How to Bring Discussions Back Into Discussion Forums
Discussion forums are now a staple of online education. However, since becoming common fare in online classrooms, many students have lost their appetite for them and teachers and institutions wrestle with how to get them to partake. As a result, grading has become one of the methods used to force-feed or manipulate students into participating.
Grading comments and replies does increase participation, albeit through coercion, but that tends to decrease actual discussions. Based on my experience in a variety of online teaching roles since 2015, and as an online learner having completed 100+ courses (and counting) since 2002, I have observed five ways that graded forums hinder discussions and learning and am proposing how ungrading can help foster actual discussions and promote learning.
- Focus on the Process, not Product.
Some discussion prompts require students to read a text or research a question and then post a response complete with in-text citations and a reference list. With that approach, the focus is on the finished product, not the process. However, learning is a process. While other assignments in a course can focus on a final product, the discussion forum should focus on the process of getting to the eventual product. When all students are required to respond to the same question, you end up with a listing of responses, rather than a discussion. Instead of requiring students to post mini essays in the forum, have ungraded discussions about a text, question, or issue that they will address in a later graded essay, project, or assignment.
- Emphasize Practice, not Perfection.
Focusing on the product over the process puts the emphasis more on perfection, than practice. Making mistakes is part of the learning process and students need some space and opportunity for that to occur without being penalized. In an online class, discussion forums are where online students could be allowed to make mistakes and receive guidance without having it affect their grade.
- Discourage, rather than Encourage, Plagiarism.
When perfection is emphasized, plagiarism can become more of a temptation, and when the goal becomes getting the grade, cheating is rationalized. Some teachers dock discussion forum points from students who provide wrong answers to the discussion prompts. When the emphasis is on posting correct answers, plagiarism becomes more of a problem, especially when discussion prompts ask for a mini-essay (see point 1 above). Plagiarism on discussion forums has become prevalent enough that now there are plugins on Learning Management Systems attempting to detect it.
- Provoke Questions more than Provide Answers.
When the focus is on getting the right answer, discussion forums become a place where students respond to, or ask questions of, the teacher and not their classmates. The discussion forum should be different than a Q & A session. It should be a place that provokes questions and prompts further inquiry from students and promotes discussion among classmates regarding issues that do not have an easy, quick, or simple answer. Discussion forums should be mostly interactive and interrogative, rather than declarative.
- Stop Playing the “guess what the teacher is thinking” Game.
When the focus of discussion forums is on students providing right answers to questions posted by the teacher, the focus is on trying to figure out what the teacher thinks is correct. If a teacher is asking questions as a way of fishing for proper responses, then the focus becomes on sleuthing out what the teacher is thinking and not discovering and understanding what the students are thinking. The discussion forum should be a place where students can express and test out their thoughts related to the topic or question at hand.
Although some educators promote ungrading everything, I am proposing only that you consider not grading online discussion forums. However, not grading does not mean you are not assessing. Teachers should be assessing student discussion forum posts and replies, but it should be an ungraded, formative assessment instead of a graded, summative assessment.
Year after year articles are written that present new approaches, tips, tricks, improvements, methods, techniques, and pointers for how to get online students to meaningfully participate in online classroom discussion forums. Instructors who desire, but are not seeing, vibrant discussions should consider re-evaluating the structure and use of their forums. If coercion through grading is the only way to get students to make substantive posts and replies
- What might that say about how we are structuring and facilitating our online courses and discussion forums?
- How can we teach our online courses so that students desire to, rather than have to, participate?
- In what ways can we encourage profitable, meaningful, and constructive discussions so that our students’ goal is learning and not just getting a good grade?