How Online Students Can Succeed in Discussion Forums

January 11, 2021 • 4 Min Read

Engaging in scholarly discussion with peers can be among the most rewarding parts of attending college. Through online class forums, distance learners share ideas with classmates, explore course material through structured dialogue, and hone writing and discussion skills.

Most online class delivery platforms, such as D2L, Blackboard, and Canvas, include integrated discussion forums. These forums help professors assess learners' engagement with class topics. Many professors structure discussions in a Q&A format, requiring students to post a response before they can view and respond to classmates' posts. Courses may also feature general class discussion forums, themed threads, and community-building introduction forums.

This guide highlights tips for students wondering how to do discussion posts. The following sections explore strategies to prepare for the discussion, compose observations and questions, and follow up after posting. The tips below can help learners receive the maximum benefit from virtual discussions.

Before Posting

Configure Notifications and Settings

Keeping abreast of a lively class conversation can enhance your understanding of the topic and help you spot opportunities to contribute. However, especially for students in large classes, receiving notifications every time a classmate posts or comments can quickly become overwhelming. Subscribing to updates on a schedule that works for you can help you stay informed while avoiding multiple notifications.

Read and Research

Like for an in-person class discussion, students should prepare for online class participation. Before posting, learners should complete required reading and watch any relevant lectures. This preparation helps students make thoughtful, on-topic contributions. Although additional independent research may or may not be required, it can enhance the conversation.

Review the Rubric

Professors typically provide a rubric that details expectations for online class discussion posts. In addition to outlining how frequently students must post and how long their posts should be, the rubric should explain the instructor's grading criteria regarding content, research, and etiquette. If any part of the rubric seems unclear, reach out to your instructor for clarification.

Consider Forming a Thesis

Taking the time to develop a strong, succinct thesis before posting can elevate the discussion and generate meaningful dialogue. This preparation can help learners confidently make bold assertions. The discussion format encourages students to play with ideas, learn from each other, and change their minds.

To develop a thesis statement, learners can start with a question. The answer to the question can form the backbone of the argument. Students can focus on specific aspects of broad topics, and back up assertions with examples.

Use Key Terms in Subject Lines or Titles

Crafting subject lines that feature key terminology helps other students quickly identify your topic. Consider titling your post as you would a paper. Classmates may overlook vague subject lines in busy discussion forums. A specific title that reflects the post's content may attract more engagement.

While Posting

Define Your Terms

While online class discussion posts demand a less formal writing style than research papers, students should still follow basic academic writing principles. Learners should use clear and precise language. Many terms can have different meanings in academic contexts, and students should use field-specific vocabulary correctly.

Online class forums typically allow for a spirited exchange of opinions. However, richer discussions develop when students avoid subjective value descriptors like "good" and "bad." Learners should use specific language and should define and contextualize abstract concepts, such as "freedom" and "fairness."

Cite Sources

Students participating in online class forums should correctly cite examples from reliable sources. Learners can draw examples from assigned readings and lectures, along with independent research. Most schools provide distance learners with access to online library resources, including journals, e-books, and scholarly databases.

Learners should check their class syllabus or assignment rubric to find their instructor's preferred citation format. Students can research a variety of citation formats through the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

While using sources is important, professors want to see each student's original opinion and analysis. Quoting too extensively may lower your online class participation grade. The discussion rubric usually notes what percentage of your post may comprise direct quotes.

Build on Others' Responses

Responding to classmates' ideas is key to successful participation in discussion forums. Whether you agree or disagree with your classmates, explaining your rationale can help move the discussion forward.

If you agree with a post, ask yourself why. Look for a way to contribute something new by expanding on the original poster's assertions. You can add information or examples or apply their conclusions to a different scenario.

Disagreement is a healthy feature of online class discussion posts. Respectful rebuttals can help learners clarify their thinking and consider alternate perspectives. When contradicting a classmate, remember to back up your counterpoints with evidence and avoid personal remarks.

Separate Ideas Into Multiple Messages

Many discussion assignments require a certain number of posts and replies. Professors may set both minimum and maximum word counts. Learners may need to adjust responses to fit the parameters from the assignment rubric or class syllabus.

Lengthy posts can be difficult to read on small screens, so students can divide longer responses into multiple posts. For optimum readability, limit each online class discussion post to 1-2 concise paragraphs. When deciding how to split up your writing, assess how many major ideas you plan to discuss. Crowding too many subjects into one post can overwhelm classmates and lead to an unfocused discussion. For each post, try to concentrate on one major point and provide relevant supporting evidence.

Ask Questions

Posts and responses that ask questions rather than make assertions can spark interesting discussions. Effective questions should be broad enough to elicit diverse, in-depth responses but detailed enough to demonstrate the asker's understanding of the subject matter.

Avoid posing questions that require only a yes or no answer. Instead, try to craft probing, open-ended queries that encourage classmates to consider a subject in new ways. Learners may identify a crucial aspect of the discussion topic and ask why it is important. Successful questions often investigate the subject's implications or possible outcomes. Students can also ask for examples, counterexamples, or clarification.

Monitor Your Tone

Nuances can be difficult to convey through text, without the benefit of body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Jokes, in particular, are notoriously challenging to convey in an online format. When posting to a class discussion, be cautious about using humor and sarcasm. To convey an emotion, be clear and explicit.

In general, students should use a professional tone in online class discussion posts, similar to the tone of a business email. Online students come from diverse backgrounds, and seemingly inoffensive humor could be objectionable to classmates.

After Posting

Check Back Often

Online class forums provide an opportunity for students to learn from peers and their instructor. Online class participation also helps learners sharpen their scholarly discourse skills and explore ideas they may later develop in formal writing. Some students may choose to meet only the minimum number of posts and responses. However, checking the forum regularly and staying involved with the discussion can enhance your understanding of the topic and may raise your online class participation grade.

Ask Questions in Class or Office Hours

Professors are usually happy to elaborate on or clarify discussion topics. Asking relevant questions demonstrates your engagement with the course material and can help you develop a rapport with your instructor. In addition to offering their own insights, your professor may direct you to further study resources. Learners can attend online office hours to discuss interesting points that arise during online class discussions. You can also ask questions during live classes or through email.


After online class discussions, take some time to assimilate new insights and reflect on your participation. Taking notes at this time can help you develop strategies for how to do discussion posts more effectively in the future. Consider taking notes on both the discussion topic and on the most successful discussion methods you used. Referring to these notes later can help you effectively convey your points and generate thought-provoking, lively conversation.

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