Designing and structuring discussion forums

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Image credit: unsplash, Volodymyr Hryshchenko, CC0

In this post, Celeste McLaughlin and Professor Vel McCune provide some suggestions about designing, structuring and facilitating discussion forums, and include some examples of activities that have resulted in engaging student discussions. This post forms part of the Hot Topic theme: Revisiting the Hybrid Teaching Exchange.

We have all had to adjust how we approach our teaching last year, and explore the tools we have available to us in the digital teaching and learning environment. There are many tools that enable us to design activities that we hope will engage and motivate our students including the discussion board.

If discussion activities are well designed and structured, and are facilitated by the tutor or lecturer, they can help build a learning community with our students. Peer interactions within discussions can motivate students by giving them an opportunity to share ideas about the topic, which leads to deeper learning and critical thinking.

Informal conversations help build community

It can be useful to provide opportunities for students to have informal conversations. You could provide a social forum for students to ask questions or just to chat informally and get to know each other. You might want to include a starter task such as suggesting students post a picture taken in their local area. This also gives students the opportunity to become familiar with the technology during a low-stake activity. This will build their confidence and hopefully lead to contributions during future course discussion activities. Provide some guidance about the purpose of these informal forums and it might be appropriate to add a thread to get things started.

You might also want to create a forum for students to ask questions about the tools being used or a Frequently Asked Questions area where you can collate useful information and encourage your students to post questions they might have about the course.

Provide clear guidance for your students when designing course-related discussions.

The example below is a group activity where students work in small groups throughout the course and are asked to use the group discussion space to agree on group guidelines. These guidelines are then shared with the whole cohort via the course discussion forum. This activity provides a space for group participants get to know each other, helps build their confidence by giving them the opportunity to contribute via a smaller group space, then ideas are shared and discussed with the whole cohort.

This activity has a set time limit (the first week of the course), and a summary is provided at the end of the week to bring the discussion to a close. Not everyone will contribute to the discussion (for a variety of reasons) although students will still benefit from reading posts.

Provide guidance for students on how to engage with discussion forums

This guidance may include the following:

  • Use of appropriate topic headings
  • Guidance on length of post
  • Use of appropriate language
  • Appropriately worded replies that keep the discussion flowing (discourage posts saying “yes I agree” or “I disagree”)

For larger cohorts, where students are active contributors, you might find that students become overwhelmed and find it difficult to keep up with posts. Suggest that students login in frequently and focus on topic threads that are of particular interest to them and subscribe to these. This should help them manage the forum. It may also be appropriate for students to take a lead and facilitate for larger forums and provide summaries of discussions at the end of the discussion activity.

It is important that tutors are visible and contribute at appropriate points during discussions. They should monitor discussions and respond to direct questions in a timely manner, keep discussions on topic and provide encouragement.

It’s also appropriate to give students time and space to contribute so it’s best not to respond too quickly to every post as that can shut down discussions. You might also need to give students a gentle nudge to encourage contributions and perhaps get the discussion started with a short post.

Discussion forums are just one of the many tools available in the digital teaching and learning environment and it’s important to include a range of different activities to help engage and motivate your students. Thinking about macro and micro patterns is a way of visualising the structure of courses and the learning activities within them.

Useful resources

Celeste McLaughlin

Celeste McLaughlin is Head of Academic Development for Digital education and is based in the Learning and Teaching Team within the Institute for Academic Development. She has worked in tertiary education for over 20 years and has gained valuable experience of teaching in blended and online contexts during this time. She worked for the digital technology agency Jisc for over 10 years where she provided expertise in the use of digital technologies for learning, teaching and assessment. Her role in IAD gives her the opportunity to advise and support colleagues as they develop their digital teaching practices. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and is currently undertaking a part-time PhD in educational research with a focus on hybrid teaching.

Vel McCune

Professor Vel McCune is Deputy Director of the IAD and Head of the Learning and Teaching Team. She has oversight of the continuing professional development opportunities which the IAD offers for staff involved in teaching and supporting student learning. An important focus of her work is collaborating with colleagues in Schools and Colleges to take forward research and scholarship relating to teaching and learning in Higher Education.

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