Discussion Forums in the Online Classroom: Common Missteps and Effective Methods

Students learn best when they have regular opportunities to practice communicating ideas and solving problems alongside their peers. Small group discussions can be an effective way to transition students from simply absorbing new information to applying what they have learned. 

How can instructors create space for discussions in the online classroom, particularly in an asynchronous course where students complete work on their own schedules?

Facilitating Effective Discussions through Online Discussion Forums

Fortunately, most educational software platforms provide a type of discussion board where instructors can introduce a prompt or question, and students can post responses and reply to one another’s posts. This format can be an effective way to engage students in conversation with a little advance planning. To help, we’ve identified common missteps and effective methods for facilitating discussions through online forums.

Common Missteps:

  1. No Guidelines. An online discussion can easily fall flat if students lack guidance from their instructor. Without clearly laid-out expectations for the structure of responses, the level of research and critical thinking, or the length and writing style, students will likely submit posts that vary in length and detail or that are strongly objective or subjective, making it hard to draw connections between student responses. 
  1. No Moderation. In an online asynchronous course, instructors cannot simply scan the classroom to get a sense of how conversations are progressing. With an online forum, if instructors neglect to review students’ posts, an uncharitable (or misinterpreted) comment could lead to active arguments between students that are difficult to rein back in. 
  1. Monologues vs. Dialogue. To facilitate a true discussion, students need to be instructed to respond to one another’s posts. Otherwise, if students primarily focus on their own posts, they will miss out on the benefits of learning from their peers and being challenged to ask insightful questions or respectfully present counterarguments. 

Effective Methods:

  1. Provide a Model Discussion Post. Instructors can set students up for success by providing a sample discussion post to guide them. Consider requirements such as word count, citations, and writing style (academic vs. informal). Both objective (research-based) and subjective (opinion or real-life application) discussion prompts can be valuable, but instructors will need to clearly define what is expected.
  1. Actively Moderate the Discussion. Instructors can get ahead of possible conflicts by creating a “Rules of Conduct'' document. This guide can feature language to avoid and even provide examples of how to respectfully present a counterargument. Instructors can also specify that students who ignore the rules of conduct will be docked points in their final grade.
  1. Introduce a Format that Requires Student Interaction. In addition to requiring students to respond to their peers’ posts, instructors can use more structured discussion formats to move the conversation from a series of monologues to a dialogue. For instance, the “3C+Q method” requires students to include each of these elements in each post and response:
  • A compliment: “I appreciate that…
  • A comment: “I agree that…” or “I disagree because…
  • A connection: “I also thought…
  • A question: “I wonder why…

A format like this encourages a higher level of engagement among students and can help students practice disagreeing respectfully.

Online discussion forums can offer a surprising number of benefits when managed well. Since comments feel more “permanent,” students may invest more thought into what they say. This format can also be friendlier toward introverted students who thrive when they are given adequate time to internally process a question. 

Discussion forums require an easy-to-use education software platform so that instructors and students can focus their attention on the conversation at hand. To learn more about how Leo can help you facilitate online group discussions, contact us today.