Strategies for Effective Online Discussion Forums

Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM)

Research is split. Some data shows student-to-student (S2S) engagement as critical. Other sources say student-to-instructor (S2I) is more important. The bottom line is, if you want to employ student-to-student engagement in your online course, we recommend defining your desired outcomes first. This might include:

  • Demonstration of knowledge of key concepts
  • Community building
  • Reflection
  • Consensus building
  • Critical thinking
  • Student leadership
  • All or most of the above (oh my)

When designing the assessment of your engagement, we recommend a rubric. Use qualitative methods, and when possible avoid shallow quantitative methods. Telling students to “post their comment and then respond to two peers” is frustrating to students. They feel their time is being wasted. Sound familiar? Then build forums using the rubric as your guide.

Lastly, share the rubric with your students. Normally, if we tell students where they need to go, they follow the path.

What are some strategies for achieving your goals?  Here are some ideas.

  1. Begin discussion tasks with Why, How, Imagine, Suppose, Predict, Defend, Judge, Justify …
  2. Use groups, with members assigned specific tasks or with their own topics (i.e. coordinator, devil’s advocate, reporter, time manager)
  3. Design forums that encourage students to research topics at a deeper level and present their findings (individual or group)
  4. Relate course materials to current events and real-life experiences and challenges
  5. Use scenarios that are controversial, real, and challenging in your field and relevant to the course and course level. Have consequences for their choices, which will help them decide if they made a good choice. Then talk about their choices in the summary
  6. Have students watch a video and then defend or judge the presentation
  7. Follow-up initial forum questions with secondary questions. These questions should challenge students by presenting details or information what was not available in the initial post
  8. Probe facts presented by the text’s authors, interrogate assumptions, conclusions, or interpretation
  9. Probe motive and causes
  10. Pose a change to the facts
  11. Have students create graphics and charts that depict course data effectively
  12. Have students create cartoons that reflect the time period, concept, or their perspective of a topic in the course
  13. Have students build a concept map of a process
  14. Create debate groups with specific topics, engage with the groups, provide feedback to the class, then open the topics for everyone to voice their views
  15. Create opportunities for role play where students must answer or solve problems from the character’s position (with context)
  16. Have students review current events and prepare their own editorial or article in response
  17. Help student recognize discussion forums are all about teamwork and that together everyone achieves more

How can you increase student participation and appreciation of the discussion forum?

  1. Quote students (with permission)
  2. Allow sufficient time to achieve your forum objectives
  3. Make your presence in the forum known, if just posting a an overview
  4. Answer questions within 24 hours
  5. Extend discussion by providing alternative perspectives and comments that challenge assumptions, beliefs, and findings
  6. Empower students to take turns facilitating a discussion and support them
  7. Reinforce positive behavior through course mail
  8. Refer to your rubric, when used, as necessary
  9. When communicating in the forums, model back the type of communication you expect from your students.
  10. Proofread before you submit as an instructor


Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation (TeacherStream, 2009)

Creating, Facilitating, Engaging and Effective Online Discussions (University of Oregon, 2011)

Using Discussion in Online Courses: The Importance of Interactivity (UT TeleCampus, 2010)

Seven Tips on How to Use Forums in eLearning (elearningIndustry, 2015)

How to Facilitate Robust Online Discussions (Online Learning Insights, 2014)