The art and science of online discussion forums

By miranda.prynne, 16 December, 2020
Online discussion forums are an effective way to ensure remote students engage critically with their subjects but require careful thought and planning by instructors, as Karen Srba explains

Article type

This video will cover: 

00:21 Linking discussions to course material and assignments 

01:17 Promoting student-to-student engagement and critical thinking  

02:04 How much should instructors contribute and intervene in discussions? 


Discussion forums are an art and a science.  

Too much professor engagement can shut down the discussion and too little can leave  students feeling lost and unengaged.   

 Hi, I’m Dr Karen Srba, dean of Saint Francis University’s Francis Worldwide. Here are some tips on creating good discussion forums in your virtual classroom.  

First, make sure your discussion or questions relate to the topics and assignments for that week.  

Remember: discussion forums should be used to check for understanding and allow students to share their own experiences and to apply what they have learned.  

Discussion forums are just as important as any other assignment. 

Make sure your discussion questions are open-ended and focus on provoking critical thinking and sharing of the students’ own experiences. Students learn a lot from each other, and forums give them a chance to do just that.  

There are some faculty and teachers who may say that not every subject lends itself to discussion forums. I believe that is not true.  

Even math makes for a good discussion – try asking students how to apply a particular concept to real life or have them develop their own word problems and let others solve those word problems.  

Third tip, the most important skill for a professor is to know how to promote student-to-student interaction and how to provoke critical thinking.  

So, in your discussion forums, try asking additional questions. For example, John thinks XYZ, what would happen if ABC happened instead? Or if John is correct, what about Carrie’s suggestion?  

Try making connections between students’ posts which get them thinking and responding to each other.  

The fourth thing: make sure you organise the discussion forums and teach students how discussion threads work.  

For example, level one is always the first response level. Level two is the students responding to each other and so on.   

 Number five: one of the most important key takeaways from this video is: how much should an instructor engage in the discussion? This is the science behind discussion forums. Jumping in on every student post is not the answer.  

Yes, it’s nice to be recognised by the instructor but your job is to engage students with each other and share their experiences.  

This is also the place where you can share your knowledge about the topic, but you should never comment without asking a follow-up question. Also, never give the answer or even allude to this is how it works – this is a discussion buster.  

On the other hand, not enough engagement in the discussion and with the students, they may not be able to keep the discussion going, and that is your job.  

Lastly, never tell the students how many words they should post, or how many other students they should respond to. Use a rubric, otherwise you will get exactly what you asked for and no more. 

Good luck on building your next discussion forums – and remember discussion forums are an art and a science. 


This video was produced by Karen Srba, dean of Francis Worldwide at Saint Francis University

Online discussion forums are an effective way to ensure students engage critically with subjects, but require careful thought and planning by instructors to facilitate interesting and fluid student dialogue, as Karen Srba explains