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How to incorporate discussion forums in online and blended courses

Based on the blog post Discussion Forum in Your Online Course? No problem … written by Iwona Gniadek. Orginally published Feb 10, 2021 

Revised by JJ Cloutier
Content review August 2023

Myth: We cannot expect participation in online courses.

Often, instructors who transitioned their face-to-face course to the online format believe they cannot effectively evaluate participation in blended or online courses. 

This resource page will provide some strategies to create a sense of community, foster engagement online, provides instructors means to evaluate while fostering socially constructed knowledge and participation with learners.

Busted: Participation through discussion forums

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 conversation we engage in has a purpose, even if it’s just polite small talk. These conversations, chats or messages help us stay connected, feel supported 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?

Let’s begin with setting expectations for ongoing participation.

Setting expectations for participation

  1. Include netiquette in your course syllabus or involve students negotiating one during the course. This netiquette will promote good behaviours early on.

    Note: We suggest providing discussion board etiquette in video format, as many students benefit from video content. Both Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Quality Matters (General Standard 4.5) encourage the use of various content sources, including text-based and video-based.

    Some ideas you might want to include in the netiquette:
    • Contribute regularly to the class discussion forum. 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 with additional resources to stimulate the discussions.
  2. Be respectful of others and relate to ideas, not individuals.
    • Provide a rationale for incorporating the discussion forum. It is essential 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, learn from them and allow others to learn from them.
    • The concept of social responsibility could help remind 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 example rubrics are provided later on the resource page.
  4. Share Emily Wray’s RISE model for peer-to-peer feedback with your learners.
    • It provides a good model for students to manage their contributions to the course community and knowledge building.
    • The model is aligned with Bloom’s taxonomy and offers strategies to use higher-order thinking skills in crafting students’ responses.
    • Using this model, students should be able to contribute to the conversations constructively and go beyond “This is great!”

Instructor’s role in fostering engagement

  • First impressions count. On the resource page: How to get your course started, we described simple strategies to help set the right tone from the beginning of your online course, including:
    • Sending a pre-course welcome email.
    • Opening up your course with a welcome announcement so students feel welcome and encouraged to participate immediately.
  • Introduce yourself and invite students to do so, too.
    • When students log into a course site for the first time, they look for information about their teacher’s expectations to gauge their workload.
    • They also want to know who their teacher is because your personality and passion for the topic you teach will keep them engaged and in proximity.
  • Contribute to the discussion forums.
    • If your class is small (less than 15), your presence on the discussion forum from the start of the course is essential to keep students engaged (Parks-Stamm et al., 2019).
    • In large classes, Parks-Stamm et al. found that 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 the following:
    • Student Lounge for informal whole-class engagement.
    • Course FAQ for any course admin inquiries.
    • Unit forums related to the course learning objectives and course content.
    • Group forums for more intimate and manageable discussions if your class is large.
  • Post 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 must fuel the community fire to keep it going.
  • Encourage friendly and respectful dialogue, but not overly formal, as it inhibits the exchange.
    • Feel free to encourage students to use humour, memes and emoticons to enhance the emotional aspect of their written expression (Phirangee and Hewitt, 2016).
Meme: Steve Buscemi in white male in his 50s in the TV show 30 Rock, dressed in t-shrt and hoodie with baseball cap on backwards says "how do you do, fellow kids?" to a group high schooler all while carrying a skatebaord over his shoulder.
How do you do, fellow kids? meme
  • 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 positively impacts a student’s learning accountability.
  • Encourage study groups to form. The main way to encourage this is to help learners get to know one another so they can discuss via distance and be at ease. Study groups may need some scaffolding to form in an online environment.
    • For blended or hybrid courses, you could incorporate in-person residential weeks at the beginning of the term.
    • For synchronous online courses, you can connect students in small groups in the breakout rooms with follow-up group discussion sessions of the breakout room participants.
    • For asynchronous online courses, you might consider incorporating an occasional synchronous session with breakout rooms with follow-up group discussion sessions of the breakout room participants.
    • For solely asynchronous online courses, you might consider designing community-building activities such as student introductions, whole-class discussions, small group discussions, group projects and peer feedback so learners connect meaningfully.
  • Review the participation data in the learning management system (LMS) to identify students with the lowest participation rate – 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.
  • Lastly, every teacher cares about their students and wants them to succeed. If you notice that your students’ posts do not reflect the expected quality of posts, contact the students via email around week three or the first quarter of the course to remind them of the expectations.
    • Making personal contact will communicate that you want them to succeed, provide encouragement early on and pull 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 either weekly, per unit or overall, upon course completion. In the table “Example 1 of Assessment rubric for discussion forum communications,” one point is awarded for achieving 75% of the expectations in each criterion.

Feel free to amend this rubric to reflect your expectations better.

Table: Example 1 of Assessment rubric for discussion forum communications

Rubric Element1 Point0 PointsScore
Communicating IdeasIdeas 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 ReadingsInsightful connections to course readings are present. Links to relevant self-identified readings are present.The response does not reference the required or other readings.
Community Knowledge BuildingResponses stimulate the discussion by building on peers’ responses and asking further questions to prompt deeper thinking and invite interaction from peers.The response was not adequately substantive to add value to class community learning.
Total Points:/3

The table “Example 2 of Assessment rubric for netiquette in a discussion forum” is another example of a holistic rubric, focusing on the netiquette of learners in the forum (review Setting expectations for participation on netiquette).

Feel free to amend this rubric to reflect your expectations better.

Table: Example 2 of Assessment rubric for netiquette in a discussion forum.

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

Using online discussions in blended courses

Similar to solely online learning courses, blended courses can benefit from incorporating asynchronous discussion forums. Asynchronous discussions in blended courses can promote active learning, learner engagement, flexibility and convenience. Here are the opportunities the discussion forum provides:

  • Students who may shy away from speaking in public have a venue to share their ideas in a less intimidating environment.
  • Students can have more time to formulate ideas (e.g., time to reflect on responses before posting them).
  • Students can access the discussions anytime, which benefits students with busy schedules or personal and family commitments.
  • Last but not least, asynchronous discussions in blended courses can effectively contribute to building a sense of community and connection among students.

Let’s consider this scenario where students meet once a week for an in-person class and spend the rest of the week working asynchronously. The following are ways to incorporate an asynchronous discussion forum in the blended course design:

  • Pre-class discussions: For emerging questions based on assigned readings. Students can share initial thoughts and questions and reflect on their understanding of the material. These could be whole-class discussions or small groups.
  • Post-class discussions: For continuing in-class discussions, students can expand on topics discussed during class, ask clarifying questions and share additional resources.
  • Case study analysis: Students can engage in discussions to analyze and debate different perspectives, propose solutions, and evaluate the effectiveness of various strategies. This type of discussion encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Peer review: For peer-level feedback on draft assignments. Students can be encouraged to share drafts of their work to gather feedback from others and the instructor.
  • A gallery walk of artifacts: Students can review peer-created artifacts (like podcasts, posters, slides, and videos) to offer feedback for improvement and comments to encourage their peers.


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

Further reading resource

Designing for meaningful synchronous and asynchronous discussion in online courses by Kim MacKinnon; Lesley Wilton; Shelley Murphy; Brenda Stein Dzaldov; Dania Wattar; Jacob DesRochers; and Alison Mann

Help for your online or blended course

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If you are looking for help with improving online engagement or using discussion forums, we have staff you can consult with for your online, blended or distributed courses.  

Book a one-on-one “Instructional Design Consultation” with our Instructional designer to start building a more robust online student community today! 

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