Using Forums Effectively: Ways to improve engagement




By Katharine Horne

This post originally appeared on the University of Sussex Technology Enhanced Learning Blog. It is being republished here with permission.

In a Virtual Learning Environment such as Study Direct (Moodle), forums can be a great way to share course information, build community and allow students to easily share resources and ideas.

Last year our post The benefits of lurking in higher education explored the ways in which learners engage with forums.

However, often these forums can seem quite sparse and neglected. So how can we encourage students to actively engage with forums? Below are a few key tips to help you make the most of the forums in your modules.

Set out clear expectations

It is important to set out clear expectations at the beginning of the module, both expectations that you have of students as well as what students can expect from you. Make it clear how often you would like students to contribute to the forum as well as your commitment to monitor the forum and respond to queries and requests. Be sure to set out clear instructions and guidelines in the description of your forum. In these instructions you might also want to ask students to read previous posts before asking a question to check if their question has already been answered. Also encourage students to give threads clear titles so that information can be found easily. This will avoid you having to write the same response numerous time, and might even cut down the number of questions you receive by email!

Set specific tasks

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flickr photo by tecabh shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Focussed tasks give students more reason to write a forum post. You could set exercises in seminars and lectures that involve students reflecting on the week or finding an interesting journal article or news item and sharing it with the group.

This could also be an opportunity for students to work in pairs or study groups, for example completing peer review exercises, something that again may encourage students to engage with forums whilst building a sense of community among the cohort. You could start off by asking students to introduce themselves to the group, this helps students get used to using the forum and alerts them to where it is positioned on the site.

Consider separate forums

You may want to think about creating separate forums for different functions, for example one forum to deal with general requests around admin issues and one for topic discussions. However, be careful not to overpopulate your module site with too many forums.

Consider group size

You may want to consider the number of students that have subscribed to a forum. If your lecture size is 500 and all students are actively engaging, this would make for a very busy forum! In this case, splitting your students up into smaller groups, perhaps seminar groups, would be a better option. At the same time, a group of five or six would probably result in less interaction as the group is so small. Think carefully about what would work best for your students. See this Study Direct FAQ – How do I set up groups? – if you would like help setting up groups in your module site.

Add a first post

A blank canvas can be quite daunting, it may be a good idea to add the first post on your forum yourself. This could be an introduction and welcome to the course or an ice breaker activity for students to complete perhaps asking them to explain their interest in the module.

Remind students

Remind students throughout the module to continue their contributions to the forum. A small reminder in your lecture slides or during seminars might be useful as will the specific forum tasks and activities mentioned above.

Encourage commenting

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flickr photo by jamespia shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Forums are about building interaction between students. You can encourage this by getting students to not only author posts but also comment on others’ posts, building a dialogue between students. You might also want to encourage students who ask particular (non-personal) questions via email to add these to the forum so that other students can benefit from the answers.

In Study Direct, the University of Sussex’s Virtual Learning Environment, there are four different forum types to choose from:

  • A single simple discussion – this forum type allows for one topic to be discussed and appears on a single page, this is useful for short discussions that are focussed around a single topic
  • Standard forum for general use – this is the most appropriate for a general purpose forum and allows both students and tutors to post a new topic at anytime
  • Each person post one discussion – each person subscribed to the forum can post one new discussion topic which everyone can then reply to, this could be used for example to ask each student to reflect on the week’s topic
  • Q and A Forum – this forum type requires students to create their own post before being able to view other students’ posts, after they have added their post students can then review and respond to other posts

Forums can be a positive way of developing a dialogue, creating community and allowing students to reflect and feedback. Furthermore, forums are a useful way of turning your module site from a passive to an active environment and have the added benefit of reducing the number of emails you receive from students! If you would like further help with using forums please contact your school’s Learning Technologist or email tel@sussex.ac.uk.

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