Cultivating community through online discussions

When teaching an online course, the discussion forum is often your primary connection with learners. Thoughtfully and actively managing the discussion forums can elevate the level of course conversations. Unlike the casual comments that might get tossed off in the classroom, students whose comments are evaluated in a forum are often more rigorous in what they say and how they say it. The asynchronous forum is particularly advantageous for students who require time to answer thoughtfully and for international students who struggle to jump into a conversation. I’ve found in traditional and hybrid courses, students quiet in the classroom often write wonderfully reflective and insightful discussion board posts.

Discussion forums, when carefully developed, foster active student learning and engagement through building community. Aside from writing great prompts, which will be covered in a future blog post, there are a number of faculty behaviors and practices that encourage active student participation.


Effective instructors develop learning goals or course objectives that support the nature and quality of student learning. Think carefully about what you want your students to be capable of at the end of your course and create prompts that will help students achieve those objectives. Make certain your students are also working consciously toward mastery of those goals. Communicate explicitly about which objectives each forum supports; students like to understand how discussions are tied to the overall learning goals.


How do you encourage a vibrant community of responsive conversation? You don’t want students to merely cross their contributions off on their to-do lists, to set it and forget it. Such an attitude results in a bulletin board rather than an interactive conversation. Instructors who actively contribute to discussions can model the reflective and substantive conversations they value. It can be helpful, at the midpoint of an ongoing discussion, to write a summarizing or a corrective comment to give new life to the discussion.

While contributing to the discussion, it’s important not to dominate that conversation. Let your students write responses to the prompts and to each other to promote active engagement. If the give and take stalls too long, draw the students’ attention to how you can build on connections between ideas and ask them to emulate that in their future posts. As the time for the forum topic draws to a close, sum up the salient points or identify the array of positions taken in the forum.


In addition to your public comments on the forum, you have the advantage of a private voice with which to mentor students. A private message can give students individual attention to encourage, prompt further thought, or correct breeches of netiquette. If you use a learning management system, set each forum up as an assignment, and you will have access the comment pane not visible to other members of the class. Using the comment feature, rather than an email, ensures your comments appear in the same context as the student posts on which you comment. You can also attach files to your comments. Audio and visual files of you directly addressing the learner can be particularly helpful in online courses to build rapport.


Create an online environment that accommodates conversations of all kinds, so students become quite comfortable communicating in this way. An ungraded Q & A forum for general questions about the class can demonstrate your responsiveness and disseminate information at the precise moment students need it. Respond in an open forum rather than by email because such questions are often those that shyer students wonder about, and it encourages students to reflect on their learning experiences and to communicate those experiences to you.

Include an ungraded Café forum for more social interactions; this can be important to build a sense of community among far-flung students and to locate potential study buddies. Make an ungraded Resources forum where anyone can post links or other information that addresses the content of the class; as you come across resources you can also post them here. Such a forum is a valuable repository for you and for your students and can cement the sense that you are a community engaged in a quest for knowledge.

Finally, if your discussion forums have too many members, only a few may dominate the discussion. I find ten or twelve is the ideal number of participants to encourage everyone to participate, so if I have a large class, I break the students into a number of different discussion groups.


Reward the student behaviors you want to encourage. If you wish to foster a back and forth dialogue, students who post early and responsively should earn higher grades than those who dash off a few superficial responses on the due date or who simply post it and forget it. Early posting provides an opportunity for others to respond and explore a topic fully. Responsive posting moves the conversation forward. Both timeliness and responsiveness are criteria on the rubric by which I assess online participation.

With care, your discussion forums can be formative experiences, some of the most vibrant and engaging learning experiences of your course.

I’d love to hear about practices that have worked for you; post them in the comments section.

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