Online Discussion Forums
by Sarah Macdonald, Sociology
Online forums can be used for many purposes, such as helping students to review material prior to an assignment or exam, engaging students in discussion of course material before coming to class, and reflecting on material that they have read or worked with outside of class.
If they are well-structured, online discussions can be an effective way to bolster student learning outside of class; however, GSIs often find that students’ entries do not reflect strong engagement. What went wrong? What steps can you take to make an online discussion forum a more effective learning tool for your students?
The following suggestions and example of a well-structured discussion forum activity may help you design a better learning experience for your students.
Why and how did you use an online discussion forum?
I used a discussion forum to offer students a structured opportunity to interact with each other online around exam time. For the purpose of reviewing for the exam students posted questions they had about course material, and other students answered them in the online forum. I also agreed to weigh in on student comments after each question had received at least one response from another student. I had a few reasons for my decision to use the forum in this way. First, I knew that I would not have enough time to answer all of my students’ questions around exam time as I was preparing for my own qualifying exams during the same semester. I was also fairly certain that my students could be effective in teaching each other and answering one another’s questions; I wanted them to depend more on each other and less on me in the time leading up to the exam. By using an online discussion, I hoped to encourage collaboration and to give students a structured opportunity to work together to find the answers to questions that they were having difficulty with. This activity would also have another desired benefit — it would help students to practice writing and explaining concepts prior to doing so on the exam.
How did you prepare students to participate in an online discussion?
I emailed students a set of instructions to let them know how they could access the discussion and what kind of interactions I expected them to have there. After I emailed the instructions we briefly talked about the forum in class. The instructions I gave to my students were as follows:
- Post a question you have about material from the course.
- Articulate your thinking about the question: What do you know already? What is confusing you? If you had to answer this question right now, how would you answer?
- Wait for at least one student to weigh in on your question.
- I will respond after one student has commented on your question.
How did using an online discussion benefit your students?
During the first semester that I conducted an online discussion, I was particularly interested in determining whether students felt that it was helpful. After the final exam I asked for brief feedback from students using an online survey tool. I was glad to see students reporting that it helped them to read through a variety of viewpoints on the different questions. For example, one student remarked: “It was helpful to read many interpretations of definitions. The collective intelligence from the forum made many terms much more understandable.” Additionally, several students commented that it was helpful to explain concepts to others. One student remarked, “It was also awesome because you really do learn the material through teaching it to someone else.”
How did using an online discussion benefit you as a GSI?
Offering students a structured opportunity to communicate with each other ended up saving me substantial time during the days preceding the final exam. Since I had urged students to post questions to the forum before emailing me, I received very few emails and requests for meetings in the days before the exam. Additionally, it took me a minimal amount of time to weigh in on students’ questions in the online discussion. Since I had agreed to contribute only after at least one student had responded, I found myself having to write very little, as most of the previous responders had worked out the correct answers. In subsequent semesters I asked that two students weigh in before I would respond, which reduced the workload for me even further. In the second semester that I used the forum, I also let students know that they should expect to wait at least 24 hours for me to respond. While I often responded in less time than 24 hours, letting students know that they should expect to wait meant that by the time I responded to questions several students had often already weighed in.
What advice would you give to other GSIs who are planning to conduct online discussions?
During the first semester that I used an online forum, I also offered extra-credit points for participation in the discussion forum. This was very helpful in motivating students to try out the forum. Surprisingly, after they posted once they tended to post repeatedly even though they were not earning additional extra-credit points for subsequent posts. In the second semester that I used an online discussion tool, I included information about the review forums in my course syllabus so that students were aware from the beginning that the forums would be available as a tool for review. I suggest being clear about your expectations for student participation in an online discussion at the beginning of the semester, if at all possible.
Do not assume that your students will find a discussion tool as straightforward as you do. Provide detailed instructions for how to use the forum in class. Be specific about expectations for the form and content of posts.
It’s extremely useful to diagnose what may be going wrong with a discussion forum. Some common reasons why students may not participate include:
- There may be little motivation for participation. Absent some kind of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation for participating in an online discussion forum, students are unlikely to make postings or respond to others’ posts. You may find that students only participate as much as is necessary to meet course requirements, but beyond that the discussion falls flat.
- Students may not know what the objectives are for using the forum. Even students familiar with online forums may have little understanding of why an instructor chooses a discussion forum as a class activity. They may not be attuned to what they are supposed to get out of it.
- Expectations may be unclear. Students may not understand what, exactly, you are expecting them to do on the forum if they do not receive explicit and detailed instructions.
- There is no reciprocation by other students. Oftentimes the discussion forum may be used only by a handful of students who post individual messages rather than communicating with one another.
- Some of the students may not yet know how to properly use the platform. They may need a bit of technical assistance or a demonstration to learn how to navigate the system and to post in an organized manner.
- Think through your student learning goals. Before choosing to use a discussion forum in your class, it is important to think through why a forum is the most appropriate tool to help you reach your student learning goals.
- Build in motivation for students to participate. Simply setting up a forum is not enough to get the conversation moving. Consider making participation part of the section or course grade, or devising an alternate method of motivating students to participate. For example, offering a forum as a way of preparing students for an assignment or exam may provide motivation to participate even when the forum doesn’t count as part of the students’ grade.
- Make a plan for grading. Be clear with students from the beginning about how and whether you will calculate forum use into students’ grades. Making forum participation part of the grade or offering it as an extra-credit option can provide needed motivation for students to participate. But grading a forum can also be confusing and time consuming; make sure that you devise a grading strategy ahead of time that is both clear to the students and realistic for you. Thank carefully about whether you will grade on quality or quantity of student posts or both. Devise a strategy for locating each student’s posts within the forum that will not take too long.
- Choose a specific task and give explicit instructions. If you tell your students to “discuss” class material on the forum, the discussion is likely to fall flat. In order to make the most of the forum, give students a specific task you would like them to complete in the forum, along with explicit instructions about your expectations for completing that task.
- Share the learning goals with your students. Communicate to students what you hope they will take away from the forum participation and why the forum is the best tool to help them accomplish the goals you have set out for them. Students are likely to be more invested in the activity if you communicate with them about why they are doing it in the first place.
- Set up an online discussion that incorporates reciprocation. For a discussion forum to be successful, it must generate communication between students. Oftentimes, though, discussions fall flat because students do not converse with each other or reciprocate in commenting on one another’s posts. Make reciprocation a part of the assignment. For example, require students not only to post, but also to reply to other students’ posts to get the conversation moving. Students will benefit from conversing with each other and teaching each other course material.
- Teach students how to use the technology. It can be tempting to think that students are technologically savvy enough that you need not explain how to use a simple discussion forum, but you should not assume that all students will be familiar with the platform you are using. Consider doing a demo in class or provide detailed instructions on how to navigate forums and threads and how to post. Without clear instructions the forum may become disorganized. Consider suggesting that students use a uniform posting style and give suggestions for how they should title their posts and responses.
- Bring the forum into the classroom. The more connected the forum is to the work you are doing in the classroom, the more likely students are to participate in and read the comments on the forum. Read the forum yourself before class and consider bringing some of the responses into class. For example, you might say, “I noticed in the forum that many of you were interested in X,” or “Y seemed like an interesting topic of conversation on the forum, but some of you seemed confused about Z — let’s talk more about Z.”