Discussion Forum Best Practices

Discussion Forums can play a key role in online learning. When used effectively, they can provide many learning benefits including: enhanced critical thinking, more thoughtful and reflective participation, a stronger class community, a greater likelihood of citing research, and a greater sense of race- and gender-based equality (Worcester, 2008). However, writing prompts that generate vibrant asynchronous discussion and student engagement is challenging.

How to Get Started

There are three key phases involved in Discussion Forum usage. These include Design and Development, Setting up Expectations, and Launch and Management (Goldman, 2011).

Design and develop your discussion

Writing your discussion prompts:

  • Reflect on your goals for including a discussion forum in your course. Are you hoping that the discussion will be a learning activity, designed to get students thinking more deeply about a topic and preparing them for successful completion of an assessment, assignment or project? Or are you using the discussion as an assessment itself – as a way to measure whether students have acquired the ability to eloquently discuss a topic? Perhaps you are including the discussion with the goal of building community and are not relying upon it as much for learning or assessment. Note: for community-building and learning activity goals, consider Yellowdig as an alternative to traditional discussion forums.
  • Consider the learning objectives that you would like the forum to support or measure to ensure that the questions align with the stated objectives.
  • Think about the types of questions that generate good discussion, which include questions where students can bring different viewpoints or perspectives and learn from each other, where it is unlikely that each student will have the same answer, and where a student’s answer is likely to inspire a thought from another student and not result in replies like “I agree.”

Incorporating discussions into your course:

  • Schedule discussions strategically. Not every unit or topic might benefit from a discussion. Balance discussions with the rest of the workload in the course.
  • Determine how the forum will affect the course grade. Is it a part of participation (appropriate if it’s more for building community), a low stakes activity, or a larger assessment grade? Some research suggests between 20-40% (Goldman, 2011), but it will be based on your own goals and the importance of the ability to exchange ideas in your course.

Set expectations

  • Create a rubric or grading guide or otherwise clearly communicate how students’ their contributions will be assessed. If applicable, clarify the style you prefer for citations (Goldman, 2011). Consider whether requiring a formal writing style might stymie discussion, and if a more conversational and casual tone might be acceptable.
  • Establish netiquette guidelines and communicate them clearly in your syllabus as well as in your discussion forum instructions.
  • Set up deadlines for initial posts and follow-up comments so students are moving along at the same pace (Goldman, 2011)
  • Model the responses you would like to see, or give students exemplars of good discussion threads.

Launch and Manage

  • Focus on establishing community at first by creating engaging icebreakers and/or having students complete their Moodle profile (essentially a brief autobiography) and comment on peers’ profiles (Goldman, 2011)
  • Summarize discussions in a weekly announcement and acknowledge notable contributions. This helps establish your presence in the discussion and lets students know you value what they are staying.
  • Minimize your participation in discussions in order to make the student voice most prominent, but do step in to stop any misunderstandings or behavior that does not meet established community standards.

Example discussion structures

  • Case Analysis: Students or small groups work independently on a common case that requires application of course concepts to a real-word situation. Other groups or students evaluate these solutions.
  • Collaborative Writing: Workgroups work together to create a single document – proposals and analytical reports work well – which they then post to the larger group for critique.
  • Debate: Students or small groups are assigned a “side” of an argument to debate in the forum. Posts and responses include arguments or counter arguments.
  • Exploring differing perspectives: Give one group of students an article to read, and another group of students an article on the same topic that offers a different perspective. Students share the perspective presented in the article, and discuss with someone who read the other article.
  • Jigsaw: In this set-up students teach each other about a topic. An example set up would be creating two groupings of students. In the first, members of a group prepare to teach their peers about a particular topic. The second grouping has a member from each of the previous groups, and students teach each other about the concepts in the discussion forum.


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