Discussion Forums


Just as in a traditional classroom, class participation is an important component of online learning. During this course so far, you have participated in several discussion forums. Discussion forums offer opportunities for students to share information, opinions, and knowledge with each other, while also practicing critical communication and interaction skills.

Discussion boards allow students to discuss a topic asynchronously or without meeting in person or at a particular time online. Thus, this is a conversation that takes place over a period of time and possibly from a variety of locations. Effectiveness of discussion boards in courses depends on setting realistic expectations, integrating the activity into course design, and selecting practical prompts (Project, 2008).

In the Common Core State Standards, Speaking and Listening Standard 1 asks students to engage "...effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly..." This is a skill ideally suited to an online discussion forum.

John Hattie’s meta-study, Visible Learning (2009), changed the way we think about what works in the classroom. His analysis of 50,000 educational studies involving more than 80 million students gave us vital information about the relative effectiveness of different teaching practices on student achievement. Hattie’s research made clear that peer discussions are one of the most impactful activities that can happen in a classroom, but the management overhead for teachers can still be daunting. How do we ensure everyone participates, is engaged, stays on task, doesn’t become a behavior problem and feels safe expressing their views? A typical class period might only allow enough time for a handful of students to speak out loud. Online forums, however, enable the kind of back-channel chat where everyone can have a voice. We can even extend the discussion outside regular class hours and beyond the walls of the school. ("Teachers: 3 ways technology can make learning visible, easily ...." 14 Jun. 2017, https://www.eschoolnews.com/2017/06/14/teachers-tech-visible-learning/. Accessed 17 Aug. 2017.)

Best Practices in Online Discussion Forums

If constructed properly, threaded discussions can produce higher order thinking and a positive classroom community. An excellent class discussion is one in which the students are replying to each other based on a teacher-created open-ended prompt. The discussion topic should be interesting to students and require them to offer more than just their opinion or just a fact. In this setting, the online teacher's responsibility is to ask questions that guide the discussion, prod the students to think more deeply, and explore other viewpoints. "Some question types that foster conversation include: subjective questions, evaluative questions, problem-solving questions, brainstorming questions, and debate questions. Questions that "kill" the conversation include factual and information-retrieval questions." (From: Catlin Tucker, Blended Learning in Grades 4-12, pgs. 46-46, )

a group talking

Discussion Forum Basics

All online discussion forums can be set up to allow users to post topics, and for responses to be made to the initial post. The prompt with its collection of responses is called a thread. While threads look different in different LMS, there are some fairly consistent features. Most LMS use bold font to indicate unread posts. They may also use other visual cues such as different colors, or even a notation of number of unread posts.

A threaded discussion forum is one that has visual cues such as bullets or indents, to delineate posts and responses. Flat discussion forums have posts in chronological order, regardless of whom the reply is to. Many LMSs allow the teacher or the user to choose which layout they prefer.

Students do not automatically know the vocabulary of the discussion area. A thread is one topic, and creating a new thread is equivalent to changing the conversation. In normal conversation, we have visual and verbal cues to help us understand these changes - in a discussion forum, the only available cue is the location of threads and replies. Explicit instruction in how to post a thread and a response can help students feel more confident in their participation, and ensure continuity in the conversations.

Discussion Expectations

Students need to know that you value participation on the discussion board and have clear expectations about how they are to participate. The quickest way to demonstrate this is to include participation guidelines on the discussion board, and assign a grade to student posts and responses (Restine, 2009). It is also helpful to provide models of acceptable and unacceptable posts along with the supporting rationale so students can begin to critique their own posts and modify these posts toward your models. Another strategy for teaching online discussion expectations is to have students identify a strategy they used in a reply to their peers. This works well when engaging students in a discussion for the first time. (See Resources page for strategies to use with students.)

To avoid students waiting until near the last minute to post responses, consider setting up incremental deadlines. For example, in this course your initial discussion post is due on one day, and your responses to others are due a few days later. This helps to ensure that students visit and re-visit the discussion, and that all students are part of the conversation.

graph notebook checklist

Many teachers use rubrics that address some or all of these categories to ensure quality student posts. As evidenced in the discussion rubric for this course, expectations for an original post include being able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the content and replies must generate learning within the community while participation is evident throughout the module. Other expectations might include word count, connections to content, quality of thought, originality, and/or mechanics and readability level (Flesch-Kincaide Grade Level statistics or Readability Index Calculator).

Most learning management systems allow for assigning students into discussion groups. This strategy can be helpful in providing manageable group sizes, utilizing collaborative conversation roles and differentiating student groupings. Teachers can assign a rotating facilitator role to students in each group and take a more "silent facilitator" role (described below).

Here are a few resources that are helpful in teaching online communication expectations:

Six Discussion Strategy Posters to Use with Students, Collaborize Classroom

26 Sentence Starters for Higher-Level Conversations in the Classroom, TeachThought.com

Netiquette: Ground Rules for Online Discussions, Colorado State University

Facilitator Expectations

In her book, Blended Learning in Grades 4-12: Leveraging the power of technology to create student-centered classrooms, (pgs. 35-38) Catlin Tucker describes two types of facilitator, the Silent Facilitator vs. Involved Facilitator. You can choose to be a silent facilitator, involved facilitator or combination of the two.

The Silent Facilitator: uses online discussions and work to complement and extend in-class curriculum, who limits his or her involvement to posting questions for students to discuss and designing activities for students to complete. This role gives students the opportunity to take charge of the discussion and, subsequently, their own discovery of knowledge... By restricting the teacher role to that of a silent facilitator, the teacher does not filter the information or determine the direction of the discussion. Instead, students are allowed to engage freely in dialogue with their peers, steering the course of the conversation to make it more meaningful.

The Involved Facilitator: allows the teacher to steer the direction of the dialogue to ensure that conversations stay focused on a particular aspects of the curriculum... and model online etiquette, ask follow-up questions, compliment student responses, and clarify confusion online. It's important to decide on a degree of involvement that is realistic and then make that clear to students...alleviating the burden of feeling that the facilitator must respond to each student or each discussion topic. It's important that involved facilitators limit commentary and allow students to reach their own conclusions, even it it takes time.

Another excellent resource Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation (edutopia) discusses, in depth, the Best Practices, Strategies, and Management Tips for facilitation online discussions.

"Visible Learning Meta-Study - VISIBLE LEARNING." 11 Feb. 2009, https://visible-learning.org/2009/02/visible-learning-meta-study/. Accessed 17 Aug. 2017.

"Teachers: 3 ways technology can make learning visible, easily ...." 14 Jun. 2017, https://www.eschoolnews.com/2017/06/14/teachers-tech-visible-learning/. Accessed 17 Aug. 2017.

"How to Engage Students Online: Increase Participation ... - SlideShare." 22 Mar. 2011, https://www.slideshare.net/CollaborizeClassroom/how-to-engage-students-online-increaser-participation-and-improve-discussions. Accessed 9 May. 2017.