Let’s Give ’Em Something to Talk About Part I: Five Instructor Practices that Cultivate Online Discussions

by Christine Scherer

Guest Post by: Leslie Fischer.

Leslie Fischer teaches in traditional, hybrid, and online classrooms at SPS and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She has taught writing, literature, and communication at SPS for 28 years and has taught at the university level for 34 years.  Reach her on twitter @LeslieAFischer or by email at l-fischer@northwestern.edu.


When teaching an online course, the discussion forum is often your primary connection with your students. Thoughtfully and actively managing the discussion forums can elevate the level of course conversations. Unlike the casual comments that might get tossed off in the classroom, students whose comments are evaluated in a forum are often more rigorous in what they say and how they say it. The asynchronous forum is particularly advantageous for quiet or international students whose English skills or learning preferences may not be best suited to traditional classrooms and who may require time to comment thoughtfully. For instance, there is compelling evidence (NU log-in required) that students who identify as introverts prefer online classes. My experience in traditional and hybrid courses suggests that students quiet in the traditional classroom often write wonderfully reflective and insightful discussion board posts online.

Discussion forums, when carefully developed, foster active student learning and engagement. Aside from writing great prompts, which will be covered in a future blog post, there are a number of faculty behaviors and practices that encourage active student participation.

  1. Align

Effective instructors develop learning goals or course objectives that support the nature and quality of student learning. Think carefully about what you want your students to be capable of at the end of your course and create prompts that will help students achieve those objectives. Make certain your students are also working consciously toward mastery of those goals. Communicate explicitly about which objectives each forum supports; students like to understand how discussions are tied to the overall learning goals.

  1. Model

How do you encourage a vibrant community of responsive conversation? You don’t want students to merely cross their contributions off on their to-do lists, to set it and forget it. Such an attitude results in a bulletin board rather than an interactive conversation. Instructors who actively contribute to discussions can model the reflective and substantive conversations they value.

Lolita Paff, on the Faculty Focus site, notes that faculty contributions to the discussion can show students how to provide “insights about content relationships: across topics, courses, and personal connections. . . . Share how the current interaction or series of discussions scaffolds more complex learning and skills as the course progresses.”

  1. Mentor

While contributing to the discussion, it’s important not to dominate that conversation. Let your students write responses to the prompts and to each other to promote active engagement. If the give and take stalls too long, draw the students’ attention to how you can build on connections between ideas and ask them to emulate that in their future posts. As the time for the forum topic draws to a close, sum up the salient points or identify the array of positions taken in the forum.

In addition to your public comments on the forum, you have the advantage of a private voice with which to mentor students. With the Canvas Learning Management System, you can give students individual attention to encourage, prompt further thought, or correct breaches of netiquette. Set each forum up as an assignment, and you will have access to the comment pane not visible to other members of the class. Rather than an email, this practice ensures your comments appear in the same context as the student posts on which you comment. With Canvas, you can also attach files to your comments. Audio and visual files of the professor addressing the student directly can be particularly helpful in online courses to build rapport.

  1. Accommodate

Create an online environment that accommodates conversations of all kinds, so students become quite comfortable communicating in this way. An ungraded Q & A forum for general questions about the class can demonstrate your responsiveness and disseminate information at the precise moment students need it. Respond in an open forum rather than by email because such questions are often those that shyer students wonder about, and it encourages students to reflect on their learning experiences and to communicate those experiences to you.

Include an ungraded Café forum for more social interactions; this can be important to build a sense of community among far-flung students and to locate potential study buddies. Make an ungraded Resources forum where anyone can post links or other information that addresses the content of the class; as you come across resources you can also post them here. Such a forum is a valuable repository for you and for your students and can cement the sense that you are a community engaged in a quest for knowledge.

  1. Assess

Reward the student behaviors you want to encourage. If you wish to foster a back and forth dialogue, students who post early and responsively should earn higher grades than those who dash off a few superficial responses on the due date or who simply post it and forget it. Early posting provides an opportunity for others to respond and explore a topic fully. Responsive posting moves the conversation forward. Both timeliness and responsiveness are elements on the rubric by which I assess online participation. For more ideas on assessment, Tony Birch writes of how to instill a sense of purpose and reward desirable forum behaviors.

With care, your discussion forums can be formative experiences, some of the most vibrant and engaging learning experiences of your course. I’d love to hear about practices that have worked for you; post them in the comments section. Look for the next installment of this post, Let’s Give ’Em Something to Talk About—Part II: Writing Engaging Discussion Forum Prompts.