Keeping the Conversation Going: Three Best Practices for Asynchronous Online Discussion Forums

Educational institutions across the world abruptly switched to remote teaching for the duration of the 2019–2020 school year due to concerns over the contamination and spread of COVID-19. Instructors everywhere are scrambling to move course materials online and must now find ways to build continuity into remote teaching. One aspect of face-to-face courses that is hard to replicate online is the in-class discussion. How exactly can instructors best emulate the rich exchange that occurs in the classroom? While there is no replacement for face-to-face discussion and interaction, there are ways to generate high quality student-centered discussion and learning remotely.

The first big consideration instructors are tackling is whether discussions should take place in real time (synchronously) or asynchronously on a permanent discussion forum online. The tips I provide below are drawn from studies about asynchronous discussion forums. While live lectures and discussions with classmates can foster a sense of schedule and normalcy, it is also important to consider preparing asynchronous learning opportunities that offer the same level of structure that a scheduled live discussion can have.

The materials I list here come from a research review I conducted as a part of a teaching certification program while I was getting my Ph.D. and I have a longer version that will go to review for publication in an education technology journal. Given the urgency of the moment I am summarizing my findings here. After reviewing over 40 studies from peer-reviewed scholarly journals, I found that there are three best practices in designing and assigning asynchronous discussion forum participation to students.

1. Be intentional when setting up moderation and provide feedback on a schedule

Interaction is not the same as engagement. Interaction in-person or online does not guarantee that knowledge will be built. The most important type of interaction in online discussion forums is facilitation because this sets up how learning will take place. Instructors have to create a discussion’s structure by setting prompts, themes, and topics of discussion.

One of the common problems posed by asynchronous discussion is the lack of the familiar instructor-centered response pattern. In face-to-face settings, instructors ask a question and students respond. A more effective mode of discussion participation is student-centered learning in which students discuss the materials and respond to each other. In the face-to-face classroom many instructors struggle to generate a student-centered discussion. With experience, many of us learn to generate it by posing questions and staying silent, thus allowing students to fill in the silences. In the online setting, it is impossible to create silences for students to fill because there is no in-person pressure to respond or to participate. Student-centered discussion and learning is difficult to elicit in person and even more challenging to promote online.

One way to circumvent this problem is by assigning students to respond to one or more of their classmates’ posts each week. By doing this, students critically engage with the points others have made and must respond thoughtfully to receive full marks. This is a practice in discussion but moreover, is a practice in peer-evaluation. Indeed, in Vonderwell et al.’s 2007 study on asynchronous discussion forum use among graduate students, the researchers found that students could determine which of their classmates were posting analytical thoughts and which ones were “faking it” (p. 317).

Instructors must also participate in the discussion by giving students strategically timed feedback. Although it may intuitively make sense that a high frequency of instructor interaction generates more discussion, some studies have found that too much instructor participation can create an instructor-centered discussion. The idea is to give students room to engage with each other. But instructors cannot disappear. Instead, it is best if they post toward the end of a forum thread to offer affirmation of student insights and to pose additional questions for students to consider. Ask thread participants how the concepts they posted about are connected to course readings or lecture materials. Better yet, ask them how class concepts connect to the outside world to encourage them to build connections on their own.

2. Quality over Quantity

Much like on-site courses use discussion time to collaboratively build knowledge, online discussion forums that are well moderated can also be a venue for knowledge construction. There is a difference between high frequency of participation and high-quality participation. Although studies show that high frequency of student posts is correlated with high grades, there is no way to know if high quantity of posts translates into high quality. Do students who post more often build knowledge that helps them learn the subject matter or are students who are already high achievers participate in discussion forums with higher frequency? These studies could not find evidence of causation in either direction.

But what constitutes high quality participation posts? High quality discussion forum posts can be defined as those which learners use to interact with course materials at levels deeper than mere memorization. Quality interactions show potential for the negotiation of ideas and course information. For instance, controversial topics elicit more enhanced participation because participants can agree and disagree while negotiating and modifying their ideas as they clarify their positions.

Asynchronous platforms require students to log in and write out their responses to each other. This platform gives them the opportunity to edit and modify their text. The process of editing and re-writing reifies student learning because writing is itself a process of learning. Thus, asynchronous discussion forums achieve quality not only within the exploration of their subject matter but quality through writing and editing their thoughts as a cognitive practice.

3. Establish clear expectations for assessment

One of the biggest reasons instructors hesitate to use online discussion forums is because they believe participation will be low and student interactions will be of low quality. This concern can be mitigated by building in expectations for quality, examples of quality, and instructions for students to regulate each other’s’ quality of response. Instructors must start by creating clear step-by-step instructions. Ask students to start a new thread and show them how they should title their thread. Let students know what the word count expectation is for their first and subsequent posts. Give students a list of questions their post must respond to. Instructors can also assign students to moderate forums and threads based on topic or unit.

The parameters of forum participation and evaluation must be explicitly stated by the instructor so students know how they will be evaluated and thus post according to requirements. Studies indicate that students participate more often and more thoroughly when they are told how they will be assessed on their posts and posting activities. When instructors provide clear guidelines for expectations of content, interaction, and other objective measures like number of minimum postings and type of postings, students are more likely to follow instructions.

When scaffolded properly, online discussion can be more effective at student-centered learning than in-person instruction, which continues to center the instructor as the guide for discussion and learning. Effective student learning and assessment is possible and takes just a bit more instructional design and in these trying times, structure is of the essence.

(Please contact me for a list of the studies I reference.)