16 General Tips for Effective Online Discussions

Decorative: "Make Your Online Academic Discussion Forums Come Alive" written under an image of two humanoid figures, each emerging from a laptop and shaking hands


"General Conferencing Strategies" (webpages) outlines 16 broad considerations to help create an online environment in which participants feel eager to contribute and comfortable with the demands and pace of the online discussion.

1. Clearly communicate your expectations.

  • "Provide a policy on expected student participation and a description of your grading criteria."
  • "Always include a grade for participation and a MINIMUM number of weekly student contributions to the discussion." 
  • "As another incentive for quality work, the instructor should grade on quality of the postings."

2. "Provide a weekly agenda of what will be covered, assignments for the week, and due dates."

  • "This is very important to help students stay on track and be aware of what you expect of them."

3. Focus the discussion questions and assignments on the course material to help students process the assignments and share ideas.

  • "Limit your participation to a level you can sustain and that your contributions complement and expand on ideas generated by the participants."

4. "Make the tone of your online lectures and other communication conversational."

  • "Avoid the lofty academic tone found in academic writing, but at the same time avoid colloquialisms and over-use of acronyms and abbreviations."
  • "Be precise in your use of language, [and] write in complete, well-structured sentences."
  • "[A] touch of humor and a personal comment every now and then ... reminds your students that their Virtual Professor is a real person."

5. "Communications to the Virtual Classroom should not be more than 1-2 screens long."

"This serves two purposes":

  • "It encourages students to contribute without placing too much of a burden on them to write lengthy responses."
  • "Readers begin to lose interest and focus if a message is more than 2 screens in length."

6. "Be sensitive to different communication styles and varied cultural backgrounds." 

  • "For example, students may have different language skills, and humor is culturally specific and won't be perceived the same by everyone."

7. "Diversify and pace course activities and avoid long lectures."

  • Intersperse content presentations with discussions and student-centered exercises.

8. "Make the activities interesting and relevant to your students' needs." 

  • "Give students a reason to become actively involved in a discussion topic by appealing to their life experiences, interests and ambitions."
  • "Sometimes it may be appropriate to let your students choose their own topics for research papers and essays provided they are within the academic framework and objectives of the course."

9. "Stagger assignment due dates to give participants ample time to read and comment on their classmates' postings before the next course module begins."

  • "For example, make discussion questions due on the third day of the seminar week instead of the last day."

10. "Be aware that participants will have different learning styles."

  • "Some will learn more easily in groups, while others will excel when working independently."
  • "Provide a variety of activity-types allowing for differences in learning styles."

11. "Summarize substantive material previously covered, ask for questions about the material and post a public answer so all students can benefit from the answer."

12. "Require a hand-in assignment (either a group project or individual paper)."

  • "This requirement ensures that students integrate, synthesize and apply the information discussed in the Virtual Classroom."

13. "Nip deviant and unacceptable behavior in the bud via private email."

14. "Provide plenty of timely, constructive, and quality feedback."

  • "When the instructor participates in the discussion, providing critique, encouragement, and feedback, students cannot help but become more involved." 
  • "For example, [t]hank students publicly for comments submitted to the Virtual Classroom showing insight or depth."
  • "This will serve to model the types of responses and critical thinking skills from the participants as well as give positive reinforcement to the student who contributed the message."
  • "Where appropriate, add to a student's answer engaging him/her in more dialog."

15. "Encourage participants who have submitted shallow responses to consider a more in-depth contribution" by asking for specific details pertaining to his/her posting, or for an example from his/her workplace.

16. For large classes...

  • "In large classes (50 or more students), the students can be broken up into Discussion Sections similar to what happens in on-ground courses."
  • "The discussion sections can have from 10-20 students each, and they can either be led by Teaching Assistants or by the course professor."
  • "These sections 'meet' once a week asynchronously to discuss the course content for that week or to go over practice problems."
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