The Effectiveness of Class Participation and Discussion Forums in Online Learning

Online class discussions facilitate student class participation in an online course.

Types of Discussion Activities

There are many ways to create dynamic and rich class discussions, either formal or informal, in an online course. The three discussion forum types:

  1. social;
  2. general; and
  3. topic-driven.

For each type, the goal is to create a space that encourages discussion and community.

Some of the features of the discussion activity:


Online discussions in an asynchronous environment are set up as written conversations. The entire class participates.

The content and goals of the activity dictate the appropriate configuration. One can easily upload images, link to websites, and embed audio and video segments in your discussion posts.


Discussion is a core activity in any class, online or on-site. Very often, the discussion forum is the central place where class members get together to communicate. It is often at the core of the learning process and participation is usually required at least two to three times a week.


All Learning Management Systems (LMSs) provide a communication tool for discussion, known as a discussion forum, a forum, a discussion board, or a bulletin board. Discussion forums vary in their design, functionality, and setup; however, they all have certain characteristics in common.


Pairs to groups to whole class including the teacher.


The teacher sets up the topic by creating a forum in the discussion board for the entire class or specific groups. This may be a question to the class or a topic for conversation (e.g. Introduce Yourself, Q&A, etc.). Each forum has a topic title and topic posting.

Learners reply to the forum topic posed by the teacher. Each reply (thread) contains a subject related to the topic, and a message (the response). The message is the actual student introduction written in text form. Class members (both students and teacher) reply to each others threads.

The Introduce Yourself discussion forum has the following advantages in an online course. It:

allows the teacher and learners to get to know one another;

allows for the possibility of extending their relationships into another social forum such as the class cafe;

provides an introduction and practice on using the forums in the online course; and

enables the teacher to identify learners with similar interests, which may inform how the teacher groups learners for collaborative work later on in the course.

Social Forums Building a Class Community

During the early part of an online course, it is critical for class members to get to know one another, and begin to build an online class community. Building community is essential for building a successful online course.

The teacher also participates in the online activity. For example, the teacher can also post her introduction as a thread. Of course, she will respond to the students threads as they unfold.

For a Q&A to be successful, the teacher should encourage the class to respond to each others questions. This can save the teacher and students time.

Social Forums Icebreaker

An ice-breaker should not require anything more than the ability to express knowledge of self. It relates more to the personal life than to the academic life of the learner.

General Forums Question and Answer (Q&A)

When online learners have a question, there are two ways to have them ask it:

1. Email the question directly to the teacher as a private communication.

2. Post the question in a discussion forum as a public communication to the class.

The drawback of the email approach is that the learner is relying on the teacher as the sole provider of information. Instead, set up a Q&A discussion forum for the duration of the online course. This saves time for the teacher and encourages communication. Be sure to include this in your communication strategies section in the syllabus.

In an online course, the Q&A discussion forum has the following advantages:

It provides a single, convenient place for learners to ask administrative questions related to assignments, due dates, and requirements.

A students questions are made public to the class. This is similar to a student raising her hand in an on-site class. Everyone gets to see the question. The teacher has to respond only once to the question and all students will benefit from learning the new information the response provides.

It encourages community-building within the course. Students are encouraged to help others by posting their thoughts on the question. This supports a student-centered approach.

Note: The teacher should keep the purpose of the forum brief and encourage other learners to respond when they feel it is appropriate.

23 Jul 2019

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