presented in a collaborative document brings together powerful individual experiences that can impact the entire class. In less time than it would have taken to hear from a few representative student voices, the professor can instead have a document where most if not all uninhibited expressions are given a “voice.” The professor, now able to observe character formation in process, can follow up with further conversations through video conferences and posts on discussion threads.

The professor can also create a collaborative document that serves as a place for students to post prayer concerns, answers to prayers, or updates. This cumulative collection of posts from class participants not only expresses a core value of the professor but also helps to grow trust and mutuality in the learning community.

Students appreciate the efforts of their instructor to incorporate various technology options as part of their learning activities. Use these features judiciously, and you will find the quantity and quality of responses mutually rewarding and transforming.

Discussion forums and collaborative documents are two of the collaborative learning tools addressed here. A third, video conferencing, and a brief conclusion will be found in Part Three of three in this series.