Using Discussion Forums to Support Student Learning

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Kristen Luschen



y course, Youth, Schooling, and Popular Culture (American Studies 203/Sociology 203), was scheduled to meet twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When we made the shift to remote teaching, I found that my 28 students really valued and wanted synchronous class meetings, but some were juggling Amherst work with jobs or caring for family members, and some lived in home environments in which frequent interruptions or a lack of privacy were realities. The first adjustment we made was to keep meeting synchronously on Tuesdays and move to asynchronous discussion forums on Thursdays. 

The shift to remote teaching prompted me to think about different ways to get feedback on the course from students and to encourage participation. Additionally, I knew I couldn’t predict what would happen in the lives of my students, who up to that point had been doing very good work in the course, so I tried to offer a variety of ways for students to successfully complete the class. At a very basic level, I expected students to complete all the assignments, even if they needed to adjust their class participation levels. To deepen engagement and discussion, I reduced the number of required readings and slowed the pace of the class a little. During our Tuesday synchronous sessions, I would give mini-lectures to provide context or frame the discussion, and then the rest of the class would be discussion-based using a combination of break out rooms and large group discussion. For the Thursday Moodle forums, I placed students in forum groups with 6-7 students in each. Students had the option of identifying one other student to be placed in the group with them. These groups remained fairly consistent throughout the online portion of the semester to foster a sense of community and shared learning.  

Zoom discussions can be awkward—there’s a lot of uncomfortable waiting—and for students who struggle to participate in in-person class discussions, the move to the Zoom environment was even more challenging. Getting people to participate, even using small-group breakout rooms, was hard. I found that using the forums for in-depth discussion helped improve the level of participation in discussions. The discussion between students was really rich and thought-provoking. 

For these forums to be successful, I learned that it was important to give very clear guidelines about the timing, length, and structure of forum posts. The guidelines that I provided to students are attached below. Students submitted an initial post of 200-600 words to their group in response to a prompt that encouraged them to build connections between the weekly film screening and the course readings or student-generated course material.  I provided them with specific criteria that characterized a high quality post. Within 24 hours, students were expected to post 2 replies to posts from classmates. I also conveyed expectations about the responses: I wanted students to build connections among the posts.  

I adapted the final course project to provide additional structure and flexibility to increase student motivation and engagement. Initially students were expected to propose an independent research topic and identify whether they would write a 10-page research paper or demonstrate their learning using a different format.  After the shift to remote learning, I altered the final project assignment by outlining two additional options: the creation of a media literacy program proposal or the development of a database that cataloged different youth media production programs. The latter option was designed as a group project. In the original syllabus, I had reserved class sessions for students to present their final course projects to their peers. I considered dropping this assignment but first gathered information on students' interest in learning about each other's research.  As it turned out, they were quite interested in hearing about their peers' work. To share this work with their peers, students generated "project elevator pitches" (assignment description provided below). We watched examples of elevator pitches in class and developed criteria for the assignment together.  As the assignment sheet notes, students uploaded their project elevator pitches to the forum on Thursday (the typical forum post deadline) before our final synchronous class. Students had another ten days before their written project was due so the elevator pitch was a way to have them pull together their ideas in a coherent, clear, and concise manner and receive feedback on the direction of their project before submitting in its final form. The presentations were submitted to students’ small discussion forum groups, but the forums were open for this activity to observers from the other groups.

  • At the end of the semester, I asked students to complete a retrospective that referenced the goals and expectations they’d outlined for themselves at the beginning of the semester.  The questions included: 
  • Whether and how the student had met the goals they’d established for themselves; 
  • What challenges and areas of growth they experienced in their preparation for class and participation in large and small discussions; 
  • One significant thing they had taken away from the course; 
  • Which assignments were particularly engaging or challenging and how they addressed their challenges.
  • The one thing they would want to retain in future versions of the course (and what could be removed); and 
  • What they were most proud of in terms of their engagement and learning in the course. 

Students commented on both the value of the discussion forums in making them comfortable with participation, and on the challenges and learning that occurred in the forum discussions. One student wrote, “Although I find it hard to pipe up during Zoom calls, I’ve found a bit more of my voice through smaller group discussions…I do feel that the forum discussions were interesting and a productive way for me to stay engaged both with the course material and with the people in the course. Noted another, “I think the most challenging assignment was making sure that I responded to my peers in our forum groups in a way that provided a response while making sure to incorporate concepts that we learned from the class to truly give depth to their ideas. I think after the first two responses I figured out a way to respond in a constructive way that demonstrated things learned that would be beneficial and add to my peers’ thoughts.”


ooking ahead to the 2020-21 academic year, I would certainly continue to use small-group discussion forums. I might reverse the order of the week, with the lecture/large-group discussion following the forum posts and responses and providing a frame for the week’s discussions. I would continue the practice of writing students an introductory letter and asking them to write to me about goals, expectations, and concerns, which we return to in the end-of-semester retrospectives. Checking in with students throughout the semester is clearly important to them and to supporting their engagement and motivation. I will continue to be very explicit about office hours and my expectation that students use them. I will provide some examples of appropriate reasons to come to office hours and I require all students to meet with me to discuss their project proposal. I think it is important to underscore that we want students to use office hours, and how best to use them.