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Using Discussion Forums in Online Courses

by Dr. Polly Trevino

In the HBU College of Education and Behavioral Sciences we are adding new online courses each semester.  Just like our face-to-face (F2F) courses, HBU online course are interactive, even though students and professor in the online classroom are separated by time and space.  (See Dr. Wilson’s post about interaction in her online graduate courses.)  As we design and teach online courses, we are intentional in structuring interactions among learners.  Discussion board forums are essential for interactive online classrooms.  Are you new to online instruction?  This post will walk you through the basics of discussion forum assignments.

Why discussions?

Discussions forum assignments are to the online classroom what class discussions are for the F2F classroom.  The instructor poses a question, task, or scenario to which students must respond in writing.  Responses are posted publicly for all class members to see, and then class members reply to each other’s postings.  Discussion assignments engage learners in “the cycle of reading, reflecting, considering, and making connections that actually changes the knowledge structure inside the learner’s brain” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010, p. 85).  Students express ideas, “listen” to one another, connect and apply learning, ask questions, and reflect.  The instructor poses questions, “listens” as students grapple with ideas, and facilitates students’ connections and applications.

Discussion forums provide a social context, allowing individuals separated by time and space to become a community of learners.  As a place for community-building in the online classroom, discussion forums are “the ‘campfire’ around which course community and bonding occur” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010,p. 85).  Through writing discussion posts, learners engage with the content, with one another, and with the instructor.  Moreover, in an online discussion forum, all learners have the opportunity to “speak” in the discussion.  Even shy or reluctant learners, relieved of the social anxiety or pressure to respond in F2F discussions, participate in the online discussion forum.

What makes a good discussion question?

Boettcher & Conrad (2010) recommend focusing discussion topics on essential course concepts.  Discussions are appropriate for learning goals where students are asked to apply core concepts in various contexts.  Discussion forums work best when students are problem-solving, linking new knowledge to existing knowledge, or applying new knowledge in context.

When developing the discussion topic, avoid knowledge-level questions that have a pre-determined answer.  Asking this type of question on the discussion forum does not encourage deep interactions.  Everyone’s answer will (or should) be similar, and learners will not have anything to discuss.

Instead, choose questions that can have more than one answer.  Ask learners to:

  • conduct research related to course learning and report to the group,
  • express opinions about an issue,
  • analyze a real-world issue in light of course learning,
  • answer higher-order questions rather than lower-order questions, or
  • incorporate personal experiences with academic analysis.

Learners’ answers will vary, which will motivate them to read other’s posts to see how their classmates answered the question.

How many discussion topics should I ask my students to complete in one week?

The answer to that depends on the type of questions you’re asking and what else you’ve assigned that week (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010).  If your discussion questions are short-answer essay questions in which you ask the learner to comprehend and summarize concepts or apply them in simple contexts, then you might have as many as three discussion questions in one week.  If your discussion questions are more complex and require research, application in complex situations, or problem-solving in case studies or scenarios, then two discussions in one week would be sufficient, provided that there are no other assignments due that week.  If there are other assignments due, then one complex discussion might be sufficient.  Weeks in which students submit a major project or have an exam might not have any discussion questions.

How can I facilitate online discussions?

There are several techniques that instructors can utilize to encourage students to interact and elaborate their thinking.  First, require that students make a specified number of replies in each forum.  Typically, all students are required to make an original response to the discussion topic.  A requirement to reply to their peers’ posts will encourage reluctant students to interact with their classmates.

Additionally, you, the instructor, should participate in the forum and respond to students’ posts.  Respond to the content of the posts in the public forum, and give evaluative feedback to students privately.  When you participating in the forum:

  • Comment on something the student has said in the post:
    • That reminds me of…
    • Thank you for bringing that up…
    • I see your point that…
  • Relate two students’ posts or summarize and synthesize student comments:
    • Check out ___’s post.  She also commented that…
    •  ___ and ___ argued for a different approach to the problem.  How would you counter their position?
    • The majority of our class argued for X, although for various reasons…
  • Ask students questions to encourage elaboration:
    • Can you explain what you meant by…?
    • What has been your experience with…?
    • Would you agree or disagree with that?
    • How does X relate to Y?

Finally, use student names in your responses.  If you’re responding directly to a particular student’s post, then address him/her by name.  When students see that the instructor knows and uses their names, they will feel acknowledged and be more likely to learn and use their classmates’ names.  Before you know it, your students, separated by time and space but connected with technology, will become a functioning learning community!

References: Boettcher, J.V., & Conrad, R. (2010).  The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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