March 3rd, 2009

Four Ways to Improve Online Discussion Forums


Rebecca Arbisi, chair of the business department at State Fair Community College in Missouri, offers the following tips for improving the quality of threaded discussions:

  1. Model good communication. If students do not meet your expectations for proper grammar, capitalization, etc., email the individual student privately to express those concerns.
  2. Although proper grammar is important, do not overemphasize it to the point that you intimidate students and make them reluctant to post. “If you’re teaching an English class, and grammar is part of the course, [you need to emphasize good writing], but in most classes, you need to focus on what students are saying, not on how they say it. Don’t expect that just because these are Web students that they will have wonderful English skills,” Arbisi says. Sometimes when a student writes poorly in an online forum, the other students in the course will comment about it. “I think peer pressure is a good thing. Sometimes students can say things that have more effect than my telling students over and over to be careful about what you [write],” Arbisi says.
  3. Help students understand your role in the discussion forums. Arbisi often plays devil’s advocate in the online discussion forums in her courses. When teaching new online learners or first-year students, she makes it a point to let students know that the views she is expressing are not necessarily her own. Whereas more sophisticated learners are able to pick up on that without her having to explicitly state it, “I think it’s important to help students see all different sides of an issue and to help them problem solve and think a little bit more,” Arbisi says.
  4. Use color for emphasis. Occasionally, you will need to get students’ attention in the online forum to redirect the discussion or clarify what you expect of students. One way to do this is to use a different color font.

Excerpted from Tips from the Pros: Four Ways to Improve Discussion Forums, Online Classroom, vol. 7, no. 3.