What is an online discussion forum?
Discussion forums facilitate asynchronous group discussion and group work, and can be used to encourage students to think critically and share their thoughts before or beyond live teaching.
You can have multiple forums running in a discussion board; they are essentially web pages displaying messages between contributors (students and instructors) about various topics, sometimes including links, images and other file attachments. Users interact by posting questions, answers, and other comments related to the given topic/subject. Each post may have several replies, these are called ‘Threads’.
Why use an online discussion forum?
- Classroom discussion is an important part of learning; however live discussion is not always possible (for example where connectivity is an issue preventing students from participating fully in a webinar, or there are restrictions on participant availability to join a live session).
- Discussion forums require low bandwidth, are simple to use, can be accessed on a range of devices (mobile, tablet, laptop/desktop) and are usually compatible with student assistive technologies already present on student devices.
- They allow communication over a period of time; giving students time to reflect and develop their ideas before posting (you may discover more meaningful conversations and considered responses compared to the same question posed during live teaching). Many students feel more comfortable to take part in written communication, as they may be reluctant – perhaps nervous or too shy – to share their ideas verbally.
- Effective design and running of discussion forums help build a ‘community of enquiry’ among students; well managed, open-ended discussions can motivate students to learn more about a certain topic and construct their own understanding. Consider using multiple forums, to manage communication around specific topics or purposes, see ‘Types of discussion forum’ below.
Can discussion forums be used for assessment and feedback?
- You can use discussion forums for summative or formative assessment.
- They facilitate peer feedback, where students are able to comment on each other’s work, and provide a record of contributions and discussion for revision or future reference.
- Blackboard Discussion Forums can be linked to the Grade Centre, and feature online marking/feedback tools such as rubrics.
Types of discussion forum
| Community building
Social driven, ice-breaker,
|FAQs or Q&A
Mitigate answering multiple
| Check understanding
Assess / grade /
| Topic / seminar discussion
Pose questions, recap or
| Anonymous discussion
| Group work
Platform for student groups to
Examples of colleagues using Blackboard Discussion Boards
Dr Angelique Chettiparambil Rajah explains her use of discussion boards in Real Estate & Planning
Dr Mary Morrissey discusses her use of the tool in English Literature
How do I design and run an effective online discussion forum?
Be aware that students may be unsure how to begin contributing to a discussion forum and lack confidence to make the first post, so consider the following tips to set expectations and foster effective participation:
- How can you introduce the tool in a ‘non-academic’ way? (e.g. an icebreaker activity) to orientate students in posting/reading/replying in a forum.
- What types of question are effective for discussion forums? Carefully word the discussion question, see Blackboard Best Practice: Discussion Questions.
- How will you communicate when the discussions will take place, so students know when to check the forum? Students can feel overwhelmed with keeping up with all the posts (posting/waiting/responding cycle) if not managed effectively. See guidelines to engage your students for information about effective communication and scaffolding of student participation.
- Signpost clear guidelines on how to access and use the forum, and what is expected in terms of etiquette. If there are any prerequisite activities to the discussion (for example, view a screencast) remind students to complete these before contributing to the discussion. See the principles for designing asynchronous activities for a signposting checklist.
- Avoid creating a forum for a large number of students; monitoring (or marking) the forum may become cumbersome and it is not an ideal environment for effective interaction and communication. You can use the Blackboard Groups function to create groups for students, and then create a separate discussion forum for each group.
- Give clear expectations regarding how participation will be graded or recognised. Let the students know in advance whether the group discussion will be marked for summative or formative assessment. A rubric helps students understand what is expected, for example, are you looking for quality over post frequency, and will marks be awarded?
- Consider using deadlines to structure a back-and-forth discussion around a specific topic. Students could be given two due dates; required to post their original response and to substantially respond to one or two peers by the end of the discussion. A “substantial response” would require that the student responds with more than “I disagree” or “Good point,” (break down requirements and model your expectations, consider making posts yourself!)
- Feedback during or soon after discussions have finished, as the positive or negative feedback students receive motivates them to continue participating asynchronously. Feedback could take the form of a discussion summary – highlighting significant contributions and posing more questions.
- Monitor the forum regularly, direct and support the discussion, and let the students know about your presence by posting and perhaps drawing on contributions during live teaching. The Blackboard discussion boards allows you to monitor participation, including for marking purposes.
How to get started
You can find useful guides about setting up and marking Blackboard Discussion Forums and an overview of the tool features on the Blackboard Help site for staff.
Alternatively, if you would like to speak to one of the TEL advisors in CQSD about using wikis in your teaching, please email DTS@reading.ac.uk with a summary of your query to request a TEL 1-2-1 Consultation.
TEL run a periodic staff development session called Create Learning Activities Using Blogs, Wikis, Journals and Discussion Boards. Part of this session covers the pedagogical uses of discussion forums and how to use them.