Unsure How to Incorporate a Discussion Forum in Your Online Course? No Problem!

Discussion Forum in Your Online Course?

No Problem…

Written by Iwona Gniadek, Instructional Designer for the Manitoba Flexible Learning HUB

During a recent course design conversation, teachers who transitioned their course to the online format said that they offer marks for participation in face-to-face courses, but assume it is not expected for courses taking place online. We chatted briefly about the roots of their assumption and I offered some suggestions on how to promote social participation online. Below is an extended version of my spiel.

Have you ever searched for a topic-specific forum to ask a question about a challenge you have been experiencing? For example, an animal forum to ask about some symptoms your animal companion is exhibiting, or a DIY forum to search for solutions to a persistent household issue. An online message board or forum is similar to real-world social interactions with friends, neighbours and colleagues. Each of those conversations we engage in has a purpose, even if it’s just polite small talk. It helps us stay connected, support each other and learn from one another. In the face-to-face classroom, students conduct similar conversations with peers from whom they seek learning and mental support, as well as social engagement. So, how can we replicate the sense of meaningful engagement with peers on a discussion forum in your online or remote course? If you are a teacher who values socially constructed knowledge, in this post you will find some strategies to create a sense of community and foster engagement online.

Let’s begin with setting expectations for ongoing participation.

Setting Expectations for Participation

1. Include a netiquette in your course syllabus or involve students in negotiating one when the course starts. The netiquette will promote good behaviours early on. Include a Discussion Board Etiquette video. Many students respond better to videos than to written text, hence it’s a Universal Design for Learning practice to represent content in a variety of ways. I have outlined below some ideas you might want to include in the netiquette:

  • Contribute regularly to the class discussions. Do not wait until the end of the week to add your thoughts; our conversations will need time to unfold, so post early and return a few times during the week to continue the conversation.
  • Each of your posts should make one point and be no longer than 150 words.
  • Connect your responses to your personal experience.
  • Include questions and add additional resources to stimulate the discussions.
  • Be respectful of others and relate to ideas, not individuals.

2. Provide a rationale for incorporating the discussion forum. It is important to explain the purpose of the discussion forum and each student’s role in building and sustaining the learning community through regular participation. You might need to emphasize the forum as a space to connect with peers and learn from them, as well as to allow others learn from them. The concept of social responsibility could be helpful in reminding students of their responsibility for the learning of others in a class community.

3. Create an evaluation rubric and share it with students to communicate your expectations. Two sample rubrics are provided later in this post.

4. Share Emily Wray’s RISE model Reflect – Inquire – Suggest – Elevate – with your students. It provides a good model for students to manage their contribution to community knowledge building. The model is aligned with Bloom’s taxonomy and offers strategies to use higher order thinking skills in crafting students’ responses. By using this model, students should be able to contribute to the conversations in constructive ways and go beyond “this is great!”

Let’s now discuss your role in the discussion forum.

Teacher’s Role in Fostering Engagement

  • First impressions count. In a previous post on how to get your course started, I wrote about sending a pre-course welcome email and opening up your course with a welcome announcement so that students feel greeted and encouraged to participate right from the start. These simple strategies will help to set the right tone from the beginning of your online course.
  • When students log into a course site for the first time, they look for information about their teacher’s expectations so that they can gauge their workload, but they also want to know who their teacher is, because it is your personality and passion for the topic you teach that will keep them engaged and in close proximity. Therefore, introduce yourself and invite students to do so, too.
  • If your class is small (<15), your presence on the discussion forum from the start of the course is essential to keep students engaged (Parks-Stamm et al., 2019). Parks-Stamm et al also found that in large classes teachers’ frequent participation in the forum doesn’t impact students’ participation negatively, so never be wary of contributing.
  • Vary the types of discussion forums in your course. Consider creating a Student Lounge for informal whole class engagement, a Course FAQ for any course admin inquiries, unit forums related to the course learning objectives and course content, as well as group forums for more intimate and manageable discussions, if your class is large.
  • Pose compelling questions occasionally. Either prepare a list ahead of time and schedule the release of questions or post them as the course progresses. Imagine that you are adding logs to a fire; teachers need to keep fueling the community fire to keep it going.
  • Encourage friendly and respectful dialog, but not overly formal as it inhibits the exchange. In fact, feel free to encourage students to use humour, memes, and emoticons to enhance the emotional aspect of their written expression (Phirangee and Hewitt, 2016).
  • Reply to different students each week and use their first names in your replies. Glazier (2016) found that using students’ first names when replying to their posts enhances the student-teacher connection and has a positive impact on a student’s learning accountability.
  • Encourage study groups. Study groups may need some scaffolding to form online, therefore you might want to consider incorporating an occasional synchronous session where you can use breakout rooms to enable students to connect in small groups. Follow up with asynchronous group discussions.
  • Review the participation data in the learning management system to identify students with the lowest rate of participation – seek their posts and engage with them.
  • Periodically, remind students to revisit the netiquette and evaluation rubric to self-assess the quality of their contributions. They should be reminded of the collective value of social learning.
  • Last but not least, contact students via email around week three to remind them of the expectations if you notice that their posts do not reflect the expected quality of posts. Every teacher cares about their students and wants them to succeed. Making personal contact will communicate this, providing encouragement early on and pulling students into the community.

Assessing Forum Participation

If you choose to grade ongoing participation in your course, a simple discussion forum rubric focused on community knowledge building should suffice to speed up your evaluation work. Evaluation can be done weekly/per unit, or overall upon course completion. In this example, one point is awarded for achieving 75% of the expectations in each criterion. Feel free to amend this to better reflect your expectations.

Rubric Element1 Point0 PointsScore
Communicating Ideas Ideas are relevant to the topic, address all parts of the assignment, and are clearly explained. Care in crafting responses is evident and shows respect for the readers.Ideas show minimal understanding of the topic. Some parts of the assignment are not addressed. Writing would benefit from editing for clarity to avoid confusion about the points made.
Connecting Course Readings Insightful connections to course readings are present. Links to relevant self-identified readings are present.Response needs to reference the required or other readings.
Community Knowledge Building Responses stimulate the discussion by building on peers’ responses and asking further questions to prompt deeper thinking and invite interaction from peers.Response was not adequately substantive to add value to class community learning.
Total Points:/3

Here is another example of a holistic rubric to accompany the forum participation netiquette (see Setting Expectations for Participation)

o Demonstrates complete understanding of the questions posed.
o Includes detailed justification in support for the opinions
o Follows the netiquette guidelines for participation in the forum.
1Most of the time:
o   Demonstrates minimal understanding of the questions posed.
o   Includes limited justification in support for the opinions
o  Pays limited consideration to the netiquette guidelines.
o Provides no – or a superficial (e.g., ‘I agree’) – response with no
justification of the position attempted.
o There is no consideration of the netiquette guidelines.

That’s my extended spiel! I hope you can use pieces of it to help you bring you and your online students together in a community of sharing and discovery.


Glazier, R. A. (2016). Building rapport to improve retention and success in online classes. Journal of Political Science Education, 12(4), 437-456.

Parks‐Stamm, E. J., Zafonte, M., & Palenque, S. M. (2017). The effects of instructor participation and class size on student participation in an online class discussion forum. British Journal of Educational Technology, 48(6), 1250-1259.

Phirangee, K., & Hewitt, J. (2016). Loving this dialogue!!!!: Expressing emotion through the strategic manipulation of limited non-verbal cues in online learning environments. In Emotions, technology, and learning (pp. 69-85). Academic Press.

Wray, E. (2011). RISE Model for Peer Feedback. Available at https://www.risemodel.com/peer-to-peer