This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.Online course discussions are routine in online and blended classes, and they are gaining popularity in face-to-face courses as well. Proponents of online discussions tout that their use can help with community- and relationship-building, can push students to go deeper with course content and demonstrate critical thinking, and can allow students to share their knowledge and previous experience with course-related concepts and ideas.
Although the use of online discussions is becoming more common, I frequently hear faculty express concerns and challenges they have with them: the time it takes to read and grade each post, keeping students interested and engaged with the forums, and wrestling with how much they as instructors should be participating.
This article will focus on strategies faculty can employ to improve online discussions.
1. Liven up your introduction forum
Many faculty use an introduction or ice¬breaker activity in their online discussion forums, but I believe they are missing a great opportunity early in the class to do something really fun and engaging with their students.
Introductions often consist of having students share information such as their name, where they are from, why they are interested in taking the class, etc. Might it be possible to add some pizzazz to introductions?
For example, earlier in my career when I was teaching an online health and wellness course, I would, as part of an introduction forum, ask students to find and share an outrageous claim related to health (e.g., do this exercise and lose 20 pounds in 2 days, take this supplement and gain 10 pounds of muscle in one week).
Students shared things they found in infomercials, in newspaper and magazine advertisements, on the internet, etc. It was not only fun; it introduced students to some of the topics we would be covering later in class.
Also, many instructors restrict or close access to introduction forums after the first week of class. Consider keeping your introduction forum available during the entire course, and encourage students to continue for the entire semester those conversations started in the introduction forum.
2. How many discussion forums should you have?
Some online instructors, while developing their course, wrestle with the number of discussion forums they should plan to include. I often see new online instructors default to having one forum for every unit or module in a class. However, this might not always be optimal.
Survey data from online students at my institution indicate that learners sometimes feel as though participation in online forums is mundane and eventually gets to be “busy work” that they simply have to complete for a grade.
One strategy to avoid this negative attitude is possibly decreasing the number of online forums used in a course, something I routinely see from instructors who teach a class for the second and third time. Maybe consider not having discussions during weeks where students’ workload is particularly heavy—the week of a mid-term exam, for example, or the week a large paper or project is due.
Also, making clear the purpose of participating in forums can help students feel that their involvement is more meaningful. One way to accomplish that is to clearly demonstrate the alignment of participating in the forums to the student-learning outcomes for the class, and then communicate that to students.
3. Use prompts that are more interesting and engaging.
A few years ago at a conference, I was giving a presentation to faculty about facilitating effective online discussions when an experienced business professor shared that for years, he had been frustrated with student participation in his online forums. He also shared that he had an epiphany that maybe the way he formulated his questions was a large part of the problem. In his words, they were “boring and uninteresting.”
I’ve seen faculty pull discussion forum questions directly from the back of a textbook chapter, repeat that for every unit or module in a class, and then wonder why students aren’t excited and engaged with the online discussions. Creating interesting and engaging questions and prompts certainly can be a bit more work than pulling a question from the back of a textbook chapter, but the results are usually worth it. Some instructors use current events or allow students to select from multiple discussion prompts, enabling them to potentially select a topic of relevance and interest to them.
Finally, consider going beyond questions, and have students participate in activities for discussion forums. For example, during a class I used to teach online, one of my discussion questions was something like this: “Why is it important to pay attention to the serving size on a food label?” These were smart students, and most reported the right answer: So you can identify how many servings you consume, which will tell you how many calories, grams of fat, etc. you are consuming. The discussion was boring, as all student replies were pretty much the same.
So I revised the prompt. I had students go into their refrigerators, pantries, closets and cupboards and pull out four or five things they regularly ate or drank. They then looked at the serving size on the label and reported back interesting findings in the discussion forum. It was illuminating! Students were saying things such as, “I learned that a serving of ice cream is a half a cup. I usually have three or four servings every time I eat ice cream!” Or, “A serving of Doritos is about 12 chips. I sometimes eat a half a bag at a time!”
There are many strategies that can improve online discussions. Livening up introduction forums, finding an appropriate number of discussions, and using prompts that are more interesting and engaging can certainly help.