Asynchronous discussion forums are a common feature in any online course, and, because they require students to write, they hold a lot of potential for writing-across-the-curriculum efforts. However, these forums are difficult to design–too often, they become “busy work” for students and do not actually lead to authentic, engaging discussion.
The trick to discussion forums is making sure that the students see the value in reading each others’ posts and responding. If the prompt solicits nearly identical posts from all students, then it probably should be an individual assignment, not a discussion forum.
Step One. Articulate the goals of the discussion forum you are designing (include when the activity occurs within the course sequence, as well as whether or not it’s graded and what kind of feedback/participation students should expect from the instructor).
Step Two. Write the discussion prompt. You’ll want to decide if this discussion is something the entire class participates in, or if you’ll divide the class into small groups. You’ll also want to determine whether or not you are going to require students to respond to each other. I recommend that you write very detailed instructions regarding when you want students to submit the initial post and how long it should be, as well as when they are expected to respond to peers, what that response should look like, and how long it should be. I also recommend providing an explanation of what the goals are of the discussion.
Below, you’ll find a list of examples of successful discussion forum prompts:
- Questions. Instead of directing students to “respond” to two of their classmates’ posts, ask them to pose questions to their peers.
- Different prompts. Provide three or four prompts and ask each student to respond to one. Then ask them to post a reply to one student who responded to a different prompt than they did.
- Different Perspective. Ask students to respond to a classmate who provided a different perspective on the discussion prompt than they did, analyzing why both perspectives work together to complicate the topic.
- Culminating Discussion. The first student to post in the forum responds to the prompt. The second student responds to the prompt but incorporates an analysis of the first person’s post. The third person responds to the first and second people. The fourth person synthesizes the first, second, and third posts, and so on.
- Public Forum. Ask students to post an initial response to the prompt but do not require them to respond to their classmates. Instead, invite them to post additional questions or comments. This strategy works well if students will benefit from reading each other’s posts (i.e., what they plan to write their papers about or the strategy they used to locate library resources), but may not gain much more from a discussion.
Step Three. Log on to your institution’s learning management system and set up the forum using the LMS’s discussion tool.