Using Discussion Forums Effectively in Online Courses

Discussion forums have become common place among online courses, as they allow instructors and students to converse about the learning material despite not being in the same place. Often, however, discussion forums are poorly moderated and do not actually promote the deep learning that is desired.

To ensure discussion forums are utilized in the best way, it is recommended that instructors use rubrics to guide students’ posts. Having a clear rubric can help students understand what is expected of their posts and help the instructor objectively grade students’ responses.

An example of using discussion forums

In the online course I am currently teaching, I provide students with important information regarding the discussion posts in the syllabus, which I give out at the beginning of the semester. First, I provide students with the purpose and expectations for the forum posts. I also give a word limit to their posts, for reasons explained below:

Reasons for Discussion Posts:

The posts are designed to help you more deeply process the assigned material by synthesizing the material in 500 words or less and reflecting on how it connects with your experiences using ed-tech tools. The act of synthesizing leads you to new ideas and thinking. The short word count forces you to synthesize. Going beyond your reading also increases the likelihood you will remember important content (Graham & Perin, 2007).

I also give students my explicit expectations:

Expectations for Forum Posts:

– Express yourself in a professional, conversational style. Your speech should sound like YOU AT YOUR BEST.

– Use professional language and avoid texting acronyms, profanity, and potentially offensive slang.

Instructions are also provided which give students an idea of how they should prepare for the discussion post.

Initial Post in Each Forum:

– First, do ALL of the assigned reading tasks and then, thoroughly and thoughtfully answer the forum questions.

– Include LOTS of specific information and references (i.e., authors / page numbers, name of person in video) to show you have a deep understanding of the important details in the assigned materials. (Your analysis should be at the granular level rather than a gist discussion.)

Lastly, I provide clear expectations of what a quality response to other students looks like. (I require students respond to other posts in order to keep the conversation going, like it would if were in a traditional classroom).

Responses to Colleagues:

– Extend the knowledge and thinking of our learning community. Raise alternative perspectives (It is OK to civilly disagree with a colleague!), provide a link to a useful resource, share a relevant experience, attach a document you created to implement a strategy, offer ideas for application of tech tools / strategies, ask for clarification, pose genuine questions that will encourage further thought, etc.

– Keep the conversation going by acknowledging replies and responding to questions posed by others in the forum.

– Be positive, respectful, and encouraging, but don’t just be a cheerleader. (Praise by itself seldom moves learning forward.) Your classmates and I are your allies in this literacy and learning adventure.

– Make an effort to respond to different people each week.

– Post your replies to peers a day or two AFTER you submit your initial post.

I also provide a rubric in the syllabus that guides their weekly discussion post. As can be seen in the table below, students are given 1 point for successfully meeting expectations and 0 points if they do not. Each post is only worth 3 points. After each weekly session, I provide students with feedback on their posts and explain any points I have taken off to guide them with the next week’s posts. Providing feedback is the best way to ensure your students consistently meet your standards.

If you need help designing a discussion post rubric or setting discussion standards for your course, contact the IDAT team. We have Instructional Designers that are happy to help.

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