Reply All: Using Online Discussion Forums to Support and Engage Students

Matthew Luskey

One month into the Fall Semester with a round of exams, essay cycles, lab reports, problem sets and other core assignments completed, students may be experiencing fatigue and dips in their engagement. Whether you teach in person, a blended course, or fully online, the discussion forum available through Canvas can be an effective space to (re)engage students in their learning and to support them as they transition into new units of study. This post offers five suggestions for how to use the online discussion forums effectively.

Suggestion 1: Design open-ended discussion prompts that reinforce and deepen key learning aims.

Fall Campus Scene

As with other formal writing assignments and assessments, a discussion activity should be aligned with course learning goals. Nevertheless, while a good discussion prompt can serve as a diagnostic tool and help instructors determine if students have engaged with course materials, discussion prompts should not be framed as close-ended quiz or exam questions. Rather, a good prompt should invite an open-ended response that provides students with opportunities to reflect on, challenge, or expand on core ideas encountered in lecture or assigned readings and viewings.

Example: A professor in History encourages students to make a connection among assigned readings and to generate a new question that will extend the discussion: “What are the different ways you see archaeology and nationalism configured in these articles? In your answer, please include a provocative question for the class to discuss.”

Suggestion 2: Provide online discussion prompts that invite students to share their current state of understanding.

As with other informal writing activities, an online discussion can be an effective and authentic place for students to acknowledge their liminal understanding, to ask questions, and to share their uncertainties. Such discussions can help to foster empathy among students, and they can also provide instructors with valuable information to determine what ideas, concepts, theories, etc. they might give more attention to in additional class-wide discussions, activities, or lectures.

Example: A professor of German literature asks students to describe their experiences as readers of complex and challenging texts. In preparation for a class-wide discussion of a novel, the professor assigns an online discussion prompt: “Please describe your experience of reading the experimental novel, Austerlitz, by W.G Sebald. What do the many narrative detours do to you as a reader? Did you find the novel beautiful? Frustrating? Compelling? What in particular did you find interesting or challenging?”

Suggestion 3: Provide a clear rationale and a protocol for the discussion activity.

Along with providing a focused yet open-ended prompt, it is valuable to provide a context for how the discussion activity fits within a larger unit of study. Briefly indicating how a particular discussion will support student learning and how it relates to specific goals for the class will often increase participation. Likewise, including expectations, characteristics or features for an effective response will also allow students to prepare for a successful discussion.

Example: Students in an online asynchronous writing course are assigned a graded discussion activity. A key learning goal for the discussion is for students to begin to make connections among assigned readings. They are provided with a clear rationale for the activity that encourages imaginative thinking along with specific steps to take:

“This activity is asking you to stretch a bit, and imagine what the three authors you have read so far might be talking about if they were spending time with each other—say at a party or a coffee shop—and what you would want to ask them or say to them if you were to join the conversation. The purpose of this activity is to give yourself the space to explore in a creative and low-pressure way what sticks with you about these essays and what you imagine is important to or on the minds of these authors and what they and you might be interested in talking about if you all found yourselves together.

  • Please spend at least 15 minutes writing about this encounter: what are the topics and tensions, ideas and questions that shape this conversation? Share your writing by posting it in the discussion.
  • Read 2 peers' postings, paying attention to (1) similarities between the conversation you imagined and the ones your peers imagined; (2) differences between the conversation you imagined and the ones your peers imagined; and (3) new ideas or questions you want to add to your own imagined conversation.
  • Go back to your own post and reply to it (add on to it) with the similarities, differences and new ideas you have after reading peers' postings. Be specific—include the names of your peers in your reply.

Suggestion 4: Encourage students to engage in a discussion through writing and/or audio-video formats.

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Along with supporting core learning aims, discussions should be an inclusive tool for allowing all the voices in the class to be heard. Voice can come through in a student’s written response, and it can also be conveyed through audio and video. Providing students with options for how they can participate in the discussion through Canvas—including the use of audio-video response—can often energize an activity and invite deeper levels of response.

Example: As part of a unit on visual rhetorics, a Communication Studies professor asks students to identify, photograph, and analyze examples of visual arguments in the campus community. Students are given the option to write a 200-word analysis of the image they share in the discussion forum or to record a one-minute audio-video or audio response that analyzes the image.

Suggestion 5: Participate strategically in the discussions you assign.

Often instructors do not want to intrude into a student-based discussion. However, not participating at all can, in fact, demotivate discussion. As Flower Darby points out in Small Teaching Online, when an instructor teaches in person, they “do not launch the discussion and then walk out of the room” (40). Darby also notes, the research on online discussion forums strongly reveals that students highly value instructor input into discussion. In particular, an instructor’s input can be useful to summarize trends in student responses. Summaries that cite specific postings from students are often identified by students as especially helpful. Along with participating in the forum directly, instructors can respond to specific students through the Speedgrader comment function. Such comments can be used to acknowledge and commend a student’s participation in the group discussion or to clarify protocols and expectations for a student without having to do so in front of the other discussion participants.

Let’s Chat

How do you use discussion forums in your class? Please share your insights, questions and observations in the comment section below. If you have a prompt that has been especially effective at helping students to explore, describe, and reflect on their experiences, please share.

Further Support

Our newly redesigned Teaching with Writing Program webpage offers teaching resources to faculty members and instructors across the University of Minnesota system. We also host the popular Teaching with Writing event series each semester, offering workshops, panels, and discussions on writing-related topics. Visit the Writing Across the Curriculum Program and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting. You can schedule a phone, email, in-person, or zoom teaching consultation through our online consultation form.