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Guide to Effective Use of Discussion Forums

Effective Use Tips

Setting up the Discussion Board

  • Make sure your prompt does not ask for a basic fact. Compose a prompt that leaves room for disagreement and discussion.
  • When replying to other posts, make it clear that students need to go beyond “I agree” or “I disagree” by being specific about WHY.
  • Consider using the settings to require students to post first before they can see the other students’ postings.
  • Base prompts on a shared textbook reading, or a piece of multimedia that you provide (podcast or video, image, link to article).
  • Stagger due dates so that an initial original post is due one day, then replies to other students are due two or three days later.
  • Require that students make specific references to evidence in all posts, and make it clear that their grade depends on the specificity and adequacy of their evidence.
  • Give students specific directions as to minimum number of words required, minimum number of references or examples, and what your standards will be regarding formality of language.
  • Consider breaking up students into discussion groups in large classes.
  • Consider requiring students to include a non-textual element in their post such as an image or video.


  • Research indicates that both non-involvement and over-involvement by faculty can have a negative effect. Be visible but do not dominate the discussion.
  • Establish rules for “netiquette” and clarify in your syllabus that abusive or offensive communication will not be tolerated. Mildly ill-chosen language can be privately penalized using a grading rubric containing a “language” criterion (see Appendix A). More serious instances can be privately penalized with a more severe grade consequence, but they should also be publicly addressed in the discussion forum for all to see. For the worst cases, delete the student post and directly contact students who may have been affected. A note of warning: it is imperative that you document serious cases of offensive language that attacks people on the basis of race, gender, or other protected status. Follow institutional policies for such incidents.
  • Refer to your students by their names, and encourage (or require) them to do so when replying to each other.
  • Identify commonalities and divergences among specific student postings, and ask students to reflect on those intersections with their colleagues.
  • Encourage students to answer each other’s questions before jumping in yourself.
  • Post a summary of the discussion at the end to provide a sense of closure. Consider emailing this summary in addition to posting it to ensure that all students read it.
  • Send an email to students who have not been adequately participating in discussion forums to encourage greater engagement (See Appendix C for a template).


  • Don’t try to respond with comments to every student. Think about the numbers: If you have 20 students in a class with 10 discussion forums in a given semester, that comes out to 200 personalized comments from you. Limit your personalized feedback to students with the poorest performance, with a few encouraging comments sprinkled in for particularly excellent posts.
  • Develop a bank of comments you can paste into the feedback box to speed up your grading even more (See Appendix B). You can include statements such as I really appreciate the connections you’re making to the ideas of other students here, or I need to see more specific evidence from the class materials to prove your point.
  • While many people have accepted the idea of using rubrics for formal essays, it hasn’t caught on as much for assignments that are perceived to be more minor, such as discussion forums. However, there are multiple reasons to use rubrics for discussion forums (See Appendix A).
  • Speeds up grading, especially when you have a ton of postings and replies to get through. Clicking through a grid that automatically calculates points can be a real time-saver.
    • Reduces student complaints about perceived unfair or subjective grading
    • Reduces student emails asking you to explain their grade
    • Improves future student postings by making standards clear

A note on rubrics: Make them available to students before they do the assignment. They cannot meet your expectations if they don’t know what they are.


Sample Discussion Board Rubric


4 points

3 points

2 points

0-1 points

Response to Prompt

Brought new understanding to topic. Clearly contributed to discussion

Good response but could have been more clearly connected to prompt

Attempted adequate response but may have missed main idea or wandered from topic

Post(s) not made or not clearly connected to topic

Replies to other students (if required)

Clear engagement with other students. Specific references to others’ ideas

Engaged with other students but could have been more specific or original

Engagement with other students minimal or vague

Missing or extremely weak replies


Proper use of academic language, clear prose, and appropriate, professional communication

Language could have been clearer or more polished at some points.

Communication may be weak, unclear, or inappropriate in an academic audience.

Broke basic rules of appropriate communication in an academic environment OR post was not made.


Clear connections made to supporting evidence

Good evidence but may be lacking in specificity

Evidence presented but may have been weak

Misunderstood nature of evidence or lacked evidence entirely


Post and any required replies met deadlines

One deadline or one component may have been missed.

Deadlines were missed or did not include all requirements.

Post(s) extremely late or missed entirely.


Sample Bank of Discussion Board Comments

Develop a bank of comments that you can copy and paste either privately in the graded feedback section of the forum or publicly as a reply to the forum. Be sure to personalize as needed.

Your comments can “ask a question, affirm something the student stated, redirect if the student is off-topic, or provide a link to a resource the student might enjoy. Use the student’s name in the response to personalize comments” (Shaw, 2017).

  • I appreciate your thoughts. Can you share how your reflection could be applied to a larger assignment or research project?
  • Great ideas here. Can you point us to research sources or specific places in the classroom reading that can speak to your thoughts?
  • I feel that there might be a misunderstanding. Reconsider how X would affect the point you are making.
  • Can you explain your point in a different way to help clarify what you are saying?
  • How might we extend the excellent points you are making?
  • Your point reminds me of what Sally said in her posting. What connections do you see between your point and hers?
  • If you’re interested in knowing more about this subject, check out this article/link/source: …


Email Template for Disengaged Students

“Student Name, I’ve been reviewing your participation in name of course and noticed that you have not been posting in the discussion forums. It is an expectation of name of course that students will review each week’s materials during the week they are assigned and be an active participant in the discussion forums. Please let me know if you are encountering some technical issue or if I can be of any assistance with this.” (Text based on Johnson, 2013).



Johnson, A. (2013). Excellent! Online teaching: Effective strategies for a successful semester online. Lexington, KY: Aaron Johnson.

Shaw, M. (2017). Online discussion boards: Strategies to ease instructor burden and promote student learning. Online Learning Consortium. Retrieved from