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Online discussion forums

A student shares her ideas while a classmate listens.

Discussion Forums Overview

Discussion forums provide students a place to have multiple discussions online regarding course reading and assignments, to respond to questions and thoughts posted by other students, and to engage with the material and with each other outside of the classroom. Using a platform of your preference for online discussions, students can build a learning community around discussion topics, participate at their own pace, allow different types of student learners to contribute, and increase individual student learning. Additionally, students who might feel inhibited from voicing their opinion in class can benefit from a discussion forum by being able to express their ideas in a written format. These topics can be instructor- and student-led.

Instructors should be prepared to spend time participating in these forums if they expect meaningful discussion from students.

It can be daunting to set up your online form, and tough to reach the level of discourse you want. But by following these best practices, you can achieve great results.

Best Practices for Online Discussions

Set clear expectations

Explain to your students how you expect them to participate in discussion boards, including deadlines and grading rubric. What is the purpose of your discussion forum, and how will students benefit from it?

  • Make students’ responsibility for participation in discussion forums clear. For example, do you want to post an article that approaches an issue from multiple perspectives or respond to an issue that poses conflicts?
  • Here's one way to require student participation: leave a discussion thread open for a certain amount of time and require each student to post at least one question, and respond to two other students, during the open period.
  • To help build a student learning community and encourage students to take ownership of their own learning, assign students to moderate the discussion thread. This type of peer instruction enhances individual student learning by having the student learn how to determine important ideas and questions, summarize ideas, and lead thoughtful discussions.
  • Determine how you will grade posts. For example, instructors may choose to grade by the number of posts or by the quality of the posts. Align assessment of posts to grading rubric and learning goals.
  • Establish an appropriate writing style. Do you expect students to be more formal in their responses or to respond informally? Remind students that they can respectfully disagree with each other.

Encourage critical thinking

For example, you may ask students to “read a course-related article that provokes multiple perspectives” (Bean, 2011, p. 129), or to respond to a topic of confusion that came up in the lecture or session.

Examples from Bean's book Engaging Ideas:

  • Open-Ended Tasks – allow students to write about any topic that came up during the week, including summarizing lectures, a disagreement that came up during class, or deliberating the reading material.
  • Semistructured Tasks – post a question to guide students in critical thinking of a reading topic or a discussion in a lecture or section.
  • Writing Dialogues – a more creative approach to writing, ask students to “write imaginary ‘meeting of the mind’ dialogues between people with opposing views” (Bean, 2011, p. 136).

Limit instructor participation

Studies show that instructors who constantly post responses limit the amount of student participation (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2007). To facilitate discussions only selectively:

  • Jump into a discussion if the thread is headed in the wrong direction or is getting off track.
  • Post a final wrap-up of discussion topics to end a discussion topic and to clarify any confusion students might have had.  


Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: A Wiley Imprint, 2011. Print.

Mazzolini, M., Maddison, S., (2007). When to jump in: The role of the instructor in online discussion forums. Computers & Education, 49, 193-213.

Graham, C., Cagiltay, K., Lim, B., Craner, J., Duffy, T., Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses, 14 July 2014.