Online Discussions: Five Kinds of Forums


Exchanging ideas, sharing information, and voicing opinions in an online course isn’t the same as doing so when the class meets face-to-face. Even so, some of the same problems emerge: not all students participate, and some offer observations unconnected to previous comments in the exchange. Teachers also respond similarly. They often require everyone to post comments and to respond to the contributions made by others. And just like some in class discussions, discussion board exchanges can make students (and sometimes their teachers) yawn. Fortunately, as technology has evolved and teachers gain experience with asynchronous exchanges, increasingly online discussion forums use formats uniquely to suited to what can be accomplished online, and they more effectively engage students. In an extremely detailed and well-written article, Tracy Smith (2019) describes five different online discussion forums she used in a fully online graduate course. The forums illustrate these unique formats and their success at engaging students.

For Those Who Teach from Maryellen Weimer

Substantive content discussion forum

This forum provides “opportunities for students to demonstrate, share, and build their understanding of course concepts and to integrate an idea from earlier in the term with new ideas introduced in subsequent weeks” (p. 22). In Smith’s course, this is the arena in which students deal with the content. They respond to the weekly prompts she provides, and they comment on contributions of their fellow classmates. Student posts are graded collectively, once, when the course grade is calculated. Smith provides feedback during the course using a rubric.

Virtual coffee shop discussion forum

The goal here is to provide a “continuous communication channel” between the teacher and the students (p. 24). It’s a forum where students ask questions about course details, where the teacher makes announcements, shares resources, and offers support. Smith writes, “I used the Virtual Coffee Shop to make beginning-of-the-semester announcements, welcoming students to the course, asking them to complete a questionnaire so that I could personalize course content based on their experiences, orienting students to the course and LMS, and providing information about library resources” (pp. 24–25). During the course she refers students to articles and other resources related the current course topic and encourages students to share relevant materials they find.

Voluntary product-sharing forum

In this forum students may share drafts of their work. Doing so gives them the opportunity to get formative feedback from the teacher and their classmates. Sharing work is voluntary, and students do so knowing that their teacher and classmates will post feedback, thereby making it viewable to everyone in the course. In Smith’s course, that did not prevent a significant number of students from posting drafts and offering feedback to their colleagues. They may have been encouraged to do by Smith, who asked for feedback on a draft paper describing her core values and philosophy of education.

Team collaboration forum

Students worked on group projects in this course, and this forum provided a place for students to put all their group communications. Smith did not participate much in this forum, but she did monitor the groups’ progress. She got involved if groups needed help resolving problems and also offered relevant resources.

Skills forum

This forum gave students the opportunity “to develop and demonstrate a skill in a low-stakes way before they were to practice it on a graded assignment” (p. 29). For example, early on, Smith asked students to create three presentation slides and post them to the forum. Here as well, feedback came from the teacher and classmates. Smith writes, “What I really appreciate is that the suggestions and advice did not always come from me” (p. 29).

Part of the positive student response to and use of these forums is likely the result of the course being at the graduate level. The article’s merit lies in Smith’s descriptions of the forums and her approach to managing them. One student described her approach as “very mentor oriented” (p. 30). Smith herself notes in a discussion of the challenges that using all these forums in one course took a lot of time. But discussion forums structured like these can get online students connected to the content and each other. Smith describes herself as a “reluctant online teacher” (p. 21), but she found her experiences in this course convincing. Discussion forums can bring together geographically dispersed students and make them communities of learners.


Smith, T. W. (2019). Making the most of online discussion: A retrospective analysis. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 31(1), 21–31. [open access]

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