Tips for a successful forum

Discussion forums can be a useful way of encouraging group working and are particularly valuable for distance learners. They have the advantage that people can refer back to the discussions later and help to build a community. However it is not always easy to encourage people to participate. Here are some tips for you as the discussion forum moderator to help your discussion forums run more smoothly.

Video from the University of New South Wales on conducting effective online discussions.

Get Started

  1. Ensure participants know how to use the discussion forums effectively
    If they can't navigate through the forum and aren't sure how to read and post messages then it will put them off. You could include a link to the pages in this section of the help resources.
  2. State the purpose of the discussion clearly
    Make sure everyone is clear on the purpose of the discussion and what they need to do.
  3. It is useful to start with an 'ice-breaker'.
    This should be something easy that will encourage people to post a message.  An example could be to ask people to introduce themselves and share something about the course that they are looking forward to or are apprehensive about.  This is particularly useful for distance learners who may never meet each other face-to-face.  The responses also help the tutor to see the concerns they need to address and to manage expectations.
  4. Set clear ground rules and expectations for the students and the tutors.
    Examples are to keep messages fairly short and to respond positively to messages from other people.  It may be a good idea to provide examples of what is expected, for example just saying 'I agree' is short but doesn't add much to the discussion.  You may also want to set a time frame within which people should have joined in the discussion and say how many days in the week they should be active in the discussion.

Encourage Discussion

  1. Integrate the discussion with another activity.
    Students need motivation to take part in the discussion, so it is a good idea to integrate the discussion with other activities, preferably those that are assessed.  You can also assess their participation levels and even grade their posts.
  2. Be friendly and encouraging in your instructions and posts.
    This will motivate people to contribute.  Also encourage members of the group to respond positively to each others' posts.
  3. Take part in the discussion.
    State in advance that you will be monitoring the discussion and will post a summary at the end of the week.  You may want to post more messages in the early stages of the discussion to show the group that you are reading their posts.  Later on you can post messages to bring students back onto the topic or to move a discussion on.
  4. If someone hasn't participated in a discussion within 3 days, consider contacting them by email
    You can check whether they have any problems accessing the discussion forum, or aren't sure what is required.  This will also encourage them to contribute.
  5. It can be useful to ask questions.
    You may want someone to provide more detail or to think about something more deeply.  You can also encourage members of the group to ask each other questions to further the discussion.
  6. Quote other people when replying to messages.
    To link messages and create an effective discussion, it can be useful to quote previous messages and highlight the quoted text in a different colour.
  7. Change the subject line or title of your message to reflect the contents.
    This makes is much easier for people when looking at the forum to see what the messages are about.

Summarise a Discussion

  1. If you need to move a discussion in a different direction, it is useful to summarise contributions so far.
    You can then add some information of your own and ask a question to move the discussion in a different direction.
  2. To bring a discussion to a close, post a summary and thank everyone for their contributions.
    This can also help clarify the outcome for people and act as a useful reminder when they look back at it later.

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