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Strengthening Online Discussion Forums

March 2013, Volume 16, Number 3

By Karen Powers Liebhaber

Discussion forums can be one of the best assets of the online classroom. However, many forums become a burden to both the student and instructor instead of a tool for encouragement, communication, variety, and learning.

There is a vast difference between the discussion that takes place in the on-campus classroom and those that occur in the online classroom. On campus, the instructor often does most of the talking as students respond when called to answer mostly reiterative questions. Unfortunately, many students, especially shy students, are hesitant to verbally interact with the class. Online, the sense of anonymity in forums encourages all students to venture their opinions. Students feel that the instructor is somewhat absent, which induces  them to discuss their thoughts and opinions openly and freely. In an online forum, students consider the instructor as a more approachable facilitator than an out-of-reach expert.

This increased interaction in the online world is extremely beneficial. Students usually accept the opportunity to express their opinions, which significantly reduces the isolation that is often at the center of their complaints about online classes. The sense of anonymity allows students to comfortably discuss their thoughts and feelings about issues, the content, and even the instructor, which gives them a sense of validation.

Online forums are also a way to encourage students to  engage actively in coursework. Effective forums that use quality discussion questions encourage students to make up their own minds, examine and apply concepts, and question ideas and thoughts about the material, rather than regurgitate information as expected on exams. Forums build community as students interact, ask questions, express frustrations, and seek guidance. This interaction between students and faculty fosters a sense of connectedness and instills a virtual open-door policy. Finally, active forums add variety and interest to a course.

Common Forum Issues and Solutions

Many of the benefits of online discussion are unrealized when forums are not set up to promote participation. Fortunately, the most common problems can usually be solved very easily and relatively quickly.

Detailed Instructions

In most classes, most students will do only the assignments faculty tell them to do. It is the rare and exemplary student who opts to do more than the essential requirements of an assignment. If the instructor presents a single question for students to answer, the majority of students will offer a basic answer to that question. Without precise, clear instructions to go beyond a fundamental response, students will most likely provide perfunctory answers. To help ensure that students elaborate in forum postings, faculty need to provide an explicit, straightforward list of their expectations for student responses and other activity in the forum. In the instructions, faculty should address each of the following points for each forum:

  • Must students post their own answers before responding to other students’ answers?
  • To how many other classmates’ responses should each student respond?
  • In general, approximately how often should students access the forum?
  • What are the deadlines for posting and responding?
  • What constitutes a substantial message? What constitutes a unsubstantial message?
  • What level of substance does the instructor expect in each student’s answer and response?
  • How will the forum be graded? Here, a grading rubric is often of use to both the student and the faculty member.
  • How much will the forum—or the category containing of all of the forums—count toward the student’s grade?
  • Does the faculty member want students to pay special attention to messages he or she has written?
  • What other rules does the faculty member have about keeping on topic, netiquette, profanity, helping other students with classmates’ questions, and the evaluation of grammar, mechanics, and spelling?


All of these points may not be required for all forums. Additionally, faculty may want to post a single document or web page in the LMS that lists policies, grading information, and interaction requirements that apply to all forums. This page can then be linked in each applicable forum. 

Deadlines and Timeframe

Faculty specify should also let students know the date by which each forum must be completed, and they need to specify whether students are allowed to continue to work on a forum for a grade beyond this date. Students must know the precise timeframe for completing required elements. Some faculty allow graded interaction to occur only during the week in which the content is taught, while other instructors allow students to interact for a grade throughout the semester. Much of the literature on discussion forums favors restricting students’ posts to the time period when the material is covered. This practice not only helps students stay on track and avoid turning the class into an electronic correspondence course, but gives the instructor clear boundaries when grading. It also facilitates assigning grades throughout the semester rather than all at the end. The decision is up to the faculty member, of course, but he or she must be sure to tell students.

Questions That Trigger Thoughtful Discussion

Some faculty are more adept at creating questions that have a distinctly right answer than they are at developing open-ended  items with a variety of answers; however, close-ended questions are not typically good prompts for interaction in a forum. When questions have a distinct right or wrong answer, students have little to question or examine. Forums based on such questions can become tedious for the professor, who must wade through each student’s minutely different version of what everyone in the forum has said. Students really have no choice but to respond with, “I agree,” “That’s what I thought,” or “Great job!” Students who are less inclined to do their own work simply have to review a few other answers, essentially repeat what they have read, and change a few words to make it appear that they have done their own work. Faculty do not want students regurgitating information in an online forum; faculty want students to explore their own thoughts and opinions as well as those of their classmates, and to explore ways to better understand and apply the material.

To address this issue, faculty need to evaluate their discussion questions. To help facilitate student engagement in the forum, use questions that can be correctly answered in several ways, and encourage students to question and discuss each other’s responses. For example, ask them to agree or disagree with others’ responses and to provide a basis for their argument. If a  question has a distinctly right or wrong answer, add a personal element to make it open-ended: Instead of “Define psychology,” an instructor could use, “How would you define psychology?” Bringing in students’ opinions can be an effective strategy for  ensuring an array of interesting comments.

Question Variety

Online discussions have the potential to be very rich, but this opportunity can be missed if the instructor offers only one prompt for student response. In the on-campus classroom, faculty attempt to draw students’ comments, questions, and thoughts about a wide range of topics. Loosely, a semester’s worth of material may equate to the instructor explaining up to six or seven points about each major concept during one classroom setting. If the students are offered only one prompt, they may have a lively discussion about that point but won’t have a chance to comment on the five or six other points the instructor might have covered in an on-campus session. Also, in the online world, since the material is discussed in the perceived anonymity of forums rather than in a face-to-face class, students may be less influenced by the instructor’s opinion. This freedom enables students to incorporate more of their own opinions in their posts, resulting in richer discussion.

Providing several quality discussion questions and allowing students choose from among them enables students to work with material that is of particular interest to them. Not only are more points discussed, but students’ learning is furthered by the additional perspectives. Classmates who are confused about portions of the content are exposed to varied presentations of the material, which can help improve their comprehension. Finally, the instructor has not only a rich range of discussion in which to interact, but  the students are gaining much greater insight and understanding.

Unsubstantial Posts

Even when prompts require thoughtful responses, some students will limit their posts to messages such as, “I agree!” or “Great point” in reply to other students’ answers. Students who write such cursory messages, with no additional explanation or information, are not interacting meaningfully in the discussion, nor are they demonstrating their knowledge of the subject matter. Giving credit to such remarks, therefore, is highly unfair to the students who are trying to engage actively in the dialogue. 

Consider this scenario, for example: An instructor requires students to post three messages a week, and initially most students invest significant time to write insightful posts A few students, though, write, “Good point,” which requires only a few seconds. The instructor grades on number rather than quality of posts, and students who took time to craft their responses soon realize their efforts are valued equally with classmates who took no time at all. They begin writing comments that lack substance, and the quality of interaction in the forum rapidly dissipates.

In this scenario, students learned little course content, but the instructor’s unintended lesson taught students how to get by in the class with as little effort as possible. In order to ensure actual learning, faculty must clearly state that unsubstantial posts will have a negative impact on a student’s grade; doing this will help students understand that interaction with classmates and content will be rewarded, while indifference and disengagement will not.

Grading for Quality

Faculty should grade on the quality of the posts, not the quantity. Many instructors require, say, three posts a week, and students’ grades are based upon the number of posts they make. In this case, if students post the three messages, they receive full credit. If they don’t, they are counted off in some way. This issue is very similar to the issue of unsubstantial posts. 

A major reason faculty do this is so that students will not just post a message that week then never show back up to read and participate in the discussion. Understandably, faculty have to identify specific guidelines regarding the minimum number of posts required.   However, students will learn very quickly that all they have to do is post their three messages then they can check that assignment off their list for the week.

Instead, students need to know that the quality of their posts also affects their grade. By identifying specifically what the instructor considers a quality post and, even better, providing a simple rubric displaying how points will be awarded for different levels of quality, students will understand exactly what the instructor is looking for as well as what kind of grade they can expect. Obviously, the student who has thoroughly researched the answer to a discussion question, presents it clearly, and invests time in his work should earn a higher grade than the student who simply says, “You’re right, Dude!”

Evaluation Methods to Determine Forum Effectiveness

Assessment is part of the faculty role, and to ensure quality in the online classroom, instructors must assess the usefulness of the forums they use. Fortunately, getting feedback from students can be easy.

Poll Students

Faculty may survey students to see how much they feelthey are getting out of the forums. Such feedback is excellent for improving forum questions, filling gaps in content, and making the forums as useful to students as possible.

Study Students Posts and Responses on the Forums

Instructors probably already have a sampling of how students feel about the forums in the forums themselves. Faculty should examine each student’s responses to see if new interpretations of the material are presented or if students just creatively repeat what others have said. If all students are saying essentially the same thing, the instructor may need to address one of the issues discussed in this article.

Assess Students’ Application of Knowledge Within the Posts

In their messages, are students applying what they have learned in the course? If not, they may not completely understand the material. This may indicate a problem with the course materials, or perhaps students need an additional or opposing viewpoint, or a greater variety of learning options. Maybe the written lectures are not clicking with auditory learners, or the instructor needs to add more visual images or multimedia to spice up the content. Students may need more application assessments for practice. Such informal assessment can reveal essential holes in the content, giving the instructor the opportunity to improve the class and address issues that may greatly benefit current as well as future students.

Faculty should ensure that communication within the course is clear and precise. This will result in better morale, increased retention, and improved grades. Faculty and students who actively participate in forums express a higher level of contentment with the course. Indeed, forums are the heart of the student/instructor connection many online faculty say they miss from their on-campus classes. Addressing the instructions to students, the usefulness of the questions, and the quality of student posts will enhance the quality of the course and the level of students’ learning. Faculty, too, will be more satisfied with their own experience in the class.

Karen Powers Liebhaber teaches English, literature, and technical writing at Black River Technical College, in Arkansas.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 03/04/2013 at 9:31 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -