Online Discussions

Tips’n’Resources to Liven Learning & Destroy Drudgery

Karen Caldwell, August 1, 2021; updated October 11, 2022 & Mar 1, 2023

Well-designed discussions can spark truly meaningful learning, including authentic interaction among learners. Without some planning & design, forum discussions quickly turn to drudgery. It’s no wonder students disengage and share gems like:

me in real life: ok
me over discussion board: Hello fellow student!! I completely agree with everything yo ustated in your post! Thank you so much for opening my eyes to a brighter and more enlightening future! Have a glorious day :)
from Buzzfeed: 17 Funny Tweets about Discussion Boards that are Brutally Honest (Martinez, 2019)

Come on, we’ve all been there. And who can blame students? Unless we set up forums for something meaningful, it’s tough to dig deep and go beyond these superficial exchanges.

4 Ingredients of Discussion Forum Design

Taking time to think about these four elements

  • purpose, or goal of learning – what’s the big picture “why”, ideally connected to the goals of the course (start at the end – what’s the desired result)
  • learning journey stage – where are your learners on the learning journey? very early stage, tapping motivation? taking in & making sense of content? applying it? recalling it? synthesizing? extending & stretching (transfer)
  • level of engagement – the ICAP framework from Michelene Chi
  • communication strategy – what is the learner’s purpose for writing (inform? persuade? entertain?) and who is their audience?

In this article, I share some research-informed features of online discussions to bake into your forums and outline some concrete examples for you to try out.

What’s a discussion forum?

A discussion forum (or simply forum) is a tool. You can also think of it as a mechanism or even a place or space for learning. Learning tool, yes, learning activity, no.

As a tool, forums can be mechanisms for exchanges. You “leave” information in the form of an “initial post” that you submit. Then another person receives (reads, watches, hears) your message within the forum and ideally, they respond and the exchange continues.

As a place for learning, forums exist within learning management systems (LMSs) or virtual learning environment (VLE) such as Blackboard, Moodle, Canva, or Brightspace. LMSs are usually controlled by an organization such as a college or university and are password-protected spaces for information sharing among faculty and students.

Some folks conflate discussion forums and learning, or the tool and its (potential) use. In fact, they’re very different. Let’s avoid that, shall we? Placing a discussion forum activity in your course does not lead directly to meaningful and authentic discussions – I’ve made that mistake too many times…

Regardless of the tool you plan to use, design learning experiences with the learning goal in mind. Think about the outcome of the discussion, or what’s termed the “desired results” of learning in backward design.

If you’re thinking of using discussion forums as a tool for learning, put yourself in the mindset of a learning designer with a tool belt. The forum is one tool in your tool belt, and because discussion forums exist mostly in online learning, your learning design should consider the three “presences” of the community of inquiry (CoI) framework. The CoI framework will help you to design online learning experiences to achieve the goals or desired results you’re after.

Design with community of inquiry (CoI) in mind

The community of inquiry framework is based on decades of research in controlled & applied settings that have indicated that meaningful, deep learning in online settings depends on three key presences:

Caveat emptor:

It’s tempting to scan past these terms and assume you understand eacy one. You may even be thinking they’re a no-brainer. Trust me. There’s research that spans decades in many contexts that support these 3 unique “secret sauces” of online teaching & learning by skeptics like you and me.

  1. Each presence has a specific meaning. Take a moment to click on each one, read the brief explanations, and consider each presence in your own teaching. They’re often misunderstood and oversimplified.
  2. Each presence is essential. When one is missing, learning & interaction are negatively affected.

Bottom line: The CoI essential ingredients, teacher, cognitive, and social presences should all be baked into your design of learning in discussion forums. Here are some resources & tips to get you started.

Resources & Tips

Resource #1: Karen’s approach

I design learning experiences in discussion forums & schedule my own time according to teaching, cognitive, and social presence. Check out the additional resources from others below for ideas to spark learners’ meaningful, authentic engagement with the course content and each other.

My own design of learning includes a regular, predictable starting point each week that includes 4 components:

  • topic overview,
  • focus,
  • initial post, and
  • engagement with others.

Topic overview: I give a big picture overview of the subject matter and any relevant schema (frameworks, mental models) about the topic. Generating connections for the learner is essential here. Connection can be personal (curiosity, prediction) or cognitive (link to earlier course content), for example.

Focus: I am explicit about why and what to focus in the learning materials. The why is the “purpose” or goal for reading, watching, or listening. It’s essential to help my learners manage their cognitive load and establish a habit of reading, watching, or listening with a purpose in mind. The what is very practical: I indicate what pages and specific content to focus on.

Initial post: I specify what learners must include in the first “post” they make in the discussion forum, based on the purpose of the activity and the learning materials. Each initial post must include an overview, the main learning activity (e.g., share your take or apply the content), a spark (prompt engagement with others by asking a question, sharing an itchy brain moment, etc.), and references (APA).

Engagement with others: Finally, learners receive guidance on what to emphasize in their responses to others’ initial posts. It could be a general response to the other students’ sparks or specific content, or it could be a specific role to play in their response.

Teaching presence

I take my role very seriously and am active behind the scenes and in multiple ways “publicly”. I manage my teaching presence by scheduling blocks of time to dive into the discussion forums. For example, my fully online university classes have a weekly rhythm. Here’s a description of the cyclic weekly approach, followed by a visual (word diagram):

  1. Discover/Explore: On Monday & Tuesday, learners explore specific learning materials, guided by “focus” points I provide (I do not require them to read, watch, listen to every single word).
    My teaching presence: Weekly announcement to give a big picture overview of the topic & activities for the week, and to establish focus through curiosity, prediction, or general excitement about the learning ahead.
  2. Engage: By Wednesday, learners share their “take” on the learning materials, according to my instructions. Often, this is their “initial post”.
    My teaching presence: Strictly behind the scenes unless someone poses a question or needs clarification.
  3. Engage: By Friday, learners check out & respond to each others’ (usually two) initial posts.
    My teaching presence: Privately or publicly, I guide & support learning by posing additional questions, suggesting alternative views, or simply staying silent and letting learners engage on their own. Often, my post in a forum can be seen as “the answer” and it can shut down learning. Other times, it’s crucial that I maintain the cognitive processes by clarifying, adding essential information, etc.
  4. Complete: Learners continue the engagement on their own initial post and on others they’re involved in and bring things to a close by the end of the day, Sunday. They also submit any assigments.
weekly rhythm Monday to Sunday
Weekly Rhythm for Online Learning Activities

Teaching presence means that I facilitate cognitive and social processes. Many of us forget the second part, but it’s essential.

Facilitating cognitive processes: I schedule blocks of time to ensure I am present in the discussion forum. I nudge, clarify, give examples, suggest alternative views, and engage in numerous ways. Sometimes I lurk – depends on the learning goal and where we are in the course. I’ve found that engagement between learners can come to a complete halt if I add my two cents. For some, it’s “the answer” so there’s no need to continue. Other times, I quietly provide feedback behind the scenes with private replies. This is the fun of being fully present as the teacher – ensuring there’s teaching presence.

Not surprisingly, when the same format is over-used, week after week, in online discussions, and when there is limited teaching presence, discussion boards can become buzz killers and most importantly, ineffective in learning. This BuzzFeed collection of Tweets is pretty funny and depicts some of the prevailing sentiment around the (over)use of a “one size fits all” approach to discussion boards in online teaching and learning.

Below are other resources to help you consider a variety of learning experiences using discussion forums, depending, of course, on the learning outcomes (desired results).

Resource #2: Students share reading notes – Bonni Stachowiak

This article by Bonni Stachowiak, host of Teaching in Higher Ed has several helpful and practical tips, and the section entitled ‘Rethink Discussion Boards’ includes an activity that she introduces as a peer grading approach. I do not use it for peer grading but instead, simply use the set-up as a discussion prompt. Here’s Stachowiak’s instructions:

  • five takeaways from the learning materials
  • three specific ways you could apply the learning in your life
  • one question you have for others

Resource #3: Question, quotation, and comment (QQC) – Norman Eng

A second helpful resource is Norman Eng’s blog post on an approach he calls QQC. Although it’s not specifically related to online teaching/learning, it does target higher ed contexts and, I think, is a ‘transferrable’ approach to this setting.

In an online discussion forum, students can spark conversation by posing a question about the learning material, a quotation that resonated with them, and/or a comment about a specific point or section. Importantly, the students explain why they chose that question, quotation, or comment. Eng notes that students only need to do one of the three but keep in mind his example was for an in-person class.

Resource #4: Beyond the discussions board – Steven Mintz

After outlining the the pitfalls and less attractive aspects of discussion boards, Mintz (2020) describes several alternatives based on five broad categories:

  • Prompt/question design (punchline, avoid opinion questions and aim for one of the five types of questions that lead to higher order thinking skills).
  • Have students do something (e.g., solve a problem, adopt a role).
  • Raise the stakes by having students rate one another (anonymously), limit the number of participants, etc.
  • Re-imagine display: flat or threaded are the typical (Mintz offers a handful of unique approaches).
  • Adopt a different model: annotate a text collaboratively (using Hypothesis, Perusall, Kami, or another free app) or collaborate on a document (e.g., Wiki).

Resource #5: Save the last word for me – Maryellen Weimer

Weimer (2015) provides a useful way to split the class, with one half posting an excerpt (e.g., quote or theme) from a course reading that they may not understand or that they want to understand more fully, and the other half contributing their ideas and understandings of the excerpt. After a set number of responses (e.g., each quote must have two responses), the student who posted the excerpt wraps up their thread (the focused discussion of their excerpt). Roles are then reversed.

Resource #6: Role switching – Justin Robertson

Robertson (2022) splits the class in two – much like Weimer (2015) does – but the roles, or “modes”, are slightly different. In response to a framing question he asks with the course content (e.g., at the end of a lecture), one group will post (first 3.5 days) and the other will respond/comment (second 3.5 days). Groups switch “modes” each week, and he provides details, including suggested word counts and scheduling in his brief article.

Resource #7: Connection building – James Lang

James Lang’s book, Small Teaching (2nd ed., 2021) is a treasure trove of ideas to spark learning and conversation and for today, I share three “connection” prompts for learners to, well, connect their learning to their prior knowledge:

  • Can you give an example?
  • What is it similar to? Or different from?
  • Why should we care about it?

Resource #87: A Big List of Strategies – Jennifer Gonzalez

The font of pedagogical knowledge and resources, Jennifer Gonzalez, shares some excellent strategies for both face-to-face and online discussion strategies. Her site, the Cult of Pedagogy, is in itself a treasure trove and this article (Gonzalez, 2015) is a real gem.

References and Links

Chi, M., et al. (2018). Translating the ICAP theory of cognitive engagement into practice. Cognitive Science, 42(6), 1777-1832.

Community of Inquiry (CoI). (n.d.). CoI Framework.

Eng, N. (2020, Feb 29). Get students to read and participate using QQC. [Blog post.]

Gonzalez, J. (2015, Oct 15). The big list of class discussion strategies. Cult of Pedagogy.

Lang, J. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. Jossey-Bass.

Martinez, K. (2019, Sept 21). 17 tweets about discussion board posts that are brutally honest. BuzzFeed.

Mintz, S. (2020, Feb 20). Beyond the discussion board. Inside Higher Ed.

Robertson, J. (2022, March 10). How to run a better discussion board: A template and a response to critics. The Scholarly Teacher.

Stachowiak, B. (2019, Jan 9). How can online instructors get students to talk to each other? EdSurge.

Teaching in Higher Ed. (n.d.). Explore the art and science of facilitating learning.

Weimer, M. (2015, Jan. 14). Effective ways to structure discussion. The Teaching Professor.

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