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All Things Discussion Forums

Discussion forums are a staple in almost all online synchronous classes. However, not all discussion questions are created equal. Many discussion forums I see are more of an assignment with a distinct correct or incorrect answer. I always believed the point of discussion forums was for open discussion.  What follows are five strategies to help you re-think how you develop and facilitate discussion forums.  

1. Treat discussion forums as a ‘low stakes’ assignment graded on a participation basis.

In online discussions, students should feel comfortable exploring ideas. Everything they share may not be completely accurate or reflect a full understanding of the concepts presented; class discussions are a tool to help students develop that understanding. 

2. Set consistent, straightforward expectations.  

Although there may be advantages to changing things up week-to-week in certain contexts, in my view, online students appreciate consistent expectations. Although the content discussed changes, overall discussion expectations should be pretty much the same. There should be clear expectations regarding the number of posts, replies, and the content to be presented in each post.  

3. Make discussions meaningful!  

Although online discussions should be manageable for students to complete and for you to grade, the goal should still be to facilitate meaningful opportunities for critical thinking and the exchange of ideas. 

4. Be explicit about what you want students to address in their peer responses.  

Many students struggle with peer responses, which if we’re honest, is one of the most important parts of the discussion forums. After all, it takes at least two people to participate in a discussion. Instead of requiring students to openly respond to peers, it’s more meaningful to direct the type of interactions you wish for them to have. Should they ask questions, discuss commonalities, differences, etc.? 

5. Online discussions will not be 100% “ChatGPT” proof. 

Unless your students are handwriting their assignments in a proctored environment, it is possible they will use AI programs to help them complete assignments, including discussion forum posts. There are ways to mitigate the misuse of ChatGPT, Bard, or other AI programs in completing these assignments, including being hyper-specific in how discussion prompts relate to the assigned course content and students’ own experiences and goals.  

Consider the following two prompts: 

  • What are the major challenges facing U.S. health care and what should be done to address them? 

  • On pages 47-48 of the textbook, the authors discuss seven major challenges facing U.S. health care. If you had to pick just one, which of these seven challenges do you believe should be the top priority in trying to address? How do you see your work in your future career impacted by the top priority challenge you selected? 

ChatGPT could churn out a very good essay in response to the first prompt that does nothing to assess how well the student understands the content. At least for the time being, ChatGPT would struggle to substantively answer the second prompt without more information. When designing question prompts, write them in a way that requires students to connect their own personal experiences, goals, and viewpoints to the concepts being learned.   

In summary, implementing effective online discussions requires careful consideration of various factors. With a little consideration of potential pitfalls to avoid, you can create manageable and meaningful discussions while minimizing the potential impact of AI language models like ChatGPT. Focus on setting clear expectations and design prompts that foster critical thinking and personal engagement. With that focus, online discussions can continue to be valuable tools for collaborative learning. 


Hyer. A. (2023). Making Online Discussions that are Meaningful, Manageable and ChatGPT “Resistant.” Boise State ECampus Center. Retrieved from  

Owen, T. (2023). I’m a Student. You Have No Idea How Much We’re Using Chat GPT. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from  

Suspiano, B. (2023). Teaching: How to Create Livelier Asynchronous Discussions. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from  

About the Author

Michele Poulos has been in education for the past twenty years, working in elementary, secondary and post-secondary settings. She has a Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education, a Master's Degree in Psychology and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree in Psychology. She has learned and taught in traditional and online environments. She currently serves as Dean for the College of Arts and Sciences with ECPI University. She was recently initiated into Marquis’s Who’s Who in America for 2022. She resides in Naples, Florida with her husband, eight-year-old son, Trenton, and six-year-old daughter, Eliana. One fun fact about her is that she was a contestant on the Price is Right. While she never made it out of “contestant’s row,” she did win a year’s supply of Ivory soap and a vacuum.

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