Fostering Learning and Community through Online Discussions

In the classroom, student discussion can be truly transformative. As students discuss course content and activities, they offer each another immediate feedback, explain new concepts in terms that make sense to novices in the field, and help one another apply and integrate new and existing knowledge. Instructors can ask questions that help students clarify their own thinking, guide them toward deeper or more nuanced understandings, and tailor our teaching to meet them where they are in the learning process.

At times, we might seek to replicate the experience and benefits of classroom discussion using digital tools: during a temporary online or hybrid pivot due to unusual circumstances, in courses designed for online spaces, or even during a normal semester to extend our students’ engagement with the course content beyond the bounds of the class. With careful consideration, online discussions can help to maintain and grow the sense of community among your students, give voice to a wider cross section of student voices, and achieve many instructional goals. The “Purpose, Task, Criteria” framework, drawn from the Transparency in Teaching and Learning (TILT) project (e.g., Winkelmes et al., 2016), supported by extensive empirical data on student learning and retention, provides one structure for thinking through online discussion assignments.


Being explicit about the purpose of an online discussion assignment benefits both instructors and students. For students, having a clear understanding of the skills and knowledge they will practice helps them understand how this assignment fits into the course or unit and allows them to better monitor their learning. Explaining ways those skills and knowledge may be useful beyond the course, perhaps in their non-academic lives, may also help students be more motivated to engage in the task. For instructors, being explicit about the purpose of a discussion assignment helps us be more intentional in creating structures (prompts, instructions, and criteria) that will best guide students toward the kinds of skills and knowledge we want them to practice applying (Hall, 2015; Christopher, 2018).

The academic purpose of an online discussion forum may include engaging students in preliminary meaning-making of a complex text (practicing the general skills of asking clear questions, analyzing quotes or datasets, or synthesizing others’ arguments), asking them to apply concepts from class to novel scenarios (identifying key features and forming their own well-supported arguments), or setting up opportunities to reflect and identify connections between content and students’ lives (personalizing learning). For online discussions, intentional and explicit social purpose is equally important: What will students gain from interaction with one another? Will they help one another test and refine their understandings, teach one another new ideas, deepen and extend their thinking as a community, and/or offer support and camaraderie in a mutual journey of discovery? The first step in designing an online discussion assignment is to decide on, and be explicit about, your academic and social purposes.


In the TILT framework, the “task” component asks instructors to break down what they expect students to do, and how they expect them to do it. In designing an online discussion forum, the task itself can take a great variety of forms and structures using a broad-ranging set of possible technologies. However, given the stressors of the current moment for both students and faculty, we recommend using tools (like the Moodle Forum) likely to be relatively familiar, and keeping the structure simple and clear.

  • Take the example of wanting students to collaboratively engage in preliminary meaning-making of a complex text. In this case, you might ask students (by 5pm EST on Tuesday) to post a 2-3 sentence quote from the reading that they aren’t sure they understand, accompanied by their interpretation of that quote and a question about what they are uncertain about. Next (by 5pm EST Thursday) you might ask them to respond to two classmates’ posts, explaining how they understand the quotes that their peers chose. Finally (by 5pm EST Friday), you might ask students to post a final summary thought that explains how their understanding of, or thinking about, the text has changed since they first posted on Tuesday and how that shift might impact their next individual writing assignment or other coursework.
  • Alternatively, if your goal is for students to apply a concept from class to a new scenario, and thereby help one another refine their understanding of the concept, you could begin by posting 3-5 scenarios in separate Moodle Forums and assign 3-5 students to each. Within their respective forums, you might ask students to each post 1-2 ways that they believe the concept helps them understand this scenario and one question they have. Next, you might ask students to post answers to one another’s questions, come to consensus, and designate one person to post a summary of their scenario and how the concept applies to a new common forum for the whole class. Finally, each student might visit the common forum, read all the summaries, and post a note about one similarity or divergence they see.

Once you’ve aligned your task(s) with your academic and social purposes, it’s time to focus on the criteria by which the work will be evaluated.


Providing clear and explicit criteria for student work helps students to perform better on that assignment and learn the standards of the discipline (e.g., Smith, 2008; Winkelmes et al., 2016). For discussion assignments, provide a rubric or set of grading criteria that reinforce fulfilling the task (e.g., on-time completion of each component, perhaps with a lower-limit word length) and its purpose (e.g., posts thoughtful questions about the meaning of the text; provides supportive answers to colleagues that help clarify and advance collective understanding of the material; Craig, 2015). To keep conversation flowing and moving, focus grading criteria toward ideas and engagement, rather than on formality of language or basic spelling/grammar concerns (Zambrano, 2018).

While students should receive a grade for online discussions, you might keep track of student postings throughout the remainder of the semester and provide a single aggregate grade (perhaps within the “class participation” category) for this type of contribution. Early on during the period of remote or online instruction, giving encouraging and helpful feedback to individual students who are struggling with the discussion format, as well as giving some higher-level feedback on the discussion trend to the class as a whole, can help enhance the quality of students’ discussions for the remainder of the semester (Kelly, 2015).

Works Cited & Resources

Chen, B., DeNoyelles, A., Thompson, K., Sugar, A. & Vargas, J. (2014). Discussion rubrics. In Chen, B., deNoyelles, A., & Thompson, K. (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning. Retrieved March 24, 2020 from

Christopher, K (2018, April 16). “What Are We Doing and Why? Transparent Assignment Design Benefits Students and Faculty Alike.” The Flourishing Academic.

Craig, G. P. (2015, February 12). “Rubrics for Evaluating Discussion Forums in Online Courses.” Faculty Focus: Online Education.

Hall, B. M. (2015, April 6). “You’re Asking the Wrong Question.” Faculty Focus: Online Education.

Kelly, R. (2015, June 12). “How to Foster Critical Thinking, Student Engagement in Online Discussions.” Faculty Focus: Online Education.

Smith, L. J. (2008). Grading written projects: what approaches do students find most helpful?. Journal of Education for Business, 83(6), 325-330.

Winkelmes, M. A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1/2), 31-36.

Zambrano, R. (2018, January 26). “How to Deepen Online Dialogue.” Faculty Focus: Online Education.