Engaging students online – Day 3

Strategies for effective forum discussions

In this post, we will extend our discussion from last week on teacher and social presence and look at some strategies for effectively managing discussions in your online course sites. The focus will be on managing forum discussions, as forums are the most commonly used tool for online discussions. I suspect many of us are familiar with the experience of nearly empty discussion forums in our courses – I know I am! Despite all best intentions for a lively and engaging discussion, it can be difficult to get substantive responses from students in forums.

The video below, also from the Learning to Teach Online series from UNSW, shares several strategies which can assist in maintaining active participation and engagement in forums. Take a look and make a few notes about which of the strategies might work in your courses.

Academic research in this area has revealed some of the characteristics of effective and lively online forum discussions. These include:

  • Prompt but modest feedback from teaching staff on student posts (deNoyelles et al., 2014)
  • Modelling of social presence cues, such as using students’ names, encouragement, using humour and personal stories (deNoyelles et at., 2014)
  • Ensuring the tone of posts from teaching staff is friendly, inviting, open, and polite (Collison et al., 2000)
  • Ensuring contributions are required or graded (deNoyelles et al., 2014)
  • Providing rubrics to students so they can evaluate their own responses (Nandi et al., 2012)
  • Providing question and debate prompts, especially those that focused on problem-solving or debate (deNoyelles et al., 2014)
  • Questioning and challenging stances from teaching staff on student posts (deNoyelles et al., 2014)
  • Acknowledging content of student posts and extending it with a question (Della Noce et al., 2014)
  • Using authentic questions, which focus on personal relevance and direct application, rather than theory (Della Noce et al., 2014)
  • Drawing connections between student posts to encourage discussion (Della Noce et al., 2014)
  • Creating rotating roles for students to take up in the forums, such as summarising discussions, commenting, facilitating, questioning (Jacques and Salmon, 2007)

Activity: Applying discussion strategies to your course

Building further on yesterday’s activity, think through these strategies from both the video and the list of suggestions above. In your comment today, share which of these strategies might work for your teaching practice. Which of these strategies do you use? Why do you think it helps? What problems might it address? Are any of these strategies new to you? We welcome video responses again if you are feeling brave!

Resources and Further Reading

  • Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000) Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.
  • Della Noce, D.J., Scheffel., D.L., & Lowry, M. (2014) ‘Questions that get answered: The construction of instructional conversations on online asynchronous discussion boards.’ Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 10(1):80-96. Available: http://jolt.merlot.org/vol10no1/dellanoce_0314.pdf
  • deNoyelles, A., Mannheimer Zydney, J., & Chen, B. (2014) ‘Strategies for creating a community of inquiry through online asynchronous discussions.’ Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 10(1):153-165. Available:ย http://jolt.merlot.org/vol10no1/denoyelles_0314.pdf.
  • Jacques, D. & Salmon, G. (2007) Learning in Groups: A handbook for face-to-face and online environments. 4th edition. New York: Routledge.
  • Nandi, D., Hamilton, M., Chang, S., & Balbo, S. (2012) ‘Evaluating quality in online asynchronous interactions between students and discussion facilitators.’ Australasian Journal of Educational Technology. 28(4):684-702. Available: https://ajet.org.au/index.php/AJET/article/view/835



28 thoughts on “Engaging students online – Day 3

  1. I really enjoyed the multiple viewpoints in the video. (And also seeing & hearing Andy Polaine, an incredible designer and there he is in the flesh! made me want to delve back into his portfolio which I havent looked over in almost a decade). Chanelling the lecturers for whom I have tutored and will be tutoring for over next two semesters, I can already anticipate the questions I will be asked: “how much extra time will all of this “online engagement” take”? “do you (tutor) have the energy to set this up & monitor it, given your research commitments?” “we won’t have budget to pay you for this”… Now looking through the great list of best practices above, and the stream of thoughts & ideas in the video, I can see that all of this does take extra commitment — linking students ideas across blog posts is a bigger one than might at first seem (aka 150 words from 40+ students — an hour or so a week?) or even replying to everyone (again, weekly hours)… The sort of conversation that I would imagine would need to happen between lecturers and tutors on this would include a lucid calculation of time required to keep a forum dynamic and growing… followed by a division of labour across teaching staff… and then a discussion about remuneration… and also some basic training as well… I for one would be very keen to work on the skills required to make this work well, but I would need a solid half day of Wattle training on this or the equiv. amount of hours reading the manual (which I would welcome, but who will set it up & pay me for my time?) Yes this is the way of the future and yes its in my interests to get ahead of the game here, but my APA won’t be extended because I spent time teaching! <>

    1. Hi Thea – as hourly paid tutors the issue of commenting and replying on forums becomes extra complicated! Unfortunately the pay arrangements have not caught up to the digital age and most do not include this as part of the workload. You’re absolutely right though, in that you need to prioritise your time carefully. In a previous post Isabelle and I were discussing some strategies which I think might be of interest to you. It’s about giving roles to students as part of their assessable participation mark, to help manage the discussion. You can see our conversation here: http://anuonline.weblogs.anu.edu.au/2017/02/08/engaging-students-online-day-1/#comment-2183 Let me know what you think! I’d be keen to hear what others think as well. How do you manage your time in discussions effectively?

      1. Yes these are crucial issues: our availability (hence the time we can spend on all this) as well as the money we can allocate for it, if tutors are to help us with the online aspect of our courses. So far, I have not included any of my tutors in overseeing discussion forums and mainly because of the restricted budget I have for my courses so I fully understand Thea’s position. Katie’s idea, about allocating some roles to students (also pointed out in the video), is excellent I think and something that I am eager to try out.

      2. Katie, I have had the luxury of getting paid a fixed amount for designing and teaching a whole course. This way I could decide how much time to spend on each task and how to optimize each. When tutoring I do the same, within the limits set by the course designer.

        For commenting and replying to forums, I set a number of minutes per week and try to stick to it. This is not easy and something which takes practice (formal training also helps).

        Many of the techniques which can save instructor time (such as prepared questions, peer assessment, use of rubrics and student lead discussion), also improve the quality of the learning.

        Or as General Patton might have said:

        “No teacher ever educated students by working very hard. They did it by making the students work very hard.”

        Adapted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_S._Patton's_speech_to_the_Third_Army#cite_ref-FOOTNOTEGist2010487_22-0

  2. I found the strategies that balance fostering student engagement with pragmatics most useful. Unfortunately I’m not a time-travelling many-keyboarded superhero who can engage with every single student one-by-one, though attempting to do so was certainly a mistake I’ve made previously. Part of my role on one of the online courses I’m TA-ing for right now is to monitor forums and prepare a weekly report that draws connections between student posts (which are in response to specific question or discussion prompts based around that week’s lectures). This serves the dual purposes of acknowledging student input (to encourage further input), and emphasising the whole of the discussion rather than individual-by-individual posts. It’s a smart combination of strategies discussed above, certainly something I hope to use in my own course design in future.

  3. As far as I am aware forum discussions are rarely used n my area of teaching (clinical medicine). They are being used more in postgraduate specialist CPD however the carrot for those learning is CPD points. The challenge for clinical medicine education is work out whether this is an effective and time efficient method.

  4. I am particularly interested in the point on providing question and debate prompts. I think this is something I am not using. I so far expected that questions will be raised by students and that in this way a new discussion thread will start. This happens but I guess not as often as would be needed to maintain a continuous lively discussion forum. Maybe I am, without realising, doing a bit of debate prompting when I post my reflection on a resource I added or on a newly released relevant scientific paper.

  5. I have not used forums to a great extent. Students found it intimidating as they thought they may expose themselves. The preferred communicating by email. But I need to give a careful thought what needs to be done

  6. If I’m honest with myself, the reality for me is something that Thea articulated: I am only likely to invest more in online forums if they make something I already do easier, or can replace – and do better – something that I am currently doing. Given this , which of the strategies mentioned in the blog might work for me?

    While I encourage students to ask their questions via the relevant discussion forum, rather than as an email to me, I am not good at enforcing this and still end up with many emails. I think this is partly me not reminding students to do this, but perhaps I need to work harder to make the forum a place that is not intimidating. Perhaps offering a ‘reward’ to students through greater personal acknowledgement and humour in my responses, as suggested, could help motivate students to use the forum to post questions.

    We all know that some students are reluctant to engage in discussion (e.g., tutorials). I can see potential for online forums to replace the odd face-to-face tutorial to engage students more comfortable with this form of communication.

    Finally, I do like the idea of explicitly grading engagement in forums for roles other than posting (e.g., replying, synthesising, challenging) and was interested to see that it was listed by Katie as a genuine way to encourage engagement.

  7. I like the idea of allowing “side discussions” to support peer learning. This also means I do not have to answer every question. I am thinking of asking open questions to let it start, (with the 200 word limit sugested here on answers), and answering some but not all posts. I will also invite students to also post quite specific questions and , where they are common or undersolved by other students to use this as the input for a follow-up webinar where I could summarise discussion and treat any unresolved questions as questions on notice for the webinar where I can review relevant parts of the online material or answer in other ways.

    I think I am going to have to attach marks to posts (I really dislike this) , but probably as simply sat/unsat, possibly as a hurdle or maybe something like 1 mark per week available for 1 post per week.

    I found this material very helpful — I think this gives me a way forward for the partly -on-line course I am planning.

    1. Hi Kerry – I am really glad to hear the suggestions are useful! There are a lot of options out there, and courses can be very different so it’s hard to find one approach that will work for everyone. I found the book “Engaging the Online Learner” by Conrad & Donaldson (2011) to be really helpful, and it shares lots of suggested approaches and activities for using in forums and online courses. There is a copy in the ANU Library (currently out on loan) but I got a very cheap used copy from here: http://www.betterworldbooks.com/Engaging-the-Online-Learner–Activities-and-Resources-for-Creative-Instruction-id-9780787966676.aspx

  8. What the literature on discussion strategies tends not mention is the additional effort required from instructor and student . If there is on-line support to facilitate this, then fine, but if it all has to be done manually, then it may not be feasible. Also this may need skills which the instructors and students do not have.

    As an example, what preparation are students provided before being required to facilitate a forum? Is this in the list of skills assumed for the course. Is it something the course explicitly teaches and tests? Is the instructor competent in facilitation, capable of teaching and testing it?

    Discussion strategies which might work for my teaching:

    * Prompt but modest feedback: In this context “modest” refers to the quantity of feedback, but I suggest could also refer to the tone. I find it off-putting when an instructor sends a long response and even more off-putting where the subtext is “I am much cleverer than you”. I try to limit both the quality and boastfulness of my comments.

    * Modeling of social presence cues: I use student’s names and provide encouragement, but avoid humor (as it is culturally specific). Even providing encouragement can be a problem, if you give the student a false sense of how well they are doing. Before telling the student something they did wrong, I like to point out something the did right.

    * Ensuring contributions are required: This is the primary technique I use. I ask students to write about 640 words in 4 posts per week for 20% of the overall mark. I worked this out based on the average length of a student post and the average marking of written work by Australian universities: http://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2014/03/is-160-words-reasonable-length-for.html

    ps: The above was originally twice as long, but the system responded: “Hmmm, your comment seems a bit spammy. We’re not real big on spam around here. Please go back and try again.”.

  9. Hi all, just a quick plug for an upcoming session which might be of interest. There is a face-to-face version of “Engaging Students Online” which will be run on Monday from 2-4pm here at ANU Campus, in the Menzies Library Flex Lab. It covers a bit more ANU-specific information, and looks at Wattle tools you can use to engage students (such as Workshop, Lesson, Feedback, Quiz, etc). You can find the details here: https://services.anu.edu.au/news-events/engaging-students-online-1

    Have a great weekend everyone – keep cool!

  10. Some really great thoughts and ideas in this video and blog post. Lots to think about in terms of responding to discussion forums – which is the main way we will be engaging online students in our course. I think the most important ideas I picked up on that I will try to apply are: making sure that feedback is prompt and modest, trying to highlight connections between various students posts to encourage discussion, and considering a word limit for student responses to make sure their posts can be read and responded to easily. There were also some good ideas for prompting students who are not well engaged. We do have a 20% participation mark, which includes participation in discussion forums (for both online and in-person students). I also am understanding more and more that getting regular feedback will be important for students to ensure that they continue to be engaged in the discussion, so I am finding that these tips are really useful.

  11. I give a real world issue for discussion, such as Brexit and ask the students whether it will benefit UK or will it adversely affect their economy. I tell the students that there is no one answer to this question and they can freely express their view as long as the view is backed by some logic or statistics. Normally I keep the discussion open for 15 days and do not intervene during this period (I forgot to write in yesterday’s comments that I set the rule at the beginning that no personal comments should be made and the discussion should be strictly about the topic). In the end I tell both the sides of arguments – for and against Brexit in this case – to the students so that no one feels that ‘I was wrong and what my friends will think about me’. This helps the students to maintain their self-confidence while putting forward their arguments.

  12. In the Global Population Health course participating in an online discussion forum is 10% of the assessment – every week there will be questions posted in the discussion Q&A and students will need to reply/leave comments.
    THis session is quite useful – it provides tips for keeping students engaged, but also provides advice for lecturers/tutors to make a more effective/less time consuming contibution to those forums. We have a small number of students (under 10 for now) but i wonder how this would be managable in practice for lecturers who are mainly researchers when the number of students increases! Any idea of how long (per week) it should take to manage a discussion forum of 10 students? or 100? I also wonder if there is any evidence regarding the effectiveness of different reply styles in student engagement – eg- if the tutor/lecturer replies to each comment individually, calling the student by her/his name, does that have a different effect than when the reply is per group of posts?

    1. Hi Susana, thanks for your post and questions. I can provide 2 examples of how large online classes can be moderated in terms of time. I taught a course of 150 fully online students, and it was paid by the university as 1 hour per student per semester. So the idea was that it would take roughly 1 hour for replying, commenting, answering emails, etc for each student over the course of the whole course. (There were 3 teachers for this course.)

      The other example is for a grander scale – I worked last year on a MOOC that had 15,000 students. (!!) The course moderators each took a day of the week to be the facilitator, and were expected to be in the forums 2-3 hours on their assigned day. We recognised that there was no way we could answer each post, but we did spend some time scanning the forums on our day and picking out representative or key posts to answer, and looking for students who were struggling.

      In response to your final question on effectiveness of reply styles, I would recommend you take a look at the Della Noce et al article which addresses your question in detail: http://jolt.merlot.org/vol10no1/dellanoce_0314.pdf

      I hope that helps!

  13. Just to say thanks for your reply – (and on the previous posts as well) – it is good to have an idea of necessary time commitment, although this will vary across fields, etc. will check out the paper as well.

  14. I like a strategy suggested to draw out the non-responders in a forum. The academic posts a message to the acknowledging the posts already contributed and summarises the key themes and gains or the point in thinking that has been reached collectively, plus a reminder of the deadline and a question to prompt further discussion. Of course, this requires that there’s enough posts to work with!

    A number of speakers in the video indicated the parameters/expectations for posts which I found helpful, such as: word limit (short and succinct!) clear time frames by which posts are required, exemplar answers (along with grading earned). I recognise that our first attempt at this provided no guidance. At least I knew that to turn up to an empty discussion board was a turn off for learners and added in some of my own thoughts and responses in advance under my own name.

    As for effective and quality questions – well I understand this is key and need to put in some learning time, bounce ideas of colleagues for the kind of questions that will be posed in the next schol comms module. Thanks for the article suggestions Katie!

  15. There have been some great suggestions here. I use a student forum on Moodle for a pathophysiology unit. Response seems to be different for each cohort. The purpose of the forum was for students to ask content related questions and post useful resources. I encourage the students to answer each others questions first. I will generally only jump in if there is no response, if they are a little off track or to encourage the discussion. I am finding that the current cohort is very reluctant to use it. A few resources have been posted but no questions yet (week 2).

    I do like the suggestion of posing some questions and experiences myself to get things started. Thought I am a little worried that no one will respond. I think participation marks might need to be the next step. I will be sure to include it in the design of the new unit for 2018!

  16. I really like Tom’s idea about making students work hard. It is true that replying to all the students’ posts may be impractical, so some courses require students to reply to others’ posts. This is a good solution on several levels: it saves time for the lecturer, and it also serves as peer feedback. One of the courses that I teach is writing. The students complete 3 essays with at least 2 drafts each every semester. It would be impossible for me to comments on every single draft for every student, but by employing peer feedback I encourage them to learn from each other. I am not saying that this is a panacea as I am still working out the most effective ways to promote peer learning, but I think this would be one of the ways to make discussion forums more active.

  17. Applying discussion strategies

    I practice the following strategies:

    Giving prompt feedback โ€“ This helps because if you are a distance student studying online, receiving feedback is a signal that there is someone out there at the other side and that your questions, concerns, opinions are valued. And if it is about a time-based activity like assessment, my prompt feedback is important for the student to move forward.

    Calling the students by their names and occasionally connecting to their work, interests โ€“ This helps because students, however “adult” or “mature in age” they are, need to feel acknowledged. They especially like it when I connect topics to what they do because it shows them that they are not just one of the participants in the class and that I really read their introduction post. They love talking about their work and what they do and get energized when they see that I acknowledge this.

    Asking authentic questions โ€“ This helps because most of my students are working and practicing professionals and they are very interested (or they need to see) the connection of the course to their everyday life. This type of post usually gets the most attention and discussion.

    Drawing connections between student posts to encourage discussion โ€“ This helps because it generates another level of discussion where students then have to take in consideration what another student said and construct their answers based the connection. Students also get interested to discuss when they see another student agreeing or disagreeing with them.

  18. The new idea I got from the recommendations above was to combine

    * Providing question and debate prompts, especially those that focused on problem-solving or debate (deNoyelles et al., 2014)


    * Acknowledging content of student posts and extending it with a question (Della Noce et al., 2014) and
    * Drawing connections between student posts to encourage discussion (Della Noce et al., 2014)

    to get students to compare and contrast their answers. This will also help to mobilise the students to contribute to synthesising the contents and thereby, hopefully, reach higher learning levels in the Bloom’s taxonomy by

    * Creating rotating roles for students to take up in the forums, such as summarising discussions, commenting, facilitating, questioning (Jacques and Salmon, 2007)

    1. Hi Hanna, this is a brilliant way to combine the different techniques to support higher order thinking skills in the discussion forums. I have used rotating roles in the forums in an online course I taught and was amazed by how rich the discussion was as a result, when students had to meaningfully and specifically respond to each other’s posts in a structured way. Using roles also helped the students figure out what to write in their responses, as the different roles gave them some guidance and structure for framing their comments. I was wondering if you currently give marks for forum participation, and if this would change as a result of your new structure?

    2. I like the idea of asking students to take on some of these roles, like summarising and questioning. I wonder if this could also be used as a way to teach students about the process of giving and receiving feedback? I once took a class where we were required to provide constructive criticism on another studentโ€™s work. We were also assessed on our feedback as a way to ensure students provided considered and constructive comments. It was a useful experience in encouraging us to engage with feedback in a different way and also gain further skills about evaluating our own work.

      1. Hi Alison, this is such a good point around this practice support students to give and receive feedback. Perhaps assigning forum roles like this would be a good precursor for peer feedback assignments? The skills from summarising and questioning are useful for students communication skills and participation marks as well.

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