Online Discussions

Online Discussion Forums

Online Discussion Forums are a great place for critical reflection and community-building in an online course. Much learning takes place in well managed discussions.

A full discussion typically requires:

  1. An initial post
  2. A response to one or more peer's initial post
  3. A response to anyone who responded to the a student’s original post

It is very important that you begin the first discussion activity in your course with a document that gives instructions and explains your expectations for discussion in your course. You may want to include the number of responses required, any other specific requirements or expectations you may have (such as a timeframe for the discussion), how you plan to evaluate the discussion, what percentage of the grade their discussions will be, and what constitutes an acceptable response.

Keep in mind that online discussions are not the same as traditional class participation. Asynchronous discussion between students and with the instructor is a complex instructional interaction that requires thought, synthesis, analysis, and critical reflection. For many online courses, discussion is a primary teaching and learning tool.


  • Resist the temptation to respond to every student's response. Otherwise, the discussion may become a series of dialogues between you and each student, rather than among the students. However, don't be absent from the discussion. The students need to know you are there. Make sure your discussion/interaction is long enough.
  • Require participation: specify quantity and quality of participation. You may want to provide students with a model response and specify the criteria students should use to support their opinions and responses. Be explicit in your expectations for participation and types of acceptable responses. You may consider giving students a model of what will not suffice, e.g., "yup, I agree."

  • Grade participation.

  • Be sure to give students clear instructions on timeliness of their participation in the activity. When possible, offer one deadline for initial posts, and another deadline for responses so that students will have content to work from.

  • Give students private feedback on their participation in your course discussion. It is important to evaluate the quality of the contributions in your course discussion and give periodic individual feedback on how they are doing in this type interaction.

  • Resist the temptation to be "didactic" in your own responses. Instead of supplying the answer, guide the discussion so that the students "discuss" the answers on their own.

  • Encourage students to use the subject field to describe their input. The subject should add to the context of the discussion, not, for example, "DISCUSSION ITEM 1." Descriptive subjects add to the structure and understanding of the discussion.

  • Don't ask questions that are not interesting, or that will not result in “discussion.” Use open-ended questions. Your discussion starter should pose a question that requires comprehension, or synthesis of the readings / course materials, or be provocative in some way, not, for example, "List the 5 major points of ... "

  • Require a product that is based on, or the result of discussion: A "hand-in" assignment that is based on class discussion can help students to synthesize, integrate and apply what has been discussed.

  • Include ideas and information generated in discussion/interaction on exams. Such inclusion serves to reinforce the importance of student collaboration and makes "cheating" much more difficult. If students need to participate in class discussions to answer exam questions, they will be unable to simply "copy" from outside sources.

  • Form Small Groups or Learning Teams. Assigning students to these (rather that allowing self-selection) can help avoid logistical problems that inhibit productivity. If you do allow self-selection, establish a deadline for this process (a week to ten days) and then default to teacher assignment to the groups after the deadline.

  • The quickest way for you to grind a discussion to a halt is to step in and summarize or synthesize the discussion. Students will assume that since you are the instructor, a summary caps the discussion. To keep the discussion going, draw attention to points that come up, refer to students' responses by name, etc., and post more questions that will encourage the students to take the discussion further. You can also call on a student by name to clarify, or probe a point. However, students value instructor summaries if they are provided when the discussion has been formally closed.

  • Employ a student-led discussion strategy where assigned students come up with critical thinking questions and are evaluated on the quality of their questions and how they facilitate the discussion. In a discussion intensive course, this strategy will help the instructor with workload.

  • Establish boundaries or rules for interaction in your course. Include a document on netiquette appropriate for your course in your course information documents.

  • Be encouraging, supportive, timely, and constructive in all discussions and all evaluations of the products of discussions/interactions.

  • Promote quality participation by publicly acknowledging it and by modeling it.

Adapted from Designing an Online Course and Becoming an Online Educator, Open SUNY Center for Online Teaching Excellence