Learn@UW - Guidelines for Effective Online Discussions (UW-Madison)

This resource will help you, as an instructor, consider many factors that contribute to a successful implementation of online discussion in your course.

Variation and incremental development

Not every suggestion provided in this resource will fit every situation.  You’ll need to find what works best for your students in the context of your course; an iterative approach will likely be necessary in order to meet your learning goals.  Variables like class size and personality, scheduling, and topic might require adjustments.  A group with a sense of community established through in-class interaction might seamlessly continue discussions online, while another groups might require more attention.

Risky assumptions

Encouraging participation

Asynchronous online discussions provide more reflection time and a potentially less stressful opportunity for introverted students to share their thoughts.  However, these aspects do not guarantee participation.  The following items are topics to consider for making your discussion board a positive learning experience.


Clear expectations and examples

Expectations for post content to receive credit


Expectations for language and style

Your choice of traditional composition guidelines or acronyms, abbreviations, and smiley faces will depend on your goals and purposes.  You set up the guidelines.  Do you want to provide a forum for an informal exchange of ideas?  Or do you want to demonstrate to your students that the Internet can be a space for academic discourse?

Expectations for etiquette


Make sure your students know how to access the discussion and know what to do when they have arrived.

Facilitating (without being the “sage on the stage”)

Students often like to see lively participation from the instructor; students evaluate those instructors as enthusiastic and adept at demonstrating their expertise.  However, instructor posts can also stifle discussion.  By observation, most instructors answer questions -- with what is perceived as the "definitive" answer -- instead of opening up more discussion with Socratic questions of their own or proposing parallel topics of inquiry.  Here are some tips for facilitating discussion without dominating a forum:

Question types

To encourage critical thinking

To encourage a high number of post

To encourage participation among students without much prior knowledge of a topic

Answering questions

Continuity of discussion

Course integration

Ideally, an online discussion will augment time spent in the classroom and vice versa; this result relies on deft integration on part of the instructor.  Make efforts to integrate the online portion into the face-to-face classroom so that students do not disregard the discussion board or, conversely, participate solely online with little effort in the classroom.

Suggestions for course integration

A note on learning and assessment

For assessment purposes, number of posts or comments is a typical measure for participation because it is easy to quantify. However, reading and reflection may contribute just as much to student learning in online discussions.  Those students that focus on posting messages to meet a requirement, rather than reading messages, lose the benefit of shared knowledge building through the online discussion.

Discussion board psychology


Some people will say and do things online that they wouldn’t otherwise do in person.  Perhaps they’ll relax and express themselves more openly, or perhaps they’ll be rude and dismissive. Hopefully you’ll find that the students feel free to express opinions and ask questions they wouldn’t in class. Any excessive and unconstructive negativity should be addressed immediately.

Sensitive topics

If discussing touchy subjects and students feel hesitant to share an opinion or are in any way uncomfortable – you could recommend to them to sit on a post.  Type it out and wait (an hour?  a day?).  Come back to it, read it again, and see if you want to post, modify, or delete. 

Lonely posts

If you notice that a post receives no replies (especially if you know it is a quiet student or one that is otherwise sticking his/her neck out a bit), you may wish to reply yourself after you’ve given time to other students first. 

It might be more effective, however, to recruit a student or two to do so (just as you might ask a particular student to pair up with another in class on group assignments.)

Works Consulted

Bradley, Megan E. et al. “Ask and you will receive: how question type influences quantity and quality of online discussions.” British Journal of Educational Technology 39.5 (2008) : 888-900. Web. 7 Dec 2008.

Cheung, Wing Sum, Khe Foon Hew, and Connie Siew Ling Ng. “Toward an Understanding of Why Students Contribute in Asynchronous Online Discussions.” Journal of Educational Computing Research 38.1 (2008) : 29-50. Web. 7 Dec 2008.

Dennen, Vanessa Paz. “Pedagogical lurking: Student engagement in non-posting discussion behavior.” Computers in Human Behavior 24.4 (2008) : 1624-1633. Web. 7 Dec 2008.

Golanics, J.D., and E.M. Nussbaum. “Enhancing online collaborative argumentation through question elaboration and goal instructions.” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 24.3 (2008) : 167-180. Web. 7 Dec 2008.

Hew, Khe Foon, and Wing Sum Cheung. “Attracting student participation in asynchronous online discussions: A case study of peer facilitation.” Computers & Education 51.3 (2008) : 1111-1124. Web. 7 Dec 2008.

Lineweaver, T. T. "OnlineDiscussion Assignments Improve Students' Class Preparation." Teaching of Psychology v. 37 no. 3 (July/September 2010) p. 204-9

Ma, W. W. K., et. al., Understanding online knowledge sharing: An interpersonal relationship perspective [Part of a special section: Serious Games]. Computers & Education v. 56 no. 1 (January 2011) p. 210-19

Mazzolini, Margaret, and Sarah Maddison. “When to jump in: The role of the instructor in online discussion forums.” Computers & Education 49.2 (2007) : 193-213. Web. 7 Dec 2008.