7 Tips to Improve Students’ Posts in Discussion Forums

by Kristie Burk

One of the best parts of blended learning is the discussion forum. So many times I have seen shy students come alive in a discussion forum. A recent article from the Harvard Business School suggests that female students had a much higher participation rate in discussions that they did in a traditional classroom. Discussion forums give students time to think about their answers before they respond and they encourage all students to participate equally.

I encourage you to consider adding some discussion forums to your classes if you’re not already using them. However, like most teaching, there is an “art” to creating a good discussion prompt.

When I first began teaching online, I would post (what I thought were) thought-provoking questions in a discussion forum only to be met with half-hearted, one-sentence answers from students.  After many years, I’ve learned the following tricks to improve the quality of students’ posts:

  1. Don’t require students to get personal in a discussion forum unless you are certain that they’re comfortable. It can stifle discussion.  Save the controversial topics for later in the year.
  2. Think about whether or not the task you’ve assigned is a discussion or an assignment. If the students are posting something and not responding to anyone, then it is an assignment.  If the students are not required to read each other’s posts and do something with the information, then it is an assignment. (This is not just semantics – we want students to have a clear understanding of expectations for different online activities.)
  3. Give the students some numbers in your prompt.
    • List 3 ways that…
    • Name 2 examples of…
    • What are at least two similarities between…
  4. Specify a certain length for a post.
    • In 350 words or more, tell me…
    • In a paragraph, explain how…
  5. Ask the student to end their initial posts with an open-ended question.  This question must then be answered by other students in their responses.  (This is a great trick to use for students new to discussion forums and works much better than just asking them to “respond to a classmate.”)
    • Describe three similarities between Lady MacBeth and MacBeth.  Finish your post with an open-ended question about Act IV to one of your classmates. Then, go back and answer a classmate’s question.
    • Read Chapter 7 on friction and inclined planes.  Post 3 things you learned in this chapter and then ask one or more questions about anything that you don’t understand. Then, go back and answer at least one classmate’s question.
  6. Ask students to support what they write in a post with additional material.  You can require a quotation, an image from the web, a link to an informative website, etc.
    • Describe an important person in the Civil War. Attach a picture of the person and be sure to attribute the picture properly.  Then, look at a person that your classmate picked.  List three reasons why their person was important and be sure to source the website/s that you use.
  7. Require your students to disagree with each other’s posts. This sometimes can give the students a little more focus on what to write.  
    • Do you think that all students should be required to take the bus to school? Give us your answer in 250 words or more.  Then, write a response to a classmate where you disagree with him or her, even if you don’t in real-life.  (We’re practicing our analytical skills here.)
    • Look at the Civil War picture that your classmates posted.  List three reasons why you think that person was not important in the Civil War. Dig deep!

Do you have any good tips to add to this list? Let me know at KristieBurk@dasd.org

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