The amount of engagement with discussion forums polarizes online learners’ attitudes of them. Either participants think forums are an invaluable component of the class, or they believe the class would instruct just as well without the forums. One problem with online learning is that students feel disconnected from their peers, and among those who ignore class discussions, this feeling is more prevalent. Those who report benefiting from the forums often praise the insights and opinions their classmates offer, and they finish the course feeling more connected to a community of learners. Perhaps the difference between the levels of engagement reveals more about students’ individual learning styles: interpersonal learners will use it as a platform for discussion, whereas intrapersonal learners will use the online class as a tool for reflection. This caveat aside, those who actively use the discussion forums rarely regret the experience, which suggests that discussion forums can enhance the online learning experience for all students.
Ideally, discussion forums should be the heart of an online course. They build and sustain the community of learners, hold learners accountable to each other, and require them to participate regularly. By fostering active discussions among students, the teacher supports social learning, and students have the opportunity to share their expertise and interests. Unlike a synchronous discussion, this asynchronous platform allows students time to reflect on the content before sharing. Plus, when the teacher requires students to post responses, they will see their classmates’ accomplishments, which will encourage them to reflect on the quality of their own work.
Participation in forums fades when they no longer meet students’ needs. A discussion becomes ineffective when comments are off-topic, rude, or repetitive. Although debate is a common practice in classrooms for furthering discussion and encouraging higher-order thinking skills, debates on the discussion forum yield the opposite effect by turning into personal attacks or circular arguments. Discussions should facilitate collaboration, encourage students to challenge their personal opinions, and add complexity to the issue; debate disrupts this by introducing competition among students, who seek to find faulty reasoning in their peers’ posts.
Another problem that can make discussions ineffective is when too many students procrastinate publishing posts and replies. The rest of the class is unable to read and respond before the deadline, so responses lump together on just a few posts, and these responses begin to echo previous comments for lack of new material. The facilitator should take several measures at the beginning of the course to prevent these problems.
To prevent social problems from sparking during the course, the instructor should begin the course with a discussion on digital etiquette and acceptable use policies. Afterward, each discussion thread should begin with a reminder of these policies and of the course’s goals. To avoid discursive comments, the facilitator should proactively create a student discussion forum in which to discuss topics that do not relate directly to established discussion threads. This forum could also build community among students by providing more opportunities for them to interact with each other. Finally, the instructor needs to set clear deadlines and expectations about the timeliness of posts so students have time to read their peers’ work, reflect, and respond. A rubric, like this one, posted with each discussion thread will remind students of the expectations, and allow the teacher to fairly assess each student’s participation in the discussion.
In addition to fostering active participation and building community, class discussion should generate critical thinking and deeper learning. This begins with an open-ended question that sparks curiosity and connects directly to the content and standards. The instructor should clearly explain expectations for posts and replies by setting guidelines that state how frequently students post, how long each post is, and what kind of content (opinion, textual evidence, or research) to include. These expectations should also be listed on the rubric accompanying each discussion thread.
For some students, the rubric may not be enough to fully understand what a good post looks like. To help these students, the instructor should frequently respond to student comments, and always to the first student post. This reply will model the expectations and guide further student discussion. Some strategies for this first post are: highlight words from the original question and link them to the initial student’s post, connect the response to the theme of discussion, ask questions for further inquiry, or provide additional resources to research. Finally, since some students are still learning how to interact within an academic forum, the teacher could provide templates for initial posts and responses until students are confident in their own writing. Jim Burke offers a great list of sentence starters and sentence frames. Find them here on page 12.
Perhaps a teacher may fear that these additional supports will make the assignment too easy or limit a student’s voice, but I find that students want to know how to elevate their discourse. Students want to be seen as intelligent, and they want to meet expectations; therefore, they will appreciate seeing these examples.
Ineffective discussion forums are the product of insufficient planning. No student wants to create a meaningless discussion, and students resent tasks that waste their time. A virtual teacher should carefully plan questions that spark students’ curiosity, invite investigation, and suggest personal connections. Also, since students don’t want to seem unintelligent, especially to their peers, the teacher should frequently give explicit directions that describe how to meet expectations. Example posts, templates, and rubrics will help students when they begin posting, and frequent teacher comments will help guide the discussion. With these plans and strategies in place, the discussion forum will help keep students motivated and engaged throughout the course.