How to Master Discussion Forums to Excel as an Online Student

By Megan Fung, Penn State World Campus

A discussion forum is exactly what it sounds like—a virtual “bulletin board” where you can start or join conversations on a specific topic. Discussion posts are a staple of online courses. This important element of the course structure provides a venue where classmates exchange ideas, discuss their interpretations of course topics, and brainstorm approaches to problem solving.

In online classes, discussion posts are often mandatory. They are usually graded and can be a significant part of your total grade. The grading may depend on the amount of detail included and the length of your posts, in addition to the quality of the feedback you give to other students.

People sometimes underestimate the value of discussion posts, but they can serve as a tool for gaining broader understanding of others’ viewpoints, or exploring topics from a different angle. This can also be a great opportunity for you to polish your persuasive writing skills while learning how to communicate effectively (and diplomatically) with people who may have opinions or views that differ from your own.

Remember your manners
While the exact tone of a particular forum may vary—some are more formal, while others may be a bit more casual and conversational, with the “personality” often being established by the instructor—you should always remember that this is an educational setting, so you want to act appropriately.

Learning online in a global “classroom,” you will be interacting with classmates from many different backgrounds and geographical locations. While you may have different communication styles, everyone should be treated with kindness, and you should be open to hearing other people’s points of view. Being polite is a matter of etiquette; it’s about respect, courtesy, and being considerate of people’s feelings, cultures, and values.

Polish your post-writing skills
Your instructor probably designed a prompt to reinforce or explore an important concept. By writing a discussion post, you deepen your learning experience by giving that concept more thought while considering ideas offered by your classmates. Your instructor wants to hear what you have to say, and your classmates will benefit from hearing your perspective. The discussion forum is a space to try out ideas and to learn from your classmates.

Remember, you don’t always need to have the answer. It’s just as important to ask questions. If you don’t understand something, ask for help from your instructor or classmates.

As you become more comfortable in the discussion environment, you will likely notice that you start to write longer, more in-depth posts and that you become more skilled at expressing your thoughts in an effective way.

Other strategies to help improve your discussion-writing skills:
Put some thought into your posts before you post them. Your posts should demonstrate that you have thought deeply about the topic and planned your response carefully.

Share something of yourself in each post, whether it is your opinion, a past experience from your life, or something new you have just learned. This backs up your position with examples, details, or anecdotes from your personal experience.

Include a question in your posts when possible. Questions help to keep the discussion going, invite others to interact with your post, and could help you find answers or explanations that you may need to better understand the content.

Spend a little time editing your posts. Your posts should never contain typos, misspellings, poor grammar, or sloppy formatting.

Avoid posting anything that is off-topic. Stick to the discussion at hand and reserve any other discussions or questions for email.

Provide meaningful feedback to your classmates. Put some thought into the responses that you give to your classmates. Provide reasons and details that explain why you agree or disagree with someone. Asking follow-up questions can keep the conversation going.

Quote portions of the text and cite them, if appropriate. Sometimes a prompt will reference a specific text, and you should use portions of the text as evidence.

Track due dates. Discussion posts typically have a firm due date. Just like a classroom discussion, your discussion can only happen in the moment.

About the Author:
Megan Fung is the Tutoring Coordinator, Academic and Enrollment Support Services at Penn State World Campus. From materials created for the Smart Track to Success course.